-- The Florida Gators football team assembled in a campus meeting room on Dec. 26, 2009, for what was expected to be an ordinary team meeting in preparation for its matchup against Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl. Players were hoping to grab some per-diem cash and get home to pack for New Orleans. But when the coaching staff didn't show up for an hour, 300-pounders started squirming in their black cushioned chairs.
In a room across the hall, the nation's premier college football program was unraveling.
Assistant coaches had just heard news that left them uneasy about their job security despite assurances from the man with deeply sunken eyes standing before them. Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong and defensive backs coach Vance Bedford pleaded with him not to leave, but they didn't get much of a response beyond a nod. The plan was in place.
The coaches gathered their thoughts and discussed how the team might handle the news. Then they entered the room one by one, most with their heads facing the floor and making little eye contact.
The man who moments earlier had tried to reassure his assistants about their future began speaking to the team at large. Wearing Gators apparel but no longer oozing his trademark confidence, he started reading uncomfortably from a sheet of paper, shoulders slumped slightly and with minimal voice projection.
His message was all over the place -- from coaching at Bowling Green almost a decade earlier to the death of walk-on Michael "Sunshine" Guilford in a 2007 motorcycle accident. He said his wife and kids missed him.
Urban Meyer, who had been hospitalized weeks earlier after suffering chest pains in the hours after the Gators' SEC championship loss to Alabama, said he was stepping down as head coach for health reasons.
"Is he serious?" defensive end Will Green wondered. "Whole room was in disbelief."
Emotions ranged from shock to panic to anger to skepticism. Just weeks earlier, Meyer was high-fiving players and making classroom checks. He was earning about $4 million a year and had won 22 of his past 23 games. Nervous tension filled the room. Walk-on Joey Sorrentino spoke to the entire room, telling Meyer he didn't have to do this.
The message had no tidy ending, and underclassmen started flooding the nearby hallway to call home with the news. Many had thoughts of transferring, and some wondered about the sincerity of Meyer's words.
A day later, when Meyer told the team from the practice field that he had changed his mind and would remain at Florida, defensive tackle Lawrence Marsh, who describes Meyer as "the master of mind games," wondered whether the coach concocted the episode as a giant motivational ruse for the upcoming BCS bowl.
"He couldn't take the heat -- that's all that was," said David Young, a Florida offensive lineman from 2008 to '11. "He wanted to hand the job off to [offensive coordinator] Steve Addazio and get out of there."
The Gators seemed poised for a long run as a superpower program. They won two national championships in a three-year span and produced 30 future NFL players from their 2008 roster alone, all while cementing Meyer's place in the coaching pantheon.
The program was seemingly invincible. Then it was in disarray. Meyer resigned for good after the 2010 season. The Gators stumbled to a 29-21 record in four subsequent seasons under Will Muschamp, and they were picked by the media to finish fifth in the SEC East this season under first-year coach Jim McElwain.
Meyer's Gators simultaneously courted glory and danger, until they combusted.
That era of Florida football launched many players into stardom -- and a few others toward infamy.
The Gators' coaching staff under Meyer was also formidable, boasting future head coaches of major programs in Strong (Louisville, Texas), Dan Mullen (Mississippi State) and Addazio (Temple, Boston College).
But the unrelenting drive that thrust the Gators into college football folklore proved unsustainable. A brilliant coach lost his fire. Fights once born of intense competition became sparked by contempt and disrespect. A culture of favoritism was perceived by many, and combined with myriad off-field issues, it slowly eroded the program's foundation.
The wheels began to come off in 2010, when Meyer had one foot out the door and a brash freshman class regularly clashed with upperclassmen. Muschamp, the former defensive coordinator at Texas, made strides in cleaning up the image of a program that endured more than 30 player arrests during Meyer's tenure, but Florida's reputation for high-octane offense fizzled on his watch.
In revisiting a legendary period of SEC football and the ripples it left behind, ESPN.com spoke with more than two dozen figures associated with those Gators teams -- Meyer, Tebow and Harvin declined interview requests -- to chronicle the dominance and fall of a proud program.
"We thought we were untouchable," linebacker A.J. Jones said.
Full-padded summer practices were so brutal that players savored the smell of morning dew on the practice field's Bermuda grass, knowing the Gainesville sun would soon burn it off and own their legs. Fences were covered with tarps to keep out prying eyes. Coaches called an excessive number of inside run plays to gauge toughness, and allowing first downs meant extra conditioning for the defense. The screeching of assistant coaches barking orders into helmet ear holes drowned out the sounds of cars driving past.
Defensive players called it "hell," and Tebow had heavenly protection every time he ran the shovel option.
"Couldn't even breathe on Tim Tebow," said cornerback Markihe Anderson. "Everyone knew that."
If anyone was going to violate that rule, it was Spikes.
If you run that s--- one more time, I'm going to bust you.
Bodies tangled at the line after Tebow took the ensuing shotgun snap, hit the left hole and dropped his shoulder. Spikes anticipated the play, found the hole and greeted Tebow by digging his shoulder into Tebow's chest. Some players say Spikes gave Tebow a friendly shoulder. Others recall Tebow getting knocked off his feet.
Casual practice chatter was muted until Tebow sprang from the turf.
It's going to be that kind of day. ... Let's go!
The defense rallied around Spikes, forming a semicircle and girding for a possible fight. Meyer's shock quickly turned into a satisfied smirk.
It was August 2008, and the Gators were off and running with competitive friction that would produce a season for the ages.
"Did players have to be separated on occasion? Hell, yes," said defensive line coach Dan McCarney, now head coach at North Texas. "Did coaches have to be separated on occasion? Hell, yes. But it never left the locker room, and it was always out of respect."
Under Meyer, Florida's program peaked while intrastate rivals Miami and Florida State were treading water.
Before becoming NFL standouts, twins Maurkice and Mike Pouncey were highly rated offensive line recruits from Lakeland, Florida, who were leaning toward committing to Florida State. When they visited Tallahassee, however, Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden was in his late 70s and playing a CEO role by that point. "He really didn't know who we were," Mike remembered.
Instead, they found a home in Gainesville, where recruiting was a sport in itself. With the possible exception of family emergencies, Meyer's coaches were expected to be pounding the pavement in pursuit of five-star talent.
The fiery Pounceys grew to embody Florida's competitive culture. Teammates fought regularly and hit as hard in practice as most teams do on game day. It might have been Haden and Harvin scrapping after a blocking tangle-up. Or it could've been a crushing hit by safety Major Wright that made teammates jokingly wonder whether receiver Frankie Hammond had died.
Sometimes the fighting got so bad that, Marsh remembered, "[Meyer] would say, 'I can't have everyone hurt,' so he would just cancel practice."
Said tight end Cornelius Ingram, "Practices were like SEC games."
The Gators knew how good they were. Nearly seven years later, players are still shocked about their September 2008 home loss to Ole Miss, when Tebow got stuffed on a crucial fourth-and-1. Florida's mindset the rest of that season was clear.
"Beat the brakes off people," tight end Tate Casey said.
Thirty-point win over LSU. Thirty-nine-point win over Georgia. Fifty-point win over Steve Spurrier and South Carolina in The Swamp.
SEC games were supposed to be drag-out affairs. Instead, the Gators were making blowouts commonplace, winning their last 10 games by an average of 35 points.
Meyer was a savvy tactician in the film room, and his strategic expertise put his staff in position to successfully match wits with any competitor in the nation. Florida's defense would detect an opponent's weakness and expose it. For the SEC title game against Alabama, the Gators decided they weren't going to let quarterback John Parker Wilson beat them. Sure enough, Wilson went 12-of-25 for 187 yards and an interception in Florida's 31-20 win.
"It felt like we had a professional defense top to bottom," Haden said.
The Gators were sluggish in the first half of the BCS Championship Game against Oklahoma, and with the score tied 7-7 at halftime, several players delivered vein-flaring speeches.
Of course, the message of only one player -- Tebow's "30 minutes for the rest of our lives" -- was seen by millions of fans. Players were well aware that the cameras always found Tebow, but they also say it didn't matter who got the credit as long as the result was victory.
"We would have literally died for each other that night," Mike Pouncey said.
Florida pulled away to win the national championship, outscoring the Sooners 17-7 in the second half, but its profound intensity couldn't last. Less than a year later, the very tenets that led to the program's success began to crumble.
Tim Tebow was predictable.
The quarterback delivered spirited messages at apartment Bible studies that felt "like a little church," left tackle Phil Trautwein said. Tebow would tell the group he had "something on my heart" and then would sermonize for 20 minutes or so. Tebow would go out on the town with teammates, but he didn't drink.
Aaron "Chico" Hernandez was highly unpredictable.
The tight end was a jokester who would sneak into defensive line meetings for cookies and steal towels from showering teammates. But he was mercurial. Coaches paid him extra attention and privately worried when he went home to Connecticut because of the company he kept there, and teammates speculated that he kept guns at his apartment.
One is football's greatest missionary. The other is a convicted murderer serving a life sentence.
Perhaps surprisingly in retrospect, their relationship worked. Tebow and Hernandez spent time together off the field, with Tebow laughing at Hernandez's childish jokes. Coaches wanted Tebow to influence Hernandez, who was hit hard by the death of his father in 2006.
Some teammates found Hernandez likable, but others felt uneasy about his presence.
Hernandez was accused of breaking the eardrum of a bouncer at The Swamp restaurant during a 2007 incident that Tebow tried to break up. Ultimately, no charges were filed. Hernandez was also implicated in a 2007 shooting outside Venue nightclub that left two men wounded. Hernandez was not listed as a suspect, but years later it was reported that authorities from his Massachusetts murder case sought information on Hernandez's role in the incident.
"It didn't surprise me [Hernandez] was in trouble for something," guard Jim Tartt said. "Killing somebody? No. I didn't expect that."
Tebow played every right note off the field. He socialized but didn't chase women, even though he attracted plenty of female attention. He certainly didn't get into trouble. Tebow's fame necessitated private areas for him and his friends at restaurants and bars, where teammates basked in the attention that came with being in his crew.
The quarterback's presence as the team's leader was stronger on television than in reality. On TV, he was the alpha dog. In the locker room, he was one of several players in leadership roles.
Tebow's famed "Promise" speech after the Ole Miss loss is now celebrated with a plaque outside The Swamp. What went untold: wide receiver Louis Murphy consoling a sobbing Tebow minutes before that speech, assuring him Florida would win out.
Tebow became "almost bigger than the team," said cornerback Jeremy Brown, one of many who considered Spikes the team's emotional leader and Harvin its best player. The Pounceys, Murphy, running back Brandon James and linebacker Ryan Stamper also held sway in the locker room.
Harvin was a double espresso of playmaking. He could miss a week of practice and still dominate on Saturdays. He averaged a touchdown every 6.5 touches in 2008. His truculence off the field included, according to a 2012 Sporting News story, a physical attack on wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales. Several players confirmed that account to ESPN.com. Teammates openly talked about Harvin's mood swings. One minute, he might be smiling and laughing. The next, he could be involved in a confrontation.
Gators athletic department representatives once scheduled a meeting with Harvin and his mother to discuss whether he wanted a Heisman campaign and how he felt about Tebow getting so much love. Harvin and his mom didn't show up.
"Great athlete who knew it and didn't want to be told what to do," said one starter who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Spikes was difficult to figure out. His hits could be heard from University Avenue. Teammates called him "Big Old Country Boy," a nod to his North Carolina roots and affable nature. Taunting opposing players was a specialty for Spikes, who once goaded Michael Oher of "The Blind Side" fame for an entire game, taunting the Ole Miss left tackle by his middle name, Jerome. "He did his research on guys," Green said. Conversely, Spikes once disappeared from the team for nearly two weeks after the 2008 season. Strong kept calling his cell phone but got no answer.
Another strong personality was receiver Riley Cooper, who later became known for using racial slurs and threatening a black security guard after video of the incident at a concert went viral. At Florida, Cooper was known as a hothead but was "friends with everyone," Tartt said. Cooper accompanied teammates to Venue, where he might be the only white male in attendance some nights. "He had more black friends than anybody," one teammate said.
Like Harvin, Cooper once got into a physical altercation with Gonzales, according to an eyewitness. Meyer, a receivers coach by trade, gave extra attention to a group with six future NFL players, which led many to believe Gonzales employed a tough-guy act when Meyer left the room in an effort to regain control of the position group.
The Gators juggled a lot of egos, and for a time, Florida benefited by emboldening individual players. Eventually, the personalities overpowered the team.
The bar was set unreasonably high for the 2009 Gators, whose fans expected nothing short of a dynasty.
Meyer was undeniably the nation's hottest coach. Tebow drove debates about his place among the greatest college quarterbacks of all time. He returned to school, as did Spikes and many other members of an imposing defensive unit. But without Harvin, the Gators sometimes had to sweat out victories by controlling the clock.
Symptoms of discontent surfaced Oct. 24, when Tebow threw two pick-sixes at Mississippi State. Florida escaped with a 29-19 win, but Spikes, who missed the game with a groin injury, was displeased with Tebow's play.
The two players got in each other's faces and had to be separated twice, once in the locker room at halftime and once after the game. "You should be blowing these m-----f------ out," Spikes is said to have yelled at Tebow, who didn't address the media that night. Players said Tebow looked emotionally hurt after the exchange with Spikes, but the quarterback later said he considered it emblematic of two passionate players.
The Gators were winning, but discord was in the air. Addazio noted this when players bickered about the offense not scoring enough after a 13-3 win at LSU.
"There was so much outside negativity that it wears everyone out," Addazio said of the 2009 season. "It was a grind." The tipping point arrived on Dec. 1, when defensive lineman Carlos Dunlap was arrested on suspicion of DUI after a night out with teammates and suspended for the upcoming SEC championship rematch with Alabama.
Players were hurt by Dunlap's indiscretion but didn't squarely blame the subsequent 32-13 loss on him. However, Meyer mentioned the incident in multiple team settings leading up to the game, albeit without calling Dunlap out by name. Many players said Meyer's ire was justified, but that he unwittingly amplified the distraction and provided a ready-made excuse for losing to the Crimson Tide.
A disgusted Dunlap watched the game from his home in South Carolina. "I had to walk on campus knowing I let everybody down," said Dunlap, who later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation.
When the Gators beat Cincinnati 51-24 in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2010, it capped a chaotic week in which Meyer resigned, only to return to the team a day later. It also put the bow on a season that was emotionally draining for many of those involved. But Florida players didn't get rings for their victory, because coaches had deemed the season championship or bust. Some players remain puzzled that they received rings after winning the Outback Bowl the following season to finish 8-5 -- but not one for winning a BCS bowl and finishing 13-1.
"I'm still waiting on mine," Green said.
Florida recruited players with an edge, and the program paid in the court of public opinion when those players got in trouble, including arrests for gun charges and domestic assault. The team hated hearing about it, and the echoes grew into an inevitable distraction during the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
Fortunately for many players, Gainesville lawyer Huntley Johnson helped them successfully navigate the legal system. They knew to go to Johnson. One player remembers walking into Johnson's office for counsel and seeing a teammate already there.
Murphy, now a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was on the phone with a reporter this summer when he told a team staffer he was discussing his time at Florida. In the background, the staffer could be heard referencing those Gators as the "all-time thug team."
Some of the Gators "partied all the time," Murphy admitted. He saw a few fights in nightclubs, but the thug label bothers him. "Nobody on the team felt we were thugs," Murphy said. "Every situation is unique. Gainesville is a little bit different. ... We got profiled. We had to watch everything we did."
Meyer stressed core values -- respect women, no stealing, no drugs, no weapons -- and even sent graduate assistants to clubs to monitor players. Eventually, though, some players said they sensed a strategy of damage control from Meyer. "Get guys to Saturday," Brown said. "Keep guys out of the press."
Too often, Gators players acted "too big-headed" and had problems with locals at nightclubs, Haden said. That led to fights and brushes with the law.
Influences were everywhere when players left the facility. Gators received perks and meals here and there in Gainesville, some players say. Agents would stalk the dorm rooms of top players.
Two players say Haden readily tossed $100 bills in a New Orleans strip club after the Sugar Bowl, leading them to wonder about agent influence. Haden offers a slightly different account. "I was throwing a lot of ones that equaled up to a lot of hundreds," said Haden, who added that he had already decided to enter the 2010 NFL draft.
Several former Gators believe the team has struggled in part in recent years because the school tried to recruit high-character players as an answer to public relations problems under Meyer.
"We had to handle our business better," Ingram said.
Life was good for "ballers" in Meyer's program.
Ballers produced on Saturdays and were committed to the program. Ballers got first dibs at team meals, front seats on chartered planes and were often excused from practice. Meyer took care of players he trusted.
"I think it was starting to become [playing favorites]," Trautwein said. "If you asked him now, he's probably not doing that at Ohio State."
Some players were bitter about the arrangement but, as Brandon James said, "you had to produce to be in that role."
Former Gators linebacker John Jones, who finished his college career at Tennessee State, said he was suspended a game for being late to a meeting. Nevertheless, Jones insisted he isn't upset about it and wishes he had stayed at Florida. But many teammates wondered whether Jones would've been suspended at all if he was a star and not a special-teamer. Some players were told they had to practice in order to play, so they would train hard all week while stars sat out, only for those stars to get their spots back on Saturdays. For some, this routine drained their confidence.
Meyer was known to ask stars how their mothers were doing, but lesser players had trouble simply drawing eye contact from the head coach. Some think it was all part of Meyer's motivational tactics. Meyer has a psychology degree from Cincinnati, and "we all knew he used that in coaching," A.J. Jones said.
Said Tartt about the favoritism, "It pissed off a lot of people."
There were occasions when players practiced during the week, only to miss a game while wearing a protective boot on the sideline. It was suspected in the locker room that those players had failed a drug test. A.J. Jones estimates a "good amount" of Gators failed school-administered drug tests or feared they would. Another player says at least a dozen key players were in that category, despite creative efforts to beat those tests. In 2012, the Sporting News reported that Meyer publicly stated players were hurt when they were actually sitting out a game because of the university drug-testing protocol.
Murphy disagrees. "If you were in a boot, you were hurt," he said.
"I have been criticized that I have been too lenient on players; that doesn't concern me," Meyer told the Sporting News. "We are going to go out of our way to mentor, educate and discipline guys the way we see fit to make sure they're headed in the right direction. Are we perfect? I never said that."
The exodus of several key players after the 2009 season would leave a leadership void. A brash recruiting class was on its way to Gainesville. There was uncertainty at the top of the program. Forces were beginning to align against the Gators.
Whispers about Meyer's health started to circulate in the locker room soon after Florida's loss in the 2009 SEC title game, but details were scarce because the coach fiercely protected his privacy. Unknown at the time was the fact that Meyer had been rushed to a Gainesville hospital by ambulance after his wife, Shelley, had called 911 because Meyer was complaining of chest pains.
Nevertheless, the blunt message to staff members was to keep recruiting and keep coaching -- until he had to tell the team something in that meeting room in late December.
Meyer ultimately decided to remain head coach in 2010. Strong accepted an offer to become head coach at Louisville. Addazio was elevated to associate head coach. Some players speculated about how long Meyer would be able to maintain the rigors of the top job and whether Addazio would need to take over at some point. The Pounceys wanted Addazio for the sake of continuity and believed Meyer supported that. "If Coach Meyer could have gotten [Addazio] the job, he would have," Maurkice Pouncey said.
Plenty of players were frustrated by the unsettled coaching dynamic. Coupled with Meyer's lethargic approach to the offseason, it created a climate of uncertainty within the program.
Gone was the Meyer who chest-bumped players in hallways or recited lines from DJ Khaled's "Out Here Grindin." That coach was replaced by a man who barely had the energy for polite hellos. Also gone was the steadying influence of Strong, whom players nicknamed "The Mayor" because he was cool with everyone. "He kind of ran the day-to-day," Dunlap said. "He was easy to talk to."
Florida's 2010 recruiting class, ranked No. 1 in the nation by ESPN at the time, ushered in a new, volatile era of Gators football. Those players routinely challenged upperclassmen and coaches. Freshman linebacker Ronald Powell, the nation's top prep prospect, once cussed out strength coach Mark Campbell in front of teammates, prompting guard Jon Halapio to confront Powell in the locker room, which in turn led to a fight between Powell and linebacker Lerentee McCray.
Several key freshmen skipped a training camp session and went unpunished, Young said, effectively undermining the team's senior leaders. With Meyer's focus diminished, assistant coaches sometimes tried to handle disciplinary decisions within their position groups.
One coach on the staff said the 2010 class was the most unruly he has ever witnessed. Another player viewed by some as problematic was Dominique Easley, a five-star defensive lineman from New York who threatened to quit the team repeatedly, missing meetings as a result.
"[Meyer] allowed players to do what they wanted, which is why the program is still getting fixed," Young said. "He allowed players to run amok."
Each signee from the 2010 class received a laminated card with a promise that they would do great things if they stayed together. The card included the names of every player in the class. But when word leaked that Meyer was resigning, this time for good, word traveled that some freshmen burned those cards and shot a cell phone video of the act.
Perhaps they were too naïve to know Meyer might be on his way out when they signed. But Meyer is as convincing as anyone in a living room, and he sounded healthy and refreshed when selling lineman Ian Silberman on coming to Florida.
"We broke up as a class," said Silberman, who spent four years in the Gators' program and played his senior season under Addazio at Boston College. "I honestly don't think we will be remembered [well]."
Meyer clutched a podium on Dec. 9, 2010, but this time he was indeed letting go.
He told the assembled media he was resigning.
On the surface, the move made sense because of the way the 2010 season unraveled. As one former All-SEC performer put it, the only way Meyer could have stayed was if he dismantled the entire roster and started from zero. The grip had slipped that much, he said.
When it became clear Meyer's tenure was over, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley acted on a succession plan. He notified players that a national coaching search would commence.
But some inside that room -- the same place where Meyer first resigned less than 12 months earlier, in front of the team -- were confounded by a conflicting message from the head coach.
On Nov. 27, the Gators got pounded 31-7 at Florida State. Fireworks burst, and the Seminoles joyfully carried a Gator head off the field. Images of FSU players driving Florida quarterback John Brantley shoulder-first into the grass were fresh.
In a postgame interview, Meyer admitted the Florida program was broken. It seemed Meyer was implying he would be the one to fix it. "It's Florida -- we'll be back strong, stronger than ever," Meyer said at the time.
There wasn't an expiration date on that promise, but so far Meyer is fulfilling it at Ohio State, where he's 38-3 with a national championship in his first three seasons.
Meanwhile, the chemistry that fueled two national titles is missing in Gainesville. Wright remembers the 2008 Gators having dance-offs in the locker room before defensive backs meetings. Custom subwoofers boomed Rick Ross tracks and shook lockers. That doesn't happen with every team.
In the moment, the program's victories overshadowed its problems. But today, the Gators are far removed from their glory days.
Tyler Murphy thought he was signing up for greatness when he committed to Florida in 2010. He was a two-star quarterback from Connecticut surrounded by five-star recruits. Soon enough, he was surrounded by entitlement, a divided locker room and upperclassmen complaining about how things used to be different. After four years in Gainesville, Murphy transferred to play for Addazio at Boston College as a senior.
Now with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a wide receiver, Murphy struggles to chronicle what the Gators have accomplished since Meyer left.
"We didn't do anything," Murphy said. "We got away from being hungry."