All week long, Ahmad Black talked about how important it was to send Urban Meyer out on a winning note.
Playing on the defensive side of the ball, the safety didn’t know how he would do it.
But he made it his special mission because more than any senior on the Florida roster, he owed Meyer the most.
He showed his appreciation in the Gators’ 37-24 Outback Bowl victory over Penn State, turning in a performance that earned him the MVP award.
Black picked off two passes, including one he returned 80 yards for a touchdown with 55 seconds left to give Florida its final points. He led the Gators with five solo tackles and added two pass breakups and gave Meyer his biggest hug.
This is the same player who Meyer threw out of practice when he was a freshman because, in part, he didn’t understand what it took to be a success at college football’s highest level.
Black was fighting critics who said he was too small and not quick enough to be a high-level player.
Meyer showed him the way, and in the last game for both, he got to return the favor.
“He is one of my closest friends. I can call him a friend now because he is not my player anymore,” Meyer said. “He is family. This Ahmad Black is not the same Ahmad Black we got four years ago. He has turned into a grown man, and now that he is leaving here he is everything and more.”
The learning was mutual. While Meyer taught Black the ropes, the Lakeland graduate showed his coach statistics are overrated and that intangibles are often the best way to evaluate a player.
“He is the best safety in college football,” Meyer said. “We don’t look at speed. We don’t look at vertical jump. Sometimes we get caught up with that in recruiting and in the NFL combine. All I know is that Ahmad Black played for Florida and was the best safety in a pretty competitive conference.”
Meyer would not address whether it was health rather than his desire to spend more time with his family that caused him to announce his retirement from coaching.
While that is still an uncertainty, Black made sure the Meyer legacy would remain intact. The coach took a beating in some circles this year. He set the bar so high that going out with a loss would’ve tarnished his image in the minds of some, though it would defy logic.
“To get that last interception meant a lot. It’s been a tough season with a lot of ups and downs, and I am just glad we can send coach out on top,” Black said. “When I first got here, my problem was not taking care of myself. I thought it was like high school where I could just go to practice, and that was not the case. I learned how to take care of my body.”
Legacies grow with time, but Urban Meyer doesn’t need that luxury. Ever since he stepped into the head coach’s office at Florida six years ago, Meyer was traveling at warp speed.
His decision to step down from coaching came with equal speed, catching people by surprise, though last year he retired for a brief time and came back.
Two national titles, three 13-1 seasons and a 22-game win streak set him apart from the others, including Steve Spurrier, who took the Florida program to unprecedented heights in his 12 years at Florida, winning a national championship and six SEC titles.
At least for the time being, the ride is over, though the rumors were already swirling around Raymond James Stadium that he was destined for another job despite his insistence that coaching is not in his near future.
The 46-year-old is one of only two coaches to win two BCS titles -- Nick Saban is the other -- and even threw in an undefeated season at Utah, which gives him one of the best 10-year runs in NCAA history. His 8-5 record this season was a disappointment as he struggled with an offense that never got untracked.
There are so many things to admire about Meyer, but the best are the ones that most of the public doesn’t see, according to Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.
“He has an unbelievable instinct for doing things the right way,” Foley said.
Never have so few words meant so much.
His accomplishments on the field are unparalleled, but it was Meyer the man that impressed Foley the most, particularly in hiring Will Muschamp, who is taking over the football program.
“Coach Meyer’s legacy is that he always does things the right way,” Foley says. “He is one of the biggest allies I had in trying to hire Muschamp. He wasn’t worried about a guy coming in here and breaking his records. All he cared about was creating a good situation for the players.”
Meyer’s first season ended in the Outback Bowl with a victory over Iowa that gave him a 9-3 record. The next season Florida won a national title under his tutelage and another in 2008.
Will he coach again?
Meyer wouldn’t address that but said he was at peace with himself.
Alan Dell, sports writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2112.