Sat Dec 26 11:42pm EST
There's always something dignified and enviable about people who can call it quits at the peak of their powers and walk away with their particular corner of the world at their feet, because it happens so rarely. Among football coaches -- an infamously driven, restless lot -- the legends that went out on top almost all come with asterisks of one kind or another: Bill Walsh returned from his teary farewell after his third Super Bowl win with San Francisco for a lackluster stint at Stanford; Bill Parcells' health-related retirement after winning his second Lombardi Trophy with the Giants was eventually scuttled for comeback efforts with the Jets and Patriots and an oversight role in Miami, none of which resulted in a championship; Tom Osborne's exit following his third national championship in four years at Nebraska came at the age of 60, after a quarter-century at the helm in Lincoln. Butch Davis, Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban left dominant programs of their making for the next level, and came back to campus with their tails between their legs.
The John Madden, Jimmy Johnson and Bill McCartney type who can walk away relatively young, at the height of his success, and not be lured back into the game holds a place as a sort of zen master who's found his center at the top of the mountain.
It's almost impossible to imagine 45-year-old Urban Meyer falling into the "zen master" category over time. His success over the last decade -- he walks away from Florida after next week's Sugar Bowl with the best career winning percentage among active head coaches who have been on the job for at least five years, and as only the fifth coach in the last 50 years with two national championships in a three-season span -- is largely the result of the same intensity and endless hours as a recruiter that are apparently driving him away from the job with a litany of stress-related ailments. Eventually, after a few years of relative rest and relaxation in a TV booth or on the occasional speaking tour, the same drive and intensity will likely bring him back for more. Once a coach, always a coach, if it's physically possible.
But that reality is still at least a year away; in the meantime, he leaves behind one of the few programs in the country that can legitimately lay claim to the "dynasty" tag, a legendary achievement in just five years -- and, now, one that leaves his successor in the unenviable role of grabbing the controls and keeping the speeding train on track. The last time Florida was in this position, after Spurrier's jump to the Washington Redskins in 2002, athletic director Jeremy Foley bombed by tabbing first-time head coach Ron Zook, a hire that will go down in infamy as one of the worst of the decade. As with the other A-plus gig coming open this month at Notre Dame, the first qualification to replace Meyer will be "proven head-coaching experience." No rookies allowed this time.
Experience at the top, hopefully, will stave off a Zook-like catastrophe. But it won't change the fact that Meyer's exit, along with that of his star protegé, Tim Tebow, marks a clear line of demarcation between the dominant era at Florida that they defined over the last four years and whatever it is that comes after. And whatever that is can hardly expect to pick up where Meyer and Tebow left off, not with defensive leader Brandon Spikes, leading receiver Riley Cooper and a parade of early departures for the draft gutting the lineup. Meyer's defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong, is gone to Louisville; his offensive coordinator, Dan Mullen, left for Mississippi State last year, and the attack was clearly lacking this year under his successor, Steve Addazio. With Meyer presiding as the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-recruiting grand architect, such wholesale losses seemed likely to register only as minor, short-term setbacks, before the machine was running at full speed again in another year or two; with Meyer following his charges from the orange and blue Death Star they assembled together, literally no one who had a really significant role in the last four years remains on the premises.
In short, with one game left to play in the Meyer/Tebow era, the Florida dynasty as we've known it is over, and its prospects for the open-ended reign it would have carried into 2010 under Meyer are grim, to say the least -- essentially, this will be an entirely new set of Gators next fall, and the choice to lead them will be college football's most critical decision of the new year. Whoever it is, Meyer's successor is already in a no-win situation compared to the success and expectations forged in the last four years. If he survives the transition with any shred of the old regime's golden touch intact three years from now, he will have defied the odds and started to forge his own legacy.