COLUMBUS, Ohio — "Always a Gator."
Those are the words that Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has used during the multiple occasions in which he's been asked about his former employer. After all, depending on your feelings toward Steve Spurrier, Meyer is arguably the greatest coach in Florida history, leading the Gators to a 65-15 record and two national championships in his six seasons in Gainesville.
But starting with the way he left—and then returned and left again—only to end up coaching the Buckeyes a year later, Meyer's lifelong attachment to Florida has mostly been one-sided of late. After accepting the Ohio State head coaching position in late 2011, it didn't take long for "Urban Liar" shirts to pop up on the UF campus, the memories of two crystal balls in three seasons quickly forgotten.
In the three years since Meyer came to Columbus, the complications in his relationship with the Gators have only grown, with incidents taking place both in the media and on the recruiting trail. The latest chapter in the Meyer-Florida story was written on Tuesday, when 4-star 2015 Cleveland Benedictine linebacker Jerome Baker flipped his commitment from the Gators to the Buckeyes.
Despite his July commitment to Florida—which came mere hours before LeBron James announced that he'd be returning to Ohio—Baker always seemed destined to wind up at Ohio State. As recently as late September, he appeared to be all but uncommitted as a prospect, attending the Buckeyes' battle with Cincinnati in an Ohio State hat.
But while it may have only seemed like a matter of time until Baker flipped to the Buckeyes, the situation is a little more complicated than that. This wasn't an Ohio kid getting infatuated with a warm-weather school and committing on the spot. The 6'2", 210-pounder's interest in becoming a Gator was real.
Baker's high school coach, Joe Schaefer, played for Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin at Bowling Green. In a recent story by Marc Tracy of The New York Times, Baker spoke of his desire to play in the SEC in order to enhance his potential of becoming an NFL prospect.
"I don’t want any questions of, ‘You went to the Big Ten?’ There’s not that many teams that are good in the Big Ten anymore," Baker said. “I wanted to say that I played against great backs every game. I wanted the challenge. It was a test of myself, my pride. And the SEC is the biggest test.”
That, however, wasn't enough for Florida to overcome the uncertainty surrounding Meyer's replacement, Will Muschamp, who has lost 10 of his last 13 games as the Gators' head coach. And rather than run to another SEC school, Baker opted to look down I-71 to Columbus, where Meyer maintained that he'd always have a home with the Buckeyes.
"He always wished Jerome the best even when he said he was going to Florida," Baker's father, Jerome Baker Sr., told Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports (subscription required). "That relationship was always strong.”
But that won't stop the perception from being that Meyer is kicking the Gators while they're down as Florida stumbles toward its second consecutive season of irrelevance. After all, this isn't the first time that the third-year Ohio State head coach has gone up against his former employer for a highly touted prospect.
The most memorable incident came shortly after Meyer signed on with the Buckeyes and instantly went to work recruiting 5-star wide receiver Stefon Diggs. And although the Olney, Maryland, native ultimately ended up with the hometown Terrapins, he became a central figure in one of the earliest signs of friction between Florida and Meyer.
According to Sporting News, Meyer attempted to dissuade Diggs from signing with the Gators by telling him that he wouldn't let his own son go to Florida due to character issues that existed within the UF program. Meyer, for his part, denied any negative recruiting against the Gators when it came to Diggs.
“I love Florida; I’ll always be a Gator. My motives were pure as gold when I left," Meyer said. "We left Florida because I was dealing with health issues that I’ve since learned how to control.”
It wouldn't be the last time that Meyer and the Gators would bump heads on the recruiting trail.
In 2013, Ohio State turned in Florida to the NCAA for an alleged secondary violation involving a "bump" with now-Buckeyes freshman running back Curtis Samuel. Although Meyer claimed to be unaware that his current program had reported his former one, sources told ESPN's Brett McMurphy otherwise.
The Gators were cleared of any wrongdoing by both the SEC and NCAA.
"We didn't do anything wrong. The University of Florida didn't do anything wrong. And so we appreciated our friends from Ohio making sure we're compliant with NCAA rules," Muschamp sarcastically stated at last year's SEC media days. "They certainly know a little bit about that subject."
Other recent Meyer-Florida incidents have included former Gators star Tim Tebow allegedly recruiting on behalf of Ohio State and Meyer's wife, Shelley, telling Bucknuts.com (h/t The Gainesville Sun) that her perception of Florida fans is that they feel like they were left at the altar. By comparison, Baker's flip seems benign, as even the most hardcore of the Gators faithful would be hard-pressed to blame the 17-year-old for taking his talents elsewhere right now.
But nevertheless, it serves as a reminder of the long—and still growing—history between Meyer and Florida.
Always a Gator? Maybe in Meyer's mind. But in Gainesville, that's not necessarily up to him to decide.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBStats and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.