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Urban Meyer Steps Aside and an Era Ends

For those who haven't already heard -- and if you've been in any way connected to college football news over the last hour or so, you've heard -- Urban Meyer announced today that the Sugar Bowl showdown between the Florida Gators and the Cincinnati Bearcats would be his final game as the head coach in Gainesville.

To say the least, this was not supposed to be how it ended for Meyer. After his repeated decisions to rebuff his "dream job" of Notre Dame, many observers (including your humble correspondent) assumed that Meyer would be the head coach at the University of Florida for life -- or at least until he burned out. None of us thought that would come quite so soon.

The health reasons Meyer gave for his decision make it highly unlikely that he's going to return to coaching any time soon. Were he to do so, he would be rightly slammed for having faked a reason to bail out of Gainesville. But for what reason? Why would anyone leave a job where you have an SEC contender built for years to come only to line something else up? That's what it's easy to believe Meyer when he says "I'm proud to be a part of the Gainesville community and the Gator Nation and I plan to remain in Gainesville and involved with the University of Florida." Not because you can honestly believe anything a head coach says any more; instead, it would be one of the most irrational moves perhaps in the history of college football.

Meyer's decision only adds to the impression that this year is the end of an era at Florida. Tim Tebow is leaving after this season for his shot at the NFL; it's hard to see many of the draft-eligible juniors staying around for a new staff (unless it's the kind of staff that can convince those players to stay). And one of the most successful coaches in the program's history -- Steve Spurrier is the only one even in the discussion -- is leaving.

Meyer is 56-10 at Florida, 32-8 in the SEC and 15-1 against Georgia, Florida State, Miami and Tennessee, which the school dubs its "traditional rivals." And let's not forget those two national and SEC championships and three division titles.

The SEC East was already likely to open up this year, with Tebow and several other high-profile Gators graduating or taking their chances in the NFL Draft, Mark Richt looking to revive his career in Athens and a crop of young players beginning to catch on at South Carolina. Even Tennessee, which could take a step back after a surprisingly good first year under Lane Kiffin, couldn't be counted out. If someone was going to prevent the Gators from ruling the division for years to come, this was going to be the year to do it -- now they might have a better chance.

Now, the question becomes who will succeed him. The dream candidate will be Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, but reports that he rebuffed Athletics Director Jeremy Foley after Spurrier left Gainesville after the 2001 season makes his return to Gainesville after running the defense in the 1990s unlikely. (Besides, Stoops has already denied interest in leaving Norman.)

After that, some easy names will almost immediately jump to the top of the list: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen will be a frontrunner after his departure coincided with an offensive slump; new Louisville head coach Charlie Strong might be willing to come back to Gainesville if offered the promotion from his old/current defensive coordinator spot; and don't be surprised if Jeremy Foley faces some sentimental calls to try to bring Spurrier back. That might not be the best idea for a variety of reasons -- Spurrier's tenure at South Carolina has raised enough questions about how good a coach he is now to give a program like Florida's pause, and his age makes it unlikely he'll coach for much more than four or five years -- but the calls will almost certainly be there. Look for Mullen and Strong to get headlines for now.

But Florida is now a national brand name, and the search is likely to go far beyond the Southeast and Meyer's coaching tree. The other popular names not already hired for another position -- Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, Skip Holtz at East Carolina, etc. -- will also enter the conversation. There are very good reasons for Gator fans and administrators to be nervous about any of them, but (as the Gainesville faithful found out the last time this happened) there are few good options when your head coach steps aside this late.

Foley's top priority has to be avoiding hiring another Ron Zook. Because it's not entirely clear that any program can recover twice from that kind of experience. There's only one Urban Meyer.