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December 5, 2008

Tebow was close to joining Crimson Tide

Half an hour before holding a nationally televised news conference to announce his college choice, the five-star quarterback prospect still hadn't made up his mind.

Would he attend the home-state school that each of his parents had attended? Or would he go out of state and join the coach he had grown to respect through the recruiting process?

He prayed over the decision and weighed the pros and cons with his high school coach before finally choosing to stay home and play for the school he had cheered for all his life.

And that's why Tim Tebow will be quarterbacking Florida instead of Alabama this weekend in the SEC Championship Game.

"It really was a tough decision," Tebow said. "I really liked Coach [Mike] Shula, I thought he was a great coach. And I loved Alabama the passion they had for football, the passion the fans had and just everything. I thought it was a great town, and I really enjoyed it there.

"But in the end, I loved Coach [Urban] Meyer. Just being a Gator, I couldn't pass it up."

Long before he was the most recognizable name in college football, Tebow was one of the most celebrated recruits in the nation. His combination of athleticism on the field and character off the field made the former Ponte Vedra Beach (Fla.) Nease standout the type of prospect who could change a program's fortunes with one stroke of a pen.

Tebow threw for 9,940 yards and 95 touchdowns at Nease and led his school to its first state title in school history. He also rushed for 3,169 yards and 63 touchdowns during his high school career. Rivals.com rated Tebow as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2006 recruiting class.

"Every major college coach in America came to our campus," said then-Nease coach Craig Howard, who now is at Lake City (Fla.) Columbia. "A lot of times it was like a coaching convention in our stands. A lot of times [with other recruits], the assistant coach from a college will come or sometimes you're really fortunate to get a head coach to come. There were games where entire staffs were there from different schools. [You'd have] the entire staff from Alabama in one section and the entire staff from Florida in another section. It was pretty intense."

While college coaches couldn't predict that Tebow would win a national championship ring and a Heisman in his first two years of college, they had seen enough to know he was a star in the making.

"I was at Alabama for 17 years and I just finished my 22nd year of college football," said SMU director of football operations Randy Ross, who held a similar position on Shula's Alabama staff when Tebow was at Nease. "I think probably of all the kids I remember recruiting, we probably put as much effort in trying to sign Tim as any kid I've ever been around."

Where are they now?
Many of the key figures in the Tim Tebow recruiting saga have made major career chances since Tebow announced his plans to sign with Florida instead of Alabama.
Larry Fedora: He recruited Tebow to Florida while working as the Gators' offensive coordinator on Ron Zook's staff. Zook was fired in the fall of 2004 and Fedora was hired by Oklahoma State, yet he continued talking to Tebow and encouraged him to sign with Florida. Fedora now is the coach at Southern Miss, which went 6-6 and earned a New Orleans Bowl bid in his first season on the job.
Craig Howard: Tebow's coach at Ponte Vedra Beach (Fla.) Nease left for Lake City (Fla.) Columbia High after the 2007 season. He led Nease to Class 4A state runner-up finishes in 2006 and '07 after winning a state title with Tebow at quarterback in 2005.
Josh Portis: Considered the heir apparent to Chris Leak at quarterback for Florida for most of the 2005 season, Portis decided to transfer in December 2005, a few days before Tebow announced his decision. Portis' mother said at the time that Tebow's recruitment didn't factor into Portis' decision. Portis ended up at Maryland and saw time as a backup this season.
Mike Shula: The coach who nearly brought Tebow to Alabama got fired at the end of the 2006 regular season while Tebow was helping the Gators win the national title. He now is the quarterback coach for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. "I do talk to him every now and then," Tebow said. "We've talked a few times during the year. He's a great guy. I'm sorry about what happened to him at Alabama, but I think he's having a great time at Jacksonville and I think he's going to be a head coach eventually again."
Jevan Snead: After committing to Florida in the spring of 2005, Snead changed his mind and instead signed with Texas in February 2006. Snead later indicated Florida's recruitment of Tebow caused him to look elsewhere. Snead eventually transferred to Ole Miss, where he led the Rebels to a 31-30 upset of Tebow's Gators this season.

Ross noted that Alabama promised it wouldn't recruit any other quarterbacks from Tebow's class until he made a decision. Tebow attended three Alabama games during his senior season at Nease, with Tide fans often chanting his name and holding signs exhorting him to enroll there.

Tebow also developed a close relationship with Shula, who got to know the highly touted quarterback prospect well during the recruiting process. Durnig his in-home visit with Tebow, Shula went to school with the quarterback that morning and stayed with him until approximately 11 that night, according to Ross.

"I liked what he stood for on and off the field," Tebow said. "And 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. I liked him, and I thought it would be great playing for him."

Tebow was so unsure about which school he'd attend that neither Florida's Meyer nor Alabama's Shula felt particularly confident about where he would end up.

Meyer said he believed throughout most of the recruiting process that Tebow was leaning toward Alabama.

"He had his mind set for a while there to go to Alabama," Meyer said. "I thought our guys did a good job in trying to pull that one back because he's a Florida guy. But I was very concerned."

Alabama's staff was equally worried.

"We knew that Florida no doubt was going to be hard to beat just because of the fact he'd grown up a Florida fan and his parents had both gone to Florida, but we felt at the time we still had a chance," Ross said. "We fought it to the very day he made his announcement. The whole time, we knew it was going to be a real uphill battle to get him not to go to Florida."

Both coaching staffs had good reason to feel skittish. Tebow was legitimately undecided.

Howard said he spoke to Tebow and his parents at 8 a.m. the morning of his mid-December announcement. The quarterback hadn't made up his mind. Even after he changed into his coat and tie a half-hour before his 3 p.m. news conference, Tebow remained unsure of his final decision.

Tebow had developed a kinship with Shula during the recruiting process, but he also believed he could thrive in Meyer's spread offense. From the time Meyer began his coaching career at Bowling Green, Howard and Tebow had talked about how well that offense might suit his talents.

"At the end, I really just thought Florida was the best fit for me, playing for Coach Meyer and staying closer to home and staying in the state of Florida," Tebow said. "I think those factors kind of were the biggest things for me."

Once Tebow made his decision, he tried to call each coach before holding his news conference, though his cell phone went dead as he attempted to reach Meyer. Tebow did get through to Shula and had an emotional conversation with him.

"When he called Coach Shula, the tears were running down his cheeks," Howard said. "I felt really bad.

"Gosh, it was a tough decision for a young man to make."

The impact of Tebow's decision soon became obvious for both teams. Tebow earned plenty of playing time as a backup quarterback while helping Florida win a national title as a freshman in 2006. Last season, Tebow became the first sophomore to win the Heisman. Tebow now has the Gators two wins away from earning another national title.

"I knew when they signed him they were going to be a contender for the national championship more than one year," Ross said.

Tebow's decision to sign with Florida created an opportunity for John Parker Wilson to set most of Alabama's passing records and lead the Crimson Tide to an undefeated regular season this fall, though the program endured plenty of adversity along the way. Alabama went 13-13 during Tebow's first two years at Florida. The Tide fired Shula and replaced him with Nick Saban at the end of Tebow's freshman season with the Gators.

College football fans love to debate the domino effect of certain events that take place each season and affect multiple programs for many years to come. What if Pittsburgh hadn't upset West Virginia last year? What if Meyer had decided to coach Notre Dame instead of Florida? But this might be the biggest "what if" scenario of all: What if Tebow had signed with Alabama instead of Florida?

"We might all still be there if he'd come to Alabama," Ross said. "He was such a great kid that we were really happy for him, but we were disappointed tremendously when we didn't get him. I don't think you ever look back and say 'What if?' in this business, but with someone as good as he was, it's easy to wonder what he might have done."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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