To put it lightly, the Florida Gators' football program has been a torrid melodrama over the past few weeks.
Beginning with the loss to Alabama and Charlie Strong's unsurprising departure to Louisville, and continuing (but by no means concluding) with Urban Meyer's shocking retirement, reconsideration, and pending reinstatement as Florida's head coach, Gators' fans have had to cope with the prospect of losing their team's signature player, the bedrock of their defense and, finally, the genius who led them to where they are today.
Make no mistake—Florida's magic is Meyer. The potential in Tim Tebow was there, but it took Meyer's tutelage to make Tebow, and all the other outstanding Gators, into the threats they are today. There will be many more fighters under Meyer if he does return to the game.
But will he return? In the eyes of recruits who want to be the next Tebow—or Brandon Spikes, or Jeffrey Demps, or Percy Harvin—the answer to that question will be the deciding factor in whether they make or keep their commitments to Florida, or make new ones between now and signing day.
Looking cynically at this situation, one can argue that Meyer will never return, but that his promise will keep Florida's program from unravelling until a successor as worthy as him can be found.
Something similar was probably asked of Meyer by the UF athletic department upon his announcement—you've shocked us with your decision; now, buy us time to retool, react, and find your replacement.
The reciprocation was more than fair; it was downright necessary for the immediate and long term health of the program. In a previous article, I predicted the teams that would dominate the next century .
The Gators were an easy choice, but I included the caveat that Urban Meyer, and Urban Meyer alone, was the crucial element in their long term successes. He's the one that works the hardest at persuading the nation's best and brightest into his funky system. He's the one that rebuilt Florida into a school no one remembers ever being unfrightening or unsuccessful.
Florida is not like Alabama or even LSU; aside from the near-decade of success under Steve Spurrier and the brief glimmer when Spurrier was a quarterback, Florida has not been a dominant or even a significant program in college football history.
Stiff competition in-state and within the conference disallows Florida from losing its marquee personality and expecting to survive. Its "momentum," given the loss to Alabama, the departure of Strong, and now Meyer's leave of absence, now resembles more of a tailspin.
A tailspin, unfortunately, could be what describes Florida's recruiting in the next month if the worst case scenarios pan out.
At 20 players, Florida's 2010 class was rich with talent; top five in the nation, to most pundits. But it was far from impenetrable, and miles from completion given the expected losses.
The young talent for Florida is there at defensive back and end, but on offense, the returns are alarming, particularly if some or all of the early departures—the Pouncey twins and TE Aaron Hernandez, but also DE Carlos Dunlap, DB Ahmad Black and CB Joe Haden—turn out to be true .
Only one offensive lineman—and that a tackle, four-star Ian Silberman—will replace or at least bolster the depth chart behind early departees the Pouncey twins, anchors of the O-line.
Only one linebacker—Gideon Agajbe, probably the least exciting member of the class—will assist in the loss of starters Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper, and key backup Dustin Doe.
Only one tight end—athletic prospect Gerald Christian—will be expected to fill in immediately pending the loss of Aaron Hernandez, with little or no depth behind him.
Two three-star wide receivers—Robert Clark and Soloman Patton—will try to alleviate Florida's dim play at wideout, and the Gators also lose Riley Cooper and David Nelson to graduation.
Departures, attritions, and de-commitments were going to occur either way. But Florida State has hit the recruiting trail with new found vigor. Miami is suddenly dangerous again, too. And as usual, the nouveau spread systems and the old powers are making inroads in the muck.
Meyer's presence kept all that at bay. Just a month ago, Florida was in the game for seemingly every top recruit in the country. It was inevitably "Florida, USC, X, Y, and Z" listed as a five-star's top five.
But without Strong or Meyer, the Gators should be content to keep what they have, and will be lucky to grab even one or two top-level recruits still on the board. Five-star players like DE Ronald Powell or WR Chris Dunkley have waited this long and narrowed down their choices to include Florida. Powell, in particular, was a huge Florida lean until this week, but is "freaked" by what's gone down with Meyer, according to an insider article on ESPN.
Facing this much turmoil with a month still to go until signing day, their decisions may have gotten a lot easier, and that's probably not a good thing.
Even if the Gators do manage to ink a player, the kid will be doing it because he believes, rightly or wrongly, that Meyer will return. Recruits don't commit because they feel sorry for the program—pity is not a reason to sign one's life away.
Nor will recruiters from the major schools be too polite to point out Florida's regression on offense under interim coach Steve Addazio. Addazio, the Gator's offensive coordinator this year and the likely fill-in for Meyer should he not return in full, took a killer offensive outfit returning nine starters from 2008 and made it look unimaginative or worse in narrow wins over Arkansas and LSU and the loss to Alabama.
The immediate returns on Meyer's odyssey are grim. Five-star offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson was "confused" by Meyer's announcement, and his father Sean related that Henderson considers Meyer's exit more than probable. "We have to look at it as a big chance that Meyer will not be at Florida," the elder Henderson told ESPN.
Four-star defensive lineman Johnathon Hankins of Michigan had Ohio State No. 1 and Florida No. 2, but the news on Meyer tilted Hankins toward a Buckeye commitment. Though Florida remains second on his list, Hankins stated he will commit later this week, and says people should expect an announcement for Ohio State.
Additionally, Jordan Hicks' mother said she was "surprised" by Meyer's announcement, and the five-star OLB will be "waiting out the situation" at Florida while he ponders his decision. Not a good sign for a kid that was already getting eyes for Texas.
Beyond signing more players, Meyer's return is crucial in keeping the players Florida already has signed. According to ESPN, five-star running back Mack Brown reaffirmed his commitment to Florida, but only after hearing that Meyer would return. Expect similar reaction stories from Matt Elam, Demar Dorsey, and Travon Van—they're only coming if Meyer will be there.
Meyer is over a barrel—promise a return he's not likely to make, and appear dishonest come fall; actually return and risk his health and family; or retire in full, and leave Florida in a shambles.
How much water will his guarantee hold? We'll find out in the next month, but the immediate reactions suggest that the promise is not invulnerable, and could still be quite costly.
With a new defensive coordinator on the way and only a slim promise that Meyer will still be around, those players who had committed their futures to Meyer (and Strong) suddenly find themselves strangers in a foreign-looking land.
Meyer is the future of Florida, but without him, the Gators could find their recent successes a part of their largely undecorated past.