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Gators, Not Irish, Will Get Urban Renewal

Utah's Meyer reportedly takes Florida job, jilting Notre Dame, which just fired Willingham.

December 04, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

Utah Coach Urban Meyer, coveted by two of college football's traditional powers after an undefeated regular season, is expected to be named coach at Florida, leaving Notre Dame to scramble to find a coach for the second time in three years.

Florida spokesman Steve McClain said the school would not have an official announcement Friday night. But Meyer's father, Bud Meyer, told the St. Petersburg Times and Florida Today that reports of his son's hiring were correct, and his sister, Gigi Escoe, also confirmed the decision, according to Associated Press.

Utah players were called to a meeting with Meyer scheduled for this morning, said Doug Smith, the father of Utah quarterback Alex Smith.

"Obviously, I think he wants us to be the first ones to know," Alex Smith told reporters after an informal workout Friday, when no regular practice was scheduled. "But any story like this is going to be leaked."

Meyer, 40, became one of college football's most sought-after coaches almost overnight after Utah became the first team from outside the six power conferences to earn a berth in one of the four major bowl games -- probably the Fiesta -- by clinching a spot in the top six of the BCS standings.

"I guarantee he's going to want to coach us in the bowl game no matter what happens. He's going to want to be part of this. That's just the kind of coach he is," Alex Smith said.

The demand for Meyer reached a frenzy after Notre Dame fired Tyrone Willingham on Tuesday, with officials from Notre Dame and Florida flying to Salt Lake City to meet with Meyer on Thursday.

Meyer is a former Notre Dame assistant and had a clause in his contract naming Notre Dame as one of three schools he could leave for without a buyout, and people in Utah were preparing for what seemed like the inevitability that he would depart for South Bend, Ind.

Florida isn't one of the schools that was exempted from the buyout -- Michigan and Ohio State were the others -- but Meyer had another "in" with the Gators: Florida President Bernie Machen was at Utah when Meyer was hired three years ago.

Now Notre Dame faces the prospect of yet another complicated and potentially humbling coaching search.

Before Willingham was hired after the 2001 season, Athletic Director Kevin White hired George O'Leary from Georgia Tech after the NFL's Jon Gruden -- son of a former Notre Dame assistant -- withdrew from consideration.

The O'Leary hiring quickly blew up in scandal because of false claims on his resume, and he resigned in an embarrassing episode for Notre Dame.

The Irish eventually turned to Willingham and were hailed for hiring an African American who had won at Stanford, another academically demanding institution. But the giddiness over a 10-1 start under Willingham evaporated over the next two years, punctuated by three 31-point losses to USC.

When Willingham was fired Tuesday, becoming the first Notre Dame coach not to fulfill his contract, it ignited widespread speculation the move was made so the Irish could grab Meyer before Florida did.

Florida apparently has handed the Irish their latest loss.

Associate athletic director John Heisler said Notre Dame officials were unaware Friday afternoon what Meyer's status was, partly because White was in North Carolina with the Notre Dame women's soccer team, which will play UCLA for the NCAA championship Sunday.

The pressure will be heavy on White to make a hire that will satisfy the Irish fans and administration.

Gruden, now coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, announced this week he isn't interested in the Notre Dame job.

Butch Davis, the former Cleveland Brown coach who was more successful as a college coach at Miami, has said he does not plan to coach next year.

Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz has a connection to White, who hired him at Maine in 1990, but recently signed a new contract.

California's Jeff Tedford is a hot prospect after reviving the Bears and leading to them a No. 4 ranking and a 9-1 record marred only by a loss to USC, but his profile -- Bay Area miracle worker -- might be uncomfortably similar to Willingham's.

Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops, with speculation at Florida swirling earlier, issued an unusually emphatic statement that he isn't going anywhere.

Meyer's rise was nothing short of meteoric, and he reportedly will quadruple his $500,000 salary by agreeing to a seven-year, $14-million contract after compiling a 38-8 record in four seasons as a head coach.

He was the receiver coach at Notre Dame in 2000 before he was hired at Bowling Green and won eight games his first season -- six more than Bowling Green won the previous year. After a 9-3 season in 2002, Utah hired him and he engineered another turnaround, taking the Utes from 5-6 to 10-2, tying the best record in school history.

Then came this season, when he took Utah to unprecedented prominence.

He has done it with a demanding work ethic that tends to chase away some players, and with a creative, wide-open offense that emphasizes a short, efficient passing game and option-style running, and depends on good decision-making by the quarterback. Smith became a Heisman Trophy candidate running Meyer's offense.

Meyer is replacing Ron Zook, who was fired in October. Early speculation about the possibility of Steve Spurrier or former Gator assistant Stoops returning to Florida dissolved, and now Florida's search appears over. But Notre Dame's goes on.

At Utah, early speculation on a replacement focuses on offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, a former USC assistant who also coached at Notre Dame.

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Associated Press contributed to this report.

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