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"What are our core values?" Meyer says. "Missing class? No. You miss class, we're going to get you. Stay out late, get in a fight, those are bad things, but we fix those; they're called mistakes. But core value Number 1 at Florida is honesty. Don't you lie to me. People tell fibs, and when I get you? I've had to dismiss a guy. Number 2 is: Treat women with respect. If you touch a female, I don't want to hear she hit you first. Number 3 is: No stealing. That's the foundation of who we are. No drugs, no firearms: If you have those, you won't play."
Sometimes, though, punishment isn't so swift. Offensive lineman Ronnie Wilson was suspended for Florida's 2007 season after firing a semiautomatic rifle in the air during a dispute, came back to play in '08 after a charge of misdemeanor possession of marijuana was dropped, and was kicked off only after his third arrest, for assault and battery, in October 2008. Defensive tackle Marcus Thomas, the Gators' best defensive player in 2006 and a future fourth-round NFL draft pick, was tossed in November of that national championship season, but only after repeatedly violating team rules against drug use.
No loss hit Meyer harder than that of cornerback Avery Atkins, the charismatic prize catch in his first recruiting class. Though Atkins was twice arrested for domestic battery on the mother of his child and was dismissed from the team in 2006, the Gators' staff kept reaching out, and nearly had him reenrolled on a no-guarantees, make-good program similar to Marty Johnson's. Then Atkins disappeared, turning up only when arrested on drug and gun charges, and in July 2007 was found in his car in Port Orange, Fla., dead, at 20, of an ecstasy overdose.
"I really thought he was ready to come back," Meyer wrote in a note to Atkins's aunt afterward. Two years later his voice still thickens at the memory. "I can't let go of that," he says. "I can't let go of saying, 'Is there something else we could've done?'"
He's not alone. At just the mention of Atkins's name, Shelley begins wiping away tears. "I still question what happened there," she says. "I mean, we have players that we have to kick off the team, because they just don't get it. Marcus Thomas didn't get it; he had three chances or four, and you know what? He made that choice, and I was like, O.K., you've got to go. We don't need you infiltrating our team anymore. But Avery wasn't like that. The girlfriend got pregnant, and once that happened he wouldn't listen to anything else; he left here and got out of our influence. We tried everything. Being a psych nurse, I know people make their own decisions and for some reason they just get lost. He got lost. And it is not our fault."
Despite Atkins's slide, despite calls for Meyer to take a stricter line, despite message-board sniping that UF stands for University of Felons, the coach doesn't apologize. "I've been criticized for it before, but I'm not going to turn my back on a kid," he says. "That's not going to happen."
Of course, he says this from atop the college football mountain, where he's virtually untouchable. At 45, Meyer has become this era's Bear Bryant. He's made Florida a new dynasty. His dad sports a national championship ring on his finger, and nothing delights him more than to have some cashier see URBAN MEYER on his credit card and ask if he's related. He proudly says, "Yes, I am."
Bud feels good these days, but it took some doing. Bladder cancer set off a hellish round of ailments in 2008—cardiac arrest, pneumonia, blood clots—but he's living with Erika in Cincinnati now, as cantankerous and opinionated as ever. It's still tough to get him to do anything he doesn't want to do, and when he balked at undergoing physical therapy, his daughters knew it was time for Urban to step in. "Bud listens to Urban more than to any of us," Erika says, so last spring Urban flew to Ohio to set his father straight.
This wasn't long after Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin wrongly called out Meyer for cheating—a gaffe for which Kiffin quickly apologized but will never live down in Gainesville. "You know what?" Urban said to Erika. "I used to really stress about what people thought. But I don't care anymore. I've won. I've done it. I'm in a different place."
It's strange to watch Meyer talk about Gators quarterback Tim Tebow. Coaches admire certain players, of course, but whenever Tebow's name comes up, Meyer's eyes soften and he can't help but smile. He speaks without the usual coach's worry about showing favoritism or looking foolish. His wonder is unabashed, verging on cultish. "He's different from all of us," Meyer will say casually. Or, "He is my son."