GAINESVILLE, Fla. Tampa Tribune sports writer Joey Johnston remembers that day seven years ago t the Mid-American Conference Media Day in Orlando.
He came to interview former Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich, then a Heisman Trophy candidate. After conducting the interview with Leftwich, Johnston walked toward the door to leave when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a coach sitting at a table all by himself. Johnston, one of the nicest guys in the business, decided to walk over, introduce himself and do an obligatory interview just so the coach wouldn't feel neglected.
That no-name second-year coach at Bowling Green was named Urban Meyer.
"Now there's this," said Johnston, gazing out at the nearly 150 writers, bloggers and broadcasters fighting over a chance to commandeer the moderator's microphone and ask Meyer a question at the University of Florida's Media Day on Tuesday. "Who would have ever imagined him being a part of this?" Meyer has transformed himself from the coach nobody wanted to talk to into the coach everybody is talking about. College football fans used to say, "Urban who?" Now the sport has a severe case of Urban blight.
Everybody wants to interview Meyer these days from ESPN to the 50-watt sports-talk station in Mississippi. Every time you pick up a newspaper or turn on SportsCenter, Urban Meyer is there. . . . Urban Meyer going for second consecutive national title. . . . Urban Meyer gets a $4 million-a-year contract. . . . Urban Meyer's player gets arrested. . . . Another Urban Meyer player gets arrested. . . . Urban Meyer going to Notre Dame. . . . Urban Meyer not going to Notre Dame. .
. . Urban Meyer definitely not going to Notre Dame.
Meyer has turned Gainesville into the center of the college football universe and he's turned the state of Florida into his own personal pigskin playground. He's not only the top dog in Florida, he's the only dog. With all due respect to the other college programs and NFL franchises in the state right now, there's only one team that is nationally relevant: Urban's Gators.
Outside of Barack Obama, has there ever been a more meteoric rise to prominence? Even Meyer himself is amazed at the rapidity of the journey.
His team is everybody's No. 1 now, but it doesn't seem that long ago when he was a first-year coach at Bowling Green in 2001 heading to his first MAC Media Day at a fancy hotel in Detroit. On the way, he bought one of those preseason magazines that ranked all the teams in Division I-A from No. 1 to No. 116.
"I thought we would be about 90th," he recalls. "I flipped a page and we weren't there. Then I flipped to 100 and we weren't there, either. Finally, I flipped the page and there's the old Bowling Green Falcons at No. 114.
"Then when I got to Media Day, I walked into the room and sat down for a little while. There were no interviews. So I got up, packed up my stuff and went up to my room." Meyer admits there are times when he misses the anonymity of those days. Like over the summer when he, his family and some friends took a trip to a remote island in the Caribbean known as Hope Town. It is a place accessible only by boat and where supplies are brought in each week by barge, a place where Meyer felt he could be invisible and let his hair down.
He didn't shave for a week. He bummed around the beach incognito with a scruffy beard, shades and a visor. And then one night Meyer, his wife and two other couples decided to attend a "full-moon party" at a rustic, old reggae bar on the beach. They grabbed a table up on the balcony and sat down.
"I wasn't there six minutes when a girl walks over and says, 'Coach, will you sign this dollar bill?'" After he signed the autograph, the intensely private Meyer was spooked and wanted to leave immediately, but one of his friends assured him there couldn't possibly be anybody else in the place who recognized him.
That's when Meyer looked down over the dance floor, nudged his friend and pointed out a group of about 10 people looking up at them and doing the Gator Chomp.
His cover blown, Meyer paid his tab, left the building, shaved his beard and got on the first boat home.
If he's learned anything since that lonely MAC Media Day in Orlando seven years ago, it is this: No man is an island.
Nor can he escape to one.