8:30 PM ET, January 1, 2010
Superdome, NEW ORLEANS, LA
Six days before a BCS game that isn't for the national championship but is second-to-none in regard to intrigue and subplots, Florida coach Urban Meyer stunned the college football world by announcing it would be his last contest.
Less than 24 hours later, the two-time national championship winner provided yet another roller-coaster twist after discovering he couldn't just walk away for good.
Before taking an indefinite leave of absence, Meyer will be on the sidelines with the Gators on Friday in the Sugar Bowl against an abandoned yet unblemished Cincinnati team that still feels cheated in more ways than one.
After five seasons in Gainesville where he helped re-establish Florida as a football power, Meyer suddenly resigned Saturday. A successfully driven coach and creative motivator with a tough-as-nails reputation, the 45-year-old admitted neglecting his own well-being.
He spent several hours in a hospital for chest pains following a 32-13 loss to Alabama on Dec. 5 in the SEC championship game, and Sports Illustrated reported last month that Meyer suffered from persistent headaches caused by a cyst that becomes inflamed by stress, rage and excitement.
At a Sugar Bowl news conference on Sunday in New Orleans, Meyer changed course, saying he expects to be on the sidelines when the Gators open the 2010 season.
"I do in my gut believe that will happen," he said, declining to go in any great detail about his condition while stoically answering questions.
Ultimately, watching his players' emotional reaction to his initial announcement and spending time with them on the practice field Sunday pushed Meyer to go with his heart.
"It's very simple," he said. "The love that I have for these players, I think that's well documented. Maybe one of the issues that I deal with is that I care so deeply about each individual. ... We've had a heck of a run, a run that we're very proud of. And when I sat back and watched those young guys go at it today and our coaching staff and the program we've built, to not try would be not the right thing to do."
Following the bowl game, offensive coordinator Steve Addazio will run the club for Meyer, whose legacy of success after the school posted three straight five-loss seasons from 2002-04, has already been cemented. Two years after arriving from Utah, he delivered the Gators' second national championship with a 41-14 upset of Ohio State. Last January, they defeated Oklahoma 24-14 for another title.
Meyer is 56-10 for No. 5 Florida, including a 32-8 mark in league play and a school-record and nation-leading 22-game winning streak that ended with the loss to the Crimson Tide.
Meyer's turnaround probably comes as a huge sigh of relief, but Florida's staff will still have a different look next fall. Within a week of the loss to Alabama, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong announced he will take the coaching job at Louisville and receivers coach Billy Gonzales surprisingly resigned to become passing game coordinator at rival LSU.
First things first -- winning in New Orleans.
"It's full speed ahead. We're going to do everything possible to win this game," Meyer said.
Meyer -- coincidentally, a Cincinnati alum -- nearly walked away after Florida (12-1) failed to cap an undefeated season.
Brian Kelly had a chance at one, and threw it away.
Less than a week after leading the Bearcats to a wild 45-44 win over Pittsburgh to complete a 12-0 regular season and give them a Big East title -- and days after a joint teleconference with Meyer hyping the matchup in New Orleans -- Kelly bolted the Queen City for the greener pastures of Notre Dame, a job Meyer emphatically said in November that he wasn't interested in should be eventually become open.
Left in Kelly's wake was confusion and anger. The fourth-ranked team in the country, on the verge of its most important game ever, was forced to hastily elevate coordinator Jeff Quinn to interim coach, and, days later, agreed to a five-year deal with Central Michigan's Butch Jones.
"We weren't giving him a round of applause or anything," tight end Ben Guidugli said of Kelly, who made the announcement following the team's annual banquet. "It's like somebody turned their back on us.
"We brought this whole thing this far. We've come this far. To have someone walk out now is disappointing."
Kelly countered by saying, "You would always want it to end with the best story. The best story would be that I get to coach in the Sugar Bowl. But I'm at Notre Dame now, and this is where I want to be."
Ironically, Kelly's job going forward will be to get the Irish where the Bearcats are now: ending a season in the national title conversation, going into a new year without a loss and playing in a big-money bowl for high stakes. Yet even a resume like that wasn't enough for an upstart like Cincinnati -- which began the season outside the Top 25, while Florida was a near-unanimous No. 1 -- to get a shot at a national title.
It didn't miss by much, though.
Ultimately finishing third in the BCS standings, the Bearcats were potentially on their way to a championship game for a few fleeting moments. However, No. 2 Texas benefited from a replay review at the end of its Big 12 championship game to put 1 second back on the clock, and the Longhorns connected on a 46-yard field goal as time expired to come away with a 13-12 win and a ticket to Pasadena to take on top-ranked Alabama.
Despite the hiring of Jones, Quinn will still be charged with the responsibility of rallying his players from a whirlwind lead-up to this game. An assistant of Kelly's for the past 22 years, Quinn oversaw the Bearcats signature no-huddle spread offense which was responsible for 7.28 yards per play -- second in the nation to Nevada (7.48), but against a much tougher schedule.
"Our focus is to congratulate them for being 12-0 and getting them ready for the Sugar Bowl," Quinn said. "We've circled the wagons. Sometimes, it feels like you're drinking water through a fire hose. ... The message isn't changing. It's just coming from a different voice."
Before Jones takes over, that voice will be Quinn's but only temporarily. He's headed to coach Buffalo after this contest.
Dealing with such distractions before taking on any team would be a challenge. But faced with such obstacles prior to a matchup against college football's marquee player and defending national champion may seem downright unfair.
Tim Tebow will close the curtain on one of the greatest careers college football has ever seen, but he does so coming off a disappointing loss in the SEC title game, squashing any chance of a fairy-tale ending.
Still, the accomplishments of college football's poster boy are overwhelming: one Heisman Trophy, two national titles, 56 rushing touchdowns, 85 passing scores, 2,896 rushing yards and 8,803 passing yards. But there's little doubt he'd sacrifice those gaudy numbers for a rematch against Alabama.
"I don't think you're over a loss. It's going to hurt, probably will hurt for a while," Tebow said. "I think we're over the point where we're feeling sorry for ourselves and we're getting back to working, working hard and just getting better."
Meyer promised Florida will be driven to end the Tebow era in fitting fashion.
"Our legacy is going to be depending on how we finish this season," Meyer said of a senior class that has the most wins (47) in SEC history. "We've watched them play, they're on TV all the time. Then you see some of the scores and the way they throw the ball around. The Gators will be highly motivated to play this game."
The Bearcats can throw the ball with the best of them, and the matchup between their potent offense and Meyer's stalwart defense will go a long way in determining the outcome. Led by quarterback Tony Pike and playmaking receiver Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati ranks first in the country in passing efficiency and sixth in total offense.
Traditionally renowned for its offense, Florida has been equally adept, if not stronger, on the other side of the ball, where it ranks third against the pass and fourth in total defense. But even in the mighty SEC, the Gators may have never seen an offense like this.
Florida will get some help on defense, as end Carlos Dunlap was reinstated Dec. 18 after being suspended for the SEC title game following his arrest for driving under the influence.
Dunlap has 35 tackles and seven sacks, and the junior is expected to enter the NFL draft.
Florida may have to rely even more heavily on Tebow after finding out that running back Brandon James will not play after having surgery on his right foot. The senior led the Gators with 1,324 yards -- 1,000 of which came on kickoff and punt returns.
Florida receiver David Nelson is up for the challenge, regardless of who the Gators can put on the field.
"We're hungry," said Nelson. "We're hungry to get back out there. I have a sour taste in my mouth and the only way to fix that is to win the next game. So we have to be ready to go and we're excited about it."
Call it the Urban Meyer Bowl. Florida's coach will square off against his alma mater, Cincinnati, and has even shared ideas with the Bearcats staff once led by Brian Kelly. Cincinnati will have to shake off its disappointment of losing Kelly to Notre Dame, because this is a huge litmus test for the Big East with its champion taking on the defending BCS champs. Oh, and some fellow named Tim Tebow will play his final college game.
Florida's team speed and advantage on offense should lead to a big win over Cincinnati.
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