Their path blocked by an offensive line-sized hoard of photographers and television camera operators, Urban and Shelley Meyer stopped five yards shy of the south end zone.
The coach put his right arm around the shoulders of his wife of nearly 25 years and whispered something in her ear as she wiped away tears. The band had just struck up Florida’s alma mater, and for the very last time Urban stood by, singing and swaying along.
’Neath the orange and blue victorious, our love shall never fail.
Never before have words ringed more true for a man and his family.
Meyer gave six years to UF, six years he said treated his body like 40. He resigned just before last season’s Sugar Bowl, only to come back for one more run.
This time, though, there is finality.
The Gators’ 37-24 victory against Penn State in front of 60,574 on Saturday afternoon in the Outback Bowl was played with no slightly ajar doors, no cracked windows.
The Will Muschamp Era is set to begin, and Meyer is ready to go on a long vacation. No shirt, no shoes, no service? No worries. All that hard work that has taken such a toll on his health has brought along at least one perk: He can afford all of the flip-flops and tank tops he could ever use.
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Urban Meyer admitted it this week.
When he coached his first game at Florida – on Sept. 3, 2005 against Wyoming – he said all of the right things, talked about how fantastic his team and its fans were.
But the truth is, he felt a little let down.
Sure, the crowd was loud, and sure, they showed enthusiasm. But they weren’t raucous. The ground of The Swamp didn’t shake when they got really fired up.
Two weeks later, when Tennessee came to town, he got it. The noise. The excitement. The intensity.
He sensed the love of the orange and blue, and the hatred of a bitter rival. Officially, residence had been established for Urban, Shelley, Nikki, Gigi and Nate Meyer in the Gator Nation.
A pair of Southeastern Conference and BCS championships followed, and along the way, Urban added his own special touches.
Meyer started the Gator Walk. He was the first coach to have his team join the band for the postgame singing of the alma mater. Senior tackle day was his baby. And always, he referred to UF’s players and coaches as “my guys.”
It all ended Saturday afternoon with the victory against Penn State, a win that carried the irony of Meyer, 46, leaving the game, and Nittany Lions’ coach Joe Paterno, 84, looking ahead to spring practice.
The matchup wasn’t as memorable as the 41-14 palindroming of Ohio State in the 2007 national title game, didn’t offer quite the oomph of the 24-14 defeat of Oklahoma for the ’09 championship.
No, the 2010-11 version of the Gators didn’t earn their way into any kind of contest where crystal was at stake. Close home losses to Louisiana State and Mississippi State proved almost as damaging as being on the wrong end of blowouts to Alabama, South Carolina and Florida State.
Throughout everything, Meyer listened as his best friend, offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, dealt with criticism for a spread attack that never got over the graduation of Tim Tebow. Meyer watched as the team he recruited off of those national titles stumbled to an 8-5 record, all the while wishing he could stir up a magic potion that would make everything right again.
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Things did go very right in the final 17:42 of the Meyer Era.
There, his Gators – and make no mistake, he always will consider them his Gators – overcame a seven-point deficit and scored 20 unanswered.
Leading the charge was game MVP Ahmad Black, a too-small, too-slow cornerback who became what Meyer calls “the best safety in the country.”
The senior from Lakeland already had sealed his award (media balloting was completed by the middle of the fourth quarter) when he sealed the game, taking an interception 80 yards for a touchdown with 55 seconds left.
Black may not have been the type of player Meyer would have recruited when he was hired in 2005. Back then, the coach admits he was gaga over measurables, believing a kid that runs a 4.3 was more valuable than a cerebral middle linebacker who could properly captain a 4-3.
But Black concluded his Gator career Saturday as, right there with former All-American Reggie Nelson, the best safety Meyer coached during his time in Gainesville.
Now, like he can with many former players, Meyer refers to Black as a friend.
That friend and his teammates gave their coach the best going away present he could have asked for.
“What did y’all expect?” senior center MikePouncey asked rhetorically. “We were not going to send coach Meyer out with a loss.”
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Somewhere, where the palm and pine are blowing, there are two lounge chairs on a beach near a Tiki Bar waiting for Urban and Shelley.
There, sand between their toes, they can reflect on moments like the one they shared at the end the Outback Bowl, all the while looking ahead no further than to whether or not they want ice in their next Margarita.
In the vacuum that is the coaching profession, Meyer found a way to squeeze himself out.
The former coach – we can call him that now – said he loved his career choice and loves the University of Florida. But, in the end, he loved his family more.
After all, you can wrap your arms around a crystal trophy, but wives and kids hug back.