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Meyer's UF stops slow to minitour

Gator clubs bemoan fewer appearances.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published May 24, 2007


When the Pinellas County Gator Club advertised a rare appearance today by Urban Meyer, it wasn't just some catchy promotion to draw fans in.

It's a fact.

Meyer's appearance this evening at Bright House Networks Field is one of only seven Gator Gatherings of boosters and fans this spring, a drastic reduction from the 20 stops the Florida football coach made two years ago.

Gone are appearances before fans and boosters in places such as Spring Hill, Eustis and Sarasota. And gone is a lucrative fundraising opportunity for many clubs.

"The University Athletic Association made a decision before we hired Meyer to evaluate time demands, " said Steve McClain, UF assistant athletics director for sports information. "This was not requested by Coach Meyer, but we were being proactive on his behalf. Our intention is to provide an environment that will allow him to be with us well into the future, while enabling him to coach his team and see his young family grow."

Last year, Meyer made 14 appearances. This year, coming on the heels of winning a national championship, Clearwater is the final stop in a Meyer tour that included Atlanta, Tallahassee, Kissimmee/Orlando, Jacksonville, West Palm Beach and Fort Myers. By comparison, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden had 18 appearances on this year's schedule.

The Gators encourage other clubs in each area to participate.

Tonight's event includes club members from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Citrus, Polk, Hernando and Pasco counties.

"We realize that being on a Thursday evening, it's tough for people in the far-out counties to get here, " said Pete Tanner, vice president of communications for the Pinellas County Gator Club. "If we can get those people, it's great, but we know it might be tough. So we tried to focus on the local area as much as possible."

At one time, touring the state was the primary way for coaches to get information out about their team and pump up interest and publicity. But in this era of TV, the Internet and newspapers that cover the program full time, the emphasis has changed. McClain said Meyer and his staff had a four-week stretch in April and May in which they were on the road recruiting. Add to that the sponsorship commitments (camps, golf tournaments) and the day-to-day duties of coaching, and time becomes a premium.

Sarasota Gator Club president Christine Sensenig understands, but is also sympathetic to the feelings of her members, many of whom were angered by the UAA's decision when they received letters in February.

"I got e-mails and letters and quite a few people were not happy, " Sensenig said. "The overall theme was 'it's part of his job to come visit us, ' especially from (older) grads who for 40 years have been used to that access. I'm disappointed for my members, but I understand the demands on the coach, going 18 hours a day for nine or 10 months. He's on most of the year. The little bit of time he has with his family I won't begrudge him."

Some of Sensenig's members attended the Fort Myers gathering 74 miles away, while a few will drive Clearwater.

And then there is the financial hit. Most clubs used the Gator Gatherings as a primary fundraisers, particularly for the scholarship fund. Those that have joined as a group on regional appearances split the proceeds. Some who don't get Meyer will get an assistant or another member of the athletic department to speak, but it's not quite the same.

"It definitely hurts us in our ability to raise funds, " Sensenig said. "We usually have about 450 people attend a Gathering, while we'll have 50-75 at a regular meeting. The average club will raise $7, 000 to $12, 000 (at a Gathering), and the bigger ones can raise about $20, 000. So we're certainly going to have to think of new ways to raise money. This gives us a chance to come up with new ideas."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

Meyer's bay area stop

When: Today (tour's final stop), doors open at 5, starts at 6.

Where: Bright House Networks Field, Clearwater.

Tickets: Available at the door for $40 ($15 for children under 10).

Other Meyer stops

Atlanta, Tallahassee, Kissimmee/Orlando, Jacksonville, West Palm Beach, Fort Myers.