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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 silences.
"When I say he didn't say a word," Meyer recalls, "I mean he didn't say a word."
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 system."
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.
At Meyer's 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."