But Shelley, trained as a psychiatric nurse with a specialty in addictions, wouldn't hear of it. She insisted that they not push Johnson away: He needed guidance, not a door slammed in his face. They visited him during the nearly one month he was in jail, and Gigi even exchanged letters with him. Urban suspended Johnson indefinitely but dangled a chance to return if he adhered to a strict program: community service, regular drug tests, a phone call to Meyer each weekend night, good grades and alcohol counseling under Shelley's supervision.
It seemed to work, too. In some ways Johnson became Meyer's greatest Utah success story, greater than the megawatt offense or the astonishing assault on the national rankings. He returned to the team clean in 2004 and ran for 802 yards and 14 touchdowns as the Utes went 12--0 and finished at No. 4. He graduated with a degree in sociology. "It was unreal," says his father, Myron Johnson. "Coach Meyer treated Marty like he would his own kid. Football wasn't the main issue. He cared about Marty for the person Marty was."
The Meyers kept tabs on Johnson long after they decamped for Florida, calling his cellphone, making sure he stayed straight. His name cropped up whenever Meyer came under criticism for keeping a troubled Gator around too long. But by the time the 28 Florida football arrests on Meyer's watch became a hot message-board topic last summer, the family had lost touch with Johnson. He was arrested last April in Roseville, Calif., for his third DUI since leaving Utah, and in August pleaded guilty to two counts of felony DUI. He is serving a two-year sentence in California state prison.
In the summer of 2005, while most observers were still digesting the fact that Meyer had turned down Notre Dame for Florida, Ryan Wingrove happened upon an Alabama sports talk radio show. Two men were dismissing the Gators, asserting that Meyer wouldn't have an impact for years. Wingrove dialed the station. He had never called a radio show before, and he hasn't since.
"Watch out," Wingrove told the show's hosts. "You don't understand the kind of coach this guy is. You think Florida is going to be easy? Just get ready."
But first, of course, Meyer would be miserable. As at Bowling Green and Utah, he hated the team he'd been handed—a mediocre crew that, in three seasons under Ron Zook, had gone 1--5 against Miami and Florida State and failed to win a bowl game. Meyer took subtle shots at Zook's management and recruiting and decried the program's divisive practice of hazing freshmen. He got the players' attention by having them lug boulders and chains up the steps of the Swamp.
The '05 season, in which the Gators finished 9--3 and ranked 12th, remains "one of the worst experiences I've had," Meyer says. He came off in public as cool and cocky but inside was a wreck. A loss to Alabama meant the usual postdefeat night of Meyer sitting inconsolable, unable to hug his kids. But losses to LSU and to former Gators god Steve Spurrier at South Carolina were worse: The Gators didn't play the following Saturday. "Then you've got to deal with that for two weeks," Shelley says.
But even wins didn't help much. Too often Meyer would call Shelley, distraught after watching film or facing down a disgruntled player, and say, "I need you right now." She would race over and meet him at a picnic table on the other side of the stadium and talk him down, tell him that he was a great coach, that it would just take time. That was only one of her unofficial duties.
Even before Urban took the job, it was clear to Florida officials that Shelley would be more than a helpmate. She sat in on all of his negotiations during the hiring process and quickly became the program's go-to resource for gray-area discipline problems. "It's not uncommon for me to have a player meet with her, because she believes in counseling and I still don't know if I believe in it yet," Urban says of Shelley, who is a clinical instructor at Florida's College of Nursing. "All the way from learning disabilities to behavioral disabilities to substance issues, she is an absolute proponent of counseling. I'm more, Let's get 'em up at 5 a.m. and make sure that doesn't happen again. So there's a balance there. I trust her."
That balance has been a delicate subplot of Meyer's tenure in Gainesville. Of the 28 run-ins with police that Florida players have had since his arrival, 20 involved students Meyer recruited. He has been quick to suspend players from games, as in last summer's cases involving cornerback Janoris Jenkins (resisting arrest following a street fight; the incident will be wiped from his record if he stays out of trouble for the rest of the year) and linebacker Dustin Doe (driving without a valid license; sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation, 24 hours of work detail and a $600 fine). There have also been players who violated what Meyer calls "our core values" and were tossed for good.