The jokes started as soon as Urban Meyer announced he would step down as Florida head coach.
Who would have thought it would be Meyer retiring instead of Joe Paterno, his counterpart in the Outback Bowl?
Even Meyer made light of the situation several times this month. At a press conference earlier this month announcing his resignation, Meyer said, “If Coach Paterno would have stepped down at my age, it would have been 1972.”
Then at a news conference in Tampa earlier this week featuring both coaches, Meyer said, "I’ve put in my application as graduate assistant at Penn State. I can set up the cones really well and make a good pot of coffee.”
All jokes aside, the news that Meyer would be coaching his final game with the Gators put an entirely different spotlight on the Outback Bowl between Florida and Penn State on Saturday. You have Meyer, quitting at the peak of his career, going against a coach steadfast in his resolve that he will return to the Nittany Lions next season.
Indeed, Meyer was not the only one who had to answer questions about his future this week. With speculation picking up that the Outback Bowl could be his final game, Paterno had to reiterate once again that he has no plans to go anywhere.
“I’m different than Urban,” Paterno said. “I’ve got people calling up saying, ‘When the hell are you getting out?’ I’ve got a whole different slant on it. People think I’m going to quit this year or next year; I haven’t even thought of it.”
That has been left to everybody else it seems, considering Paterno cannot go a few weeks without having to answer the same question over and over again. But what Meyer did reinforces that coaching lifers like Paterno are the exception.
Meyer won two national championships with the Gators, and had success at Utah and Bowling Green in his previous stops. In his 10-year career, he went 103-23. But he worked himself to exhaustion, and the mounting pressure to win only made the situation worse. Those expectations are much different than they were when Paterno got into coaching.
Consider Meyer is 46. Paterno is 84.
“I personally am very sad to see guys like Urban get out of coaching,” Paterno said. “We’re losing sight of it. If we’re not careful, we’re only in it for entertainment for television. You take those television cameras and they dominate some of these things. … Hopefully we don’t diminish something that’s truly a great experience for kids.”
All the talk about the coaches has glossed over what could be a low-scoring affair. Neither program had the season they expected. Florida (7-5) had one of its worst seasons in 20 years because its offense never found its footing.
Meyer remained vague on how many quarterbacks would play against the Nittany Lions, but the Gators have used a three-quarterback rotation with John Brantley, Trey Burton and Jordan Reed to mixed results. Brantley had a disappointing season with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions, primarily because he was in an offense not suited for his strengths.
Though new coach Will Muschamp is already in place, Brantley has reiterated he doesn’t know whether he will return to Florida next season. A big factor in his decision will be who Muschamp brings in as offensive coordinator. Muschamp did say during his introductory news conference he wanted to run more of a pro-style offense, a much better fit for Brantley.
Penn State (7-5) also had questions at quarterback in a swirling controversy between Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden earlier in the season. Once the Nittany Lions settled on McGloin, things settled down as well. McGloin started the final six regular-season games and Penn State finished 4-2. He threw for 1,337 yards with 13 touchdown passes and just four interceptions.
Perhaps the Nittany Lions can take advantage of all the distractions surrounding Florida: Meyer is leaving, Brantley is undecided, offensive coordinator Steve Addazio has already taken a job as Temple head coach, and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was briefly hospitalized this week with gastritis.
Or perhaps Florida will play inspired in Meyer’s farewell. Either way, Meyer has made himself the story of the game. No joke.