Meyer scripting lasting Florida legacy

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- On more than one occasion, Florida coach Urban Meyer has made it known that coaching at Notre Dame would be a dream come true.

But who needs a dream job when you already have the best job in college football?

After Meyer guided Utah to an undefeated season in 2004, he had the choice of coaching at Notre Dame or Florida. Representatives of both schools flew to Salt Lake City to try to lure Meyer away from the Utes.

Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley won the sweepstakes for college football's hottest coach at the time.

More than four years later, it's hard to imagine where Florida would be if Meyer hadn't gone there. Or where the struggling Fighting Irish might be if Meyer had followed his heart back to Notre Dame, where he worked as an assistant under Lou Holtz and Bob Davie from 1996 to 2000.

"I had a tremendous opportunity to either coach at Notre Dame or Florida, and it was the most difficult decision I'd ever faced," Meyer said earlier this year. "I didn't make a big deal about it, but I love Notre Dame. I love what Notre Dame stands for, and I still do and always will. I'm Catholic, and I believe in the purest sense of college football there's no place better than Notre Dame."

It's hard to argue that Meyer made the wrong choice.

On Thursday night, he will try to guide the No. 2 Gators to their second national title in three seasons when they play No. 1 Oklahoma in the FedEx BCS National Championship Game.

Florida beat Ohio State 41-14 in the BCS National Championship Game in Meyer's second season in 2006.

Meyer said he first became enamored with Florida when he visited Gainesville while recruiting for Notre Dame.

"I became a fan of Florida football during the 1990s when I watched Steve Spurrier's teams play, watching the swagger and the way they moved the ball," Meyer said. "I was sold when I came down to Florida to recruit for Notre Dame.

"I came down on a January day. I had just left 40-degree weather and everybody had that pink-skin look on their face. I came to Florida and everybody was tan and was walking around smiling. I walked right into The Swamp and knew that was where I wanted to be. I wanted to be the coach at the University of Florida."

So Meyer chose to coach at Florida instead of Notre Dame, which eventually hired then-New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to replace Tyrone Willingham.

More than anything else, Meyer said coaching at Florida afforded him the opportunity to stay at home with his family. Meyer and his wife, Shelley, have three children. Oldest daughter Nicole will play volleyball at Georgia Tech next year. Daughter Gigi is in high school, and son Nathan hasn't yet started middle school.

"The big reason I chose Florida is that I'm a football coach, but I'm also a father," Meyer said. "I love college football and I love the pageantry, but I'm also a father. I have three kids and they're at the age where I want to be around.

"To recruit players to Notre Dame, you're recruiting San Diego and you're recruiting New York. You're away from home all the time. When I looked at Florida, I saw the finest location of any place in the country. Most of the best high school players in the country are five or six hours from your doorstep."

But even after guiding Utah to an undefeated season in 2004, in which the Utes became the first team from a non-BCS conference to play in a BCS bowl game (they blasted Pittsburgh 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl), Meyer faced skeptics at Florida.

Many Florida fans weren't convinced Meyer's spread offense would work in the SEC, which is known for its fast and physical defenses. Many of Spurrier's former players scoffed at Meyer's offense, which has quarterbacks run as often as they throw and asks receivers to block as much as they catch.

"The first couple of years, I wasn't sure the spread offense would work in the SEC," said Shane Matthews, who was Spurrier's first starting quarterback at Florida and led the Gators to their first SEC championship in 1991. "Honestly, it didn't work until last year, when he had the right personnel running his offense."

But with the Gators on the cusp of winning their second national championship under Meyer, many Florida fans are now asking whether their coach will surpass what Spurrier did as coach of his alma mater.

Spurrier guided Florida to 122 victories, six SEC titles and the 1996 national championship in 12 seasons. The 1966 Heisman Trophy winner as Florida's quarterback, Spurrier is still the most beloved former Gator for many fans.

"I think Spurrier's legacy will always be there," Matthews said. "The thing Spurrier did for Florida is take a program to new heights. Florida had never won a championship before. He had been a player there and knew Florida always had the players but couldn't win championships."

When Spurrier became Florida's coach before the 1990 season, he inherited a program that had been ravaged by NCAA probation. The Gators won their first SEC title in his second season and won championships again in four of the next five seasons.

Meyer replaced Ron Zook, who was a master recruiter, but struggled to win as many games as Spurrier. Zook was fired late in his third season in 2004, and compiled a 23-14 record as Florida's coach.

Many of the Florida players Zook recruited helped Meyer win the 2006 national championship.

"What's the old saying?" Matthews said. "You never want to follow a legend. You want to follow the guy who followed the legend."

Meyer said winning a championship so quickly at Florida silenced many of his critics.

"I don't want to say winning a national title legitimized everything we do, but in this world of doubt, it kind of had that effect," Meyer said. "I was raised that if you don't have something nice to say, then don't say it. But it seems like the public, whether it's the media or just people talking, they always have ways of finding faults in programs.

"When something happens like winning a national championship, and you see how many lives were turned around and see a group of kids who bought into something and went as hard as they can, I don't want to say it legitimizes it but it does."

Winning a second national championship would cement Meyer's legacy at Florida.

And he has moved completely out of Spurrier's shadow, as big as it once seemed.

"There's always going to be part of Coach Spurrier at the University of Florida, but I don't necessarily think it overshadows Coach Meyer by any means," Gators quarterback Tim Tebow said. "They both have their support and love at the University of Florida, and that won't be taken away from either one of them."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.