It was after 10
p.m. last Oct. 14, in a cramped room under the stands at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The "rolling" of Toomer's Corner was under way, transforming the main
intersection of Auburn, Ala., into a blizzard of bathroom tissue. That custom
doubled, on this night, as a cruel reminder to the Florida Gators that their
hopes of playing in the BCS title game had just gone swirling down a figurative
commode. Or so it seemed. Florida had just lost 27--17 to an Auburn squad that
had held quarterback Chris Leak to 108 passing yards and forced him into a pair
of ghastly turnovers. Now Urban Meyer, the Gators' second-year coach, stood
before a roomful of reporters who wondered if he was going to throw his senior
quarterback under the bus. Leak's interception with three minutes left had been
especially catastrophic. Wideout Andre Caldwell had beaten his man soundly on a
go route, but Leak's badly underthrown ball had been picked off by strong
safety Eric Brock. A reporter to Meyer's left asked--indeed, baited--the coach:
How could a four-year starter make such a mistake?
The scribe, it
bears noting, was clad in that sartorial staple of sportswriters: a windbreaker
from a charity golf event. This one commemorated the STEVE SPURRIER SCRAMBLE
FOR KIDS--a reminder that, regardless of his popularity around Gainesville,
Meyer labors in the shadow of a legend.
It was Spurrier,
now the coach at South Carolina, who led the Gators to their last national
title, in 1996. In addition to his many positive attributes, the Ol' Ball Coach
was not above hanging his players out to dry after a loss. Meyer wasn't going
there. "If you're looking for someone to point fingers," he told
Windbreaker, "you're talking to the wrong guy."
While capable of
running for first downs, Leak was much more comfortable as a drop-back passer.
He seemed the wrong guy to run the spread-option offense Meyer brought with him
from Utah after the '04 season. That, at least, was the buzz around
Gainesville. To allay his quarterback's anxieties, Meyer started inviting Leak
to his house not long after he was hired. The two would have refreshments and
watch game tape. They would bond. That, at least, was the idea. As it turned
out, coach and player stared straight ahead while enduring excruciatingly long
"When I say
he didn't say a word," Meyer recalls, "I mean he didn't say a
Part of that
could be chalked up to the natural reticence of Leak, whose default mode is a
meditative silence easily mistaken by those who don't know him for catatonia.
And part of it was what Meyer calls "a lack of trust. He didn't know who we
were. All he knew was that he was playing for his third offensive coordinator
in three years, and that everybody was saying he wouldn't fit the
Of course Leak
was leery of the new guy, just as he was ill-suited for the spread option.
Florida earned a spot against Ohio State in the BCS national championship game
this Monday night because the two men have bridged the gulf that separated them
in those first, awkward meetings.
To paraphrase a
recently sacked secretary of defense, you play the games with the quarterback
you have, not the quarterback you might wish you have. Meyer has been smart
enough to mold his system to better suit the strengths of Leak. What might
those be? "I'm not a running back," the quarterback proclaimed last
year, in an oration that, coming from Leak, qualified as a soliloquy.
"Managing the offense ... putting my team in position to score ... throwing
the ball downfield. That's what I do best."
A proud young
man, he has graciously and humbly ceded snaps to highly touted freshman Tim
Tebow, the darling of Florida fans, whom Meyer has deployed--often to great
effect--as a single-wing-style, direct-snap tailback.
urging, Leak has also emerged from his shell to become a better teammate and
more effective leader. Shortly after he was hired, Meyer recalls, "other
players would tell me they never saw Chris unless it was at practice. He's one
of the guys now. I think that's really important."