Georgia vs. Florida
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Jacksonville, Fla.
TV, radio: CBS (WGCL-46); 550-AM, 99.3 FM
Web site: www.georgiadogs.com
ATHENS — Urban Meyer has always been a master motivator.
While coaching at Utah, he supposedly put “BYU” decals in the urinals to show his players just how he felt about their biggest rival. After moving to Florida, he whipped his team into a frenzied state for the national championship game against Ohio State by wallpapering their hotel meeting room with clippings about how the Gators didn’t even deserve to be on the same field.
They won, of course, in a rout.
Then there’s Mark Richt, the laid-back Georgia coach. He was a late arrival to the motivational circuit, but is now a full-fledged convert.
“I always knew motivation was important,” he said. “But I thought all the fundamentals and stuff were here,” putting his right hand above his head, “and all that emotion stuff was here,” keeping his left hand chest-high. “I learned it’s really about 50-50.”
Meyer and Richt will be on opposite sidelines Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla., for one of the biggest games of the season.
No 5. Florida (7-1, 4-1) meets the eighth-ranked Bulldogs (7-1, 4-1) in the contest formerly known as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” The winner gains an inside track to the Southeastern Conference championship game and, in all likelihood, a shot at playing for the national title. The loser can start working on ways to fire up his team for the rematch in 2009.
Richt took the rivalry to a new level a year ago, when he came up with a unique way to inspire what he felt was a lethargic team. He told his players they’d better celebrate so much after their first touchdown that they received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty; if not, they would do some extra running when they got back to Athens.
Georgia took it to a level not even the coach expected. The entire team stormed the field, hopping up and down in the end zone while the Gators looked on in disbelief. Luckily, the celebration didn’t turn into a brawl, but Richt was reprimanded by the SEC and apologized for goading his team into such a spectacle.
“I had no intention for our team to clear the bench,” he has said.
Then again, Richt couldn’t complain about the results.
Georgia upset the defending national champions 42-30 and didn’t lose another game all season. The coach wasn’t done motivating, either, secretly ordering black jerseys and sending out his team in new colors for a big game against Auburn. Amazed at the emotion his team displayed in those two games, Richt knew he was on to something.
“You try to do a good job preparing the team in fundamentals and scheme-wise, but you also want to find a way to add emotion to the plan,” he said.
It was a striking change for Richt, who often talks as if he’s barely got a pulse and would certainly rank among the most polite coaches in America (if a reporter sneezes during his weekly news conferences, he’ll usually say “bless you”). But once he surrendered play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Mike Bobo late in the 2006 season, Richt was freed up to keep a finger on the pulse of the team.
“When you’re calling plays, you’re much more involved in game planning,” he said. “That took more energy. That took more focus. When I called the game, I wanted to stay calm so I could think straight and make the best decision for the team. Now that I’m not making as many decisions throughout the game, I have more time to be outwardly emotional.”
Meyer isn’t as open about his motivational tactics. He said “playing good teams” is the best way to pump his players up.
“When we play good teams, I see our guys prepare differently,” he said. “The best form of motivation is to push play (on the tape of the opponent). It has nothing to do with the color pants we wear or how much we yell. Those things all serve a purpose, but the best motivation is to play a good team.”
This is the same guy who never refers to a rival school by name (for instance, Florida State is “that team out west” of Gainesville). He’s the one who insists that tapes of rare losses be televised on a continuous loop in the locker room, in the weight room, throughout the athletic department. He’s also been accused of running up the score, not unlike a previous Florida coach, Steve Spurrier.
Last week, the Gators routed Kentucky 63-5. Meyer surely knew Georgia would be aware of that score.
“He wants revenge,” former Georgia safety Kelin Johnson said. “Come on, he put up 63 against Kentucky, and he was still going for it on fourth down. He was sending Georgia a message. He was sending Coach Richt a message.”
If nothing else, these two coaches appear to have achieved some degree of balance in a rivalry that was often known for its one-sidedness. Vince Dooley dominated the Gators during his quarter-century as Georgia’s coach. Spurrier lost to the Bulldogs only once in a dozen years.
While Florida can still point to winning 15 of the last 18 games in the series, the teams have split their last four.
Meyer isn’t looking for parity, least of all with Florida’s biggest rivals. The best testament to his motivational skills is his record in the most important games. Since taking over the Gators, he’s 4-0 against Tennessee, 3-0 against Florida and 2-1 against Georgia.
Of course, Meyer is probably focusing on that one loss.
Hmmm, wonder what he’ll come up with Saturday?