With dominant effort, Gators leave no doubt about No. 1 Other voices

OTHER VOICES

The Kickoff

January 10, 2007|By GREG COTE | GREG COTE,MIAMI HERALD

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In the end, where delirium and dreams met, Florida Gators fans, outnumbered here by 3-1 or more, were the ones making noise like they owned the place. And they did. Gators players pogoed and danced on the field, and silver confetti shimmered like starlight as fans roared and slapped outstretched hands in a Gator Chomp after their team had devoured Ohio State and lifted a campus in Gainesville higher than any college has been.

Ever.

Never before has an NCAA Division I school been the national champion in football, which the Gators became with stunning force Monday night, while also reigning in men's basketball, a title Florida earned last year.

Basketball star Joakim Noah had told wide receiver and friend Dallas Baker: "Don't come back without a ring."

Not a problem. The final score was 41-14. Not a problem at all, apparently.

Back in Gainesville, by the way, classes resumed on campus Monday after the winter break.

May we call it an excused absence for the football players?

They were busy taking the Buckeyes to school.

The Gators faced a team that had been unbeaten and ranked No. 1 uninterrupted since the first preseason poll, and they flat-out dominated.

The favored Buckeyes returned the game's opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, after which Florida's vaunted defense simply dominated, blitzing and sacking and hectoring quarterback Troy Smith throughout, shrinking the effect of the Heisman Trophy winner down to the size of that statue.

Smith completed a mere four of 14 passes for 35 yards as his high-powered offense was neutered, limited to 82 yards.

Meanwhile Gators quarterback Chris Leak, always underappreciated by the orange and blue faithful (surely until Monday night), thoroughly outplayed his celebrated counterpart to end his college career savoring ultimate redemption. As the game's Most Valuable Player. And as the only quarterback beside Danny Wuerffel to lead Florida to a national championship.

All the while, the long shadow of Steve Spurrier was disappearing.

Spurrier, beloved in The Swamp, had coached Florida to its only previous national title in football, in the 1996 season. Urban Meyer managed to match him in only his second season as coach.

"Florida football has been around 100 years," Meyer had said of the program's centennial season in the buildup to this Bowl Championship Series title match, "and there's been one great team."

Make it two now. An October loss at Auburn separates 13-1 Florida from perfection, but a near-perfect effort Monday night left nothing separating the Gators from raising the prized crystal football.

Doubters had said entering the game that Florida had lucked out to rise to No. 2 and even get into this game, relying on fortuitous losses by others late in the season. But those doubters were disappearing in perfect step with Ohio State's hopes.

More than 10,000 Gators fans filled Florida's campus basketball arena for a watch party, and the joining together of the school's twin-titan sports was fitting.

Meyer and basketball coach Billy Donovan are close friends. "Billy recruited me," Meyer said of the man who helped persuade him to leave Utah.

Their wives are close. So are their kids. In fact, the coaches live two houses from each other in Gainesville.

Does this call for a block party, or what?

Donovan's basketball champions served as judges recently when the football team had its annual for-fun dunk contest.

Meyer was an invited guest in the jubilant champs' locker room last spring when his friend and his team celebrated winning the Final Four.

"That re-energized, refocused ... the passion you had for coaching," Meyer said a few days ago. "And for trying to reach the pinnacle."

He reached that pinnacle against a school that had been Meyer's idea of what major college football meant as a young boy growing up in Ohio. He used to carry around a buckeye in his pocket for good luck as a kid, just like many Ohioans do. All at once, Monday, Meyer had the Buckeyes in his pocket again.

By the middle of the fourth quarter the once-predominant Buckeyes fans dressed in red had begun to thin considerably. Florida legend Emmitt Smith appeared on the big video screen doing the Gators Chomp, and the fans who weren't going anywhere or missing a second of this, swelled with delight.

Meyer had believed, even if oddsmakers didn't, that a rigorous Southeastern Conference schedule had steeled his team for this.

"I love a 65-0 game. That's a lot of fun. Those 17-16 games give you gray hair and ulcers," he said. "But you learn a lot about your football team when you get hit in your mouth and you respond. I admire our guys. They've earned it."

He meant the right to be in Monday's final game.

Now the same can be said - must be said - about the national championship.

The Gators earned it.

Unequivocally and with convincing force, they earned it.

Greg Cote writes for The Miami Herald.

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