Thursday, December 4, 2008
Tebow's choice changed everything for Gators, Tide
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida quarterback Tim Tebow remembers sitting in Bryant-Denny stadium in October 2005, waving to the crowd as thousands of Alabama fans chanted his name.
The Crimson Tide wanted Tebow. Then-coach Mike Shula needed him. The Gators got him.
Even though Tebow grew up cheering for Florida -- both parents graduated from there and the family attended games regularly -- his decision between Tuscaloosa and Gainesville was tougher than reading defenses in the Southeastern Conference.
Tebow has no regrets, but that doesn't mean he won't look around the Georgia Dome on Saturday, when No. 2 Florida (11-1) plays top-ranked Alabama (12-0) in the SEC title game, and wonder what things would be like had he chosen the Tide over the Gators.
"A lot of things would be different," Tebow said. "I really liked coach Shula. I liked what he stood for on and off the field. I liked everything about their program and the passion that their fans have for football and how big it is there, because I'm very passionate about it as well. I thought it was just a great fit, and I liked him, and I thought it would be great playing for him."
It almost happened.
Tebow was sold on Alabama after his official visit. The campus was beautiful, the football program had a seemingly endless amount of tradition and Shula shared similar religious beliefs as Tebow. He was equally impressed by those fans who treated him like a celebrity even though most of them had never seen him play a down.
"It was cool," Tebow said. "It was something that kind of takes your breath away, at least it did mine. The fans were absolutely so passionate, and that's something I love because, as everybody knows, I'm very passionate about what I do. How much the state and everybody loved football, I thought that was really cool and it drew me to that place."
Florida was pulling him, too.
Tebow's wardrobe was filled with orange and blue, he grew up watching Steve Spurrier's wide-open passing attack and idolized 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel. The campus was a little more than an hour's drive from home, meaning friends and family could see him play all the time, and Urban Meyer's spread-option offense seemed like a perfect fit for the 6-foot-3, 240-pound left-hander who enjoyed running over linebackers as much as he did throwing passes all over the field.
But Meyer, whose team got stomped 31-3 in Tuscaloosa while Tebow watched from the stands, never felt like he had the upper hand in the recruiting battle.
"You can say he's a Gator, but he's a relationship person and he had a very, very good, long relationship with the previous staff and coach, and obviously Alabama is a fine place," Meyer said. "I would say we were behind most of the time in the recruiting effort. I'm just glad we got him."
It didn't happen without some anxious moments.
The day before Tebow planned to announce his choice on live television in mid-December, Shula spent 12 hours at Tebow's farm in Jacksonville. Shula shared stories about Alabama and talked about faith, family and football -- all in an effort to sway Tebow's decision.
Meyer, meanwhile, was recruiting in Pennsylvania and getting steady updates from Tebow's high school coach who wanted his star quarterback to play for the Gators. But the longer the in-home visit with Shula lasted, the more nervous Meyer got.
Meyer trekked in and out of a recruit's home to answer his phone, listening to the coach's play-by-play account of Shula's visit but never getting the news he wanted to hear: that Shula was leaving disappointed and Tebow was coming to Gainesville.
It got more nerve-racking for Meyer, too. Although he had a Plan B in place -- he had chartered a flight to offer a scholarship to another quarterback -- former assistant coach Greg Mattison delivered a gut-wrenching prediction of what would happen if Tebow picked Alabama.
"I had convinced myself that if we lose him, we'd still be OK," Meyer said. "I'll never forget this. It was about 5 degrees. We were freezing because you can't turn the heat on in a plane until it gets rolling. I look over at Greg and he says, 'Do you realize that if we don't get Tim, that'll set the program back 10 years.' I go, 'Shut up. We'll be all right.' And he goes, '10 years.'
"I got so upset with him that I grabbed a blanket and didn't even talk to him the rest of the trip. But he's right. That's how important Tim was."
Tebow was still undecided when he woke up the next morning and wasn't even sure until minutes before his announcement. The deciding factor was that he wanted to stay closer to home. He had planned to call Meyer just before his TV appearance, but his cell phone died before he could deliver the news.
Meyer took it as a sign he had lost Tebow to Shula and Alabama. He trudged outside and started playing catch with his son, but the rest of the family watched as Tebow pledged to play for Florida a few minutes later. Meyer's wife ran out of the house with the news -- and the Gators haven't been the same since.
Shula and the Alabama faithful were crushed.
"He chose what's best for him," Tide left tackle Andre Smith said. "I don't blame him. He's down the road from Florida. Coach Meyer's a great guy, his staff is great, the program is great."
Shula lasted one more season in Tuscaloosa, getting fired after finishing 6-6 in 2006. The Gators, meanwhile, won a national championship in Tebow's first season.
"I think if I did (go to Alabama), I would have tried to help in recruiting that year with other guys," said Tebow, last year's Heisman Trophy winner. "(Shula) might have had a chance to be there a little longer. Maybe."