Courtesy of Whit Watson
TAMPA, Fla. - I’d love to know what happened to put Urban Meyer in such a great mood on Saturday.
At last year’s Florida Sports Writers Association College Football Media Days, Meyer wasn’t unfriendly, exactly, but he was straight business. Arrived with his UF sports information department escorts at precisely the scheduled time, performed his media obligations, and departed without much frivolity. But this year? He was downright chipper.
The format for this annual event is something of a tap-dance. While one coach addresses the state media in a main conference room, another sits down across the hall with either Paul Kennedy, Brady Ackerman, or me for an extended interview. In between, each coach — and there are 12 football-playing colleges and universities in Florida — has to squeeze in five minutes in yet another conference room to shoot promotional spots for Sun Sports and FSN Florida. Our staff, with considerable help from the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, shuttles each coach back and forth, trying to stay on schedule and avoid backups. Sun Sports/FSN Florida has been co-sponsoring this event for several years now, and we’ve learned the necessity of moving things along — most of these coaches are already beaten down from their own conference media days, and they all have somewhere else to be as soon as the FSWA event concludes. There’s a sense of urgency to the proceedings, especially when dealing with a high-demand coach like Miami’s Randy Shannon or Florida State’s Bobby Bowden. Or Urban Meyer.
Yet, when Meyer entered the Quorum Hotel in Tampa a few minutes early on Saturday morning, he was as relaxed as I can ever remember at this event. I suppose that the afterglow of an SEC title and BCS national championship can alter one’s attitude, but still — he’s trying to replace 9 starters on defense and six on offense, including a four-year senior quarterback. His 2007 schedule is typically brutal. I would have understood some tension. Hell, I would have expected it, and excused it.
Instead, Meyer was chatty. Cool as a cucumber. Asked us how our summer was going. Mentioned that his son is into fishing now, and watches the Chevy Florida Fishing Report every week. He showed interest in, and familiarity with, virtually all of Sun Sports’ football programming, including Rec Warehouse College Kickoff, Tailgate Overtime, and especially the postgames. It was a conversation that I might expect to have with Mario Cristobal at FIU, or Kerwin Bell at Jacksonville University, but not with Meyer. Not with the head coach of the defending national champions.
We’re entering our fifth season of the “Chevy Tailgate Weekend” block of football shows, and there’s something pleasantly gratifying about coaches noticing what we do. When I introduced Bowden at his press conference on Sunday, he gave me a nice compliment off-microphone, noting that “you did some great interviews this summer” — a reference to “In My Own Words,” the series that replaced Tailgate Overtime on Mondays. The compliments are nice, but that’s not the point. The point is, they’re watching. After four years, the studio shows have developed an identity, and that’s a big deal for a regional sports network like ours. It’s good for business. And that makes me think that the hours upon hours of preparation and the marathon Saturdays are worth it. When the head football coaches at Florida and Florida State go out of their way to mention your programming, it’s a safe bet that a few of their fans are watching as well.
Of course, in Bowden’s case, it probably helped that two of his most popular Seminoles, LeRoy Butler and Derrick Brooks, were featured this summer on “In My Own Words,” as were Florida State athletic director Dave Hart and returning assistant coach Chuck Amato. No matter.
Other notes from the FSWA Media Days in Tampa:
Of the seven D-I football programs in Florida, three have new head coaches this year, and all three were very impressive in their FSWA debuts. Randy Shannon was one of the first subjects we interviewed for “In My Own Words,” and if anything, his first few months as Miami’s top dog have produced a new level of comfort. He answered the inevitable “discipline” questions calmly and directly. While Shannon discussed his new team rules extensively during our interview last spring, many of the state media were apparently hearing it for the first time — after Shannon spoke on Saturday, there were dozens of articles like this one in papers all over the state, hailing Shannon as the new sheriff in town (as readers in St. Petersburg, Tampa, and even Gainesville learned the next morning).
Now that the state media has picked up on it, the national media cannot be far behind. So far, Shannon has renovated Miami’s image and kept his players out of the summer headlines. Plus, he’s got 16 starters coming back and a schedule that includes four home games in September. Though he hasn’t coached a game yet, Shannon appears to be well on his way to justifying Miami’s faith in him. His first FSWA appearance was a solid win.
Similarly, FIU’s Mario Cristobal has a rebuilding job ahead of him, one that makes Miami’s look easy: the Golden Panthers were winless in 2006, gaining national noteriety as “the team that brawled with the Hurricanes.” Cristobal, who is the second-youngest head coach in Division I football (and looks like it), nevertheless brought a clear sense of purpose to the FSWA meetings, focusing entirely on football. His opening comments included laying out his team’s goal of winning the Sun Belt Conference, and he, like Shannon, has handed down a set of no-cell-phones-or-hats rules for his players. For those members of the media in the room who won’t spend much time on FIU this season (and that included the bulk of the audience), it was a compelling few minutes.
If you don’t know Mario Cristobal, you will. A former standout offensive lineman at Miami who played in four bowl games as a Hurricane, Cristobal served on Miami’s staff as an assistant for several seasons, with a three-year stint at Rutgers with Greg Schiano sandwiched in between. He’s a Miami native, a 5am-to-11pm grinder, and a tenacious recruiter who learned the ropes from men like Schiano, Larry Coker, and Butch Davis. He’s got the stuff. Even cynics like my main man Mike Bianchi were impressed, although Mikey couldn’t help but wonder how long FIU will be able to keep Cristobal in the fold. Valid question. If he can recruit as well has his track record indicates, Cristobal may stick around on Calle Ocho just long enough to get FIU to respectability before taking off for the big time.
One of the most intriguing press conferences of the weekend was Kerwin Bell’s session on Sunday. Bell, who left Florida as the SEC’s all-time leading passer, bounced around from the NFL to the World League to the CFL as a player before finding a niche as a high school coach at Ocala Trinity Catholic. There, he built a football program from nothing and took the Celtics to two state championship games, winning the Class 2B title in 2005 and losing in a return appearance in ’06. When Bell was hired at Jacksonville University, a I-AA non-scholarship program in the Pioneer Football League, it was considered to be a home run in terms of PR for the Dolphins. However, Bell made it clear in Tampa that he’s not there for window dressing.
“I tell everybody that there’s no reason why you should play this game of football if you’re not trying to win championships,” Bell said. “We’re all about one simple goal. For us, that’s winning the Pioneer Football League title and going to a bowl game. We don’t care about a winning record. We know we’re going to do that.”
Heady stuff for a program that, the way Bell tells it, traditionally recruited players by sifting through the leftovers in the weeks following National Signing Day. No more of that. Bell has already weeded out 22 players since January through 5:30am practices and mat drills — sound familiar? — and lined up 15 recruits on signing day this year. He didn’t come here to paint.
While the “weed-out” story is straight-up Urban Meyer, more than one writer in Tampa noted that Bell has quite a bit of Spurrier in him, and I would agree. He may not be as polarizing as the Ol’ Ball Coach — not yet, anyway — but it’s obvious from listening to Bell that he does nothing halfway, and despises losing. Like Shannon and Cristobal, Bell’s first duty is to change the culture at Jacksonville. Ever since we went on the air with “Chevy Tailgate Weekend” in 2003, the JU program has been portrayed as something of a diversion for the students, something fun to do on a Saturday. Bell wants none of that. He wants to play some serious football, which is a serious challenge at a school without football scholarships. Still, like Shannon and Cristobal, I find myself rooting for Kerwin Bell to succeed. There’s something very powerful about a coach with a lot to prove.
As for the rest of the weekend, you can pick up any newspaper in the state for details. Bowden was spectacular, as always. There’s a reason why the FSWA always schedules him as the final speaker on the final day. Howard Schnellenberger was in fine form, stalking the podium with tales of on-campus stadiums in Boca Raton and his “advanced training program,” which is Howard’s euphamism for Florida Atlantic’s typically suicidal non-conference schedule — he hates the term “money games.” Alvin Wyatt was well-dressed, and yes, he wore his sunglasses indoors for the entire press conference. Rubin Carter spoke of FAMU’s long recovery from NCAA violations and other internal strife, calling 2007 his “second full season” — a reference to the fact that, even though it’s technically his third year in Tallahassee, his late-summer hire as Billy Joe’s replacement in 2005 rendered that season a total wash.
By the way — while Urban Meyer arrived on Saturday morning in coat and tie with three similarly dressed UF sports information officers in tow, Carter got to the Quorum Hotel on Friday afternoon, alone, carrying his own luggage. Later that afternoon, as I was checking e-mail in the Quorum’s business lounge, I happened to look out the window to see Carter power-walking laps around the hotel.
Why does Rubin Carter, a former All-American defensive lineman and sports Hall of Famer at Miami, first-round draft pick, 12-year NFL veteran, and two-time Super Bowl participant, show up by himself at a hotel in Tampa, carrying his own bags, for the purpose of speaking to the media for 30 minutes the following day?
Because this is Florida, baby, and this is football. You ready? Rubin Carter is.