Florida bids farewell to Urban Meyer era

TAMPA, Fla. -- The people all around him cried as he walked off the field for the final time as the University of Florida head coach.

His wife, Shelley. His two daughters. The families of his assistant coaches. Random Gators fans, soaking in the end of an incredible run that may never be duplicated.

But Urban Meyer shed not a tear after the Gators beat Penn State 37-24 in the Outback Bowl.

Instead, he smiled a smile that gave us the only snapshot we needed from Saturday.

Meyer finally looked relieved. At peace.

Anybody who has followed Meyer's career knows it had become increasingly difficult for him to smile as the years piled up on his coaching résumé. When you churn the way Meyer churns, constantly in search of perfection, one year feels like 10. Meyer admitted as much in his postgame news conference Saturday, saying his six years in Gainesville felt more like 40.

There was never any time for peace. Certainly not after winning two national championships. Certainly not after last season, when health problems forced him to resign before changing his mind 24 hours later.

Certainly not throughout this season, when his spread offense looked like a horrible experiment gone awry. His quarterback situation imploded around him. His offensive coordinator -- the one who helped haul in a No. 1 recruiting class while Meyer took a leave of absence -- became the subject of ire and ridicule. His team played with a lack of desire at times, and Meyer coached with a lack of desire at times, almost as if he wanted this all to be over.

So when the final seconds ticked away and Meyer got a final hug from his family, you could understand why he looked so happy. He trotted to greet Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who offered a hearty congratulations and reiterated once again how sorry he was to see him go.

The snapshot of them together forced us to reconcile once again the incredible difference between coaches today and coaches from Paterno's era. Meyer was working himself into an early grave, in part because of the increasingly high pressures associated with college coaching. Six years at an SEC school feels like a lifetime, and Meyer had to get out.

Forty-five seasons at one school for Paterno? You can safely assume that is never going to happen again at a big-time program with national championship expectations every season.

That is what Florida has become because of coaches like Steve Spurrier and Meyer. When Spurrier stepped down as head coach of the Gators in
2001 after 12 seasons, he cited the rising expectations of a fan base that looked down on any season without a conference title. His own success was too much for him to live up to, and ultimately Meyer ended up understanding that in his own way.

Will Meyer coach again? "I'm not worried about that," he said Saturday. Did he quit because of health reasons? "I'm not going to address that today," he said.

So what did this day mean to him?

Seeing smiles in the locker room after the win. Getting a hug from assistant coach Chuck Heater, a man who has spent the last seven seasons on his staff at Florida and Utah. "He told me he loved me. Gave me a big hug and said, 'What a run,'" Meyer said. "He choked me up."

What did it mean to his players? Ahmad Black, the MVP of the game with two interceptions, including the game-sealing 80-yard return for a
touchdown: "Without him a lot of this wouldn't be possible."

Center Mike Pouncey and his twin brother, Maurkice, ended up decommitting from Florida State because of Meyer. Maurkice is a rookie first-round pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mike is headed to the NFL himself.

"He deserved this win more than anybody," Mike Pouncey said. "He gave away everything he had. He left his family at home to be in the offices. He built this program from the ground up. He deserved to go out a winner."

He deserved to feel like a human being again, not an aloof shell of himself so entirely focused on winning. Watching him lead the singing of the alma mater in the corner of the end zone, his arm around Shelley, he looked more like a husband and less like a coach.

His transformation had begun.

He then answered questions from the media, and presented a game ball to a high school football player named Ian Lockwood, who's suffering from brain cancer. He beamed with pride when Black was presented the MVP trophy. A few more minutes, and Meyer was out the door.

He hopped on a golf cart with Shelley and his children, off to be the husband and father they have missed.

Meyer simply smiled as he rode away.

Andrea Adelson is a national college football blogger for ESPN.com. She can be reached at andrea.adelson@gmail.com.