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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Hiram de Fries an unheralded but vital piece of Florida Gators' success

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Saturday, January 03, 2009

GAINESVILLE — Urban Meyer was in a hurry to leave Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for a recruiting trip on Dec. 19, the day of the Gators' final practice before Christmas break.

But Florida's coach stopped cold in his tracks when asked about a member of his staff, Hiram de Fries.Fascinating," Meyer said, breaking into a smile. "One of the most fascinating people I have ever met.

"How did you hear about him?"

It wasn't easy. De Fries, 67, isn't officially on the Gators staff, and he's adept at staying in the background of one of the most popular and scrutinized football programs in the country.

In the Gators' media guide, there's a mug shot of de Fries under the title of "Football Staff," but no bio.

Despite spending the past six seasons as Meyer's closest confidant at Utah and Florida, little has been revealed about de Fries, who politely declined to be interviewed for this story.

Meyer considers de Fries (pronounced "freeze'') "very important'' to his coaching success. The Hawaiian-born former lawyer and Shell Oil executive is sort of a guru to the Gators, dispensing wisdom and advice about life on and off the field.

"Every staff needs a little gray hair," said Chris Hill, the athletic director at Utah, where Meyer coached for two seasons before taking over at Florida. "He was a wonderful mentor for Urban. We had tremendous success in Urban's time here, and (de Fries) was really one of the key elements."

De Fries knows his Xs and Os - he was a center and long snapper at Colorado State in the 1960s - but his impact is mostly felt as a mentor and motivator.

"When coach Hiram says something, you listen," said Gators long snapper Butch Rowley, who has played five seasons with de Fries at Utah and Florida. "Football is not all about Xs and Os and players. It's about your lifestyle off the field, and if it weren't for coach Hiram, there would be a lot of different problems on our team. I can guarantee that."

De Fries was there for Meyer's undefeated, Fiesta Bowl-winning Utah team in 2004 and he was with Meyer when the Gators won the national championship in 2006. Now he hopes to be a part of another title run as Florida faces Oklahoma on Thursday night in the BCS Championship Game.

Immediate friendship

Meyer and de Fries met in 1990, when Meyer was a receivers coach at Colorado State and de Fries was on campus as a former CSU player. Meyer was impressed with de Fries' business success and leadership skills at Shell Oil, and they clicked.

Despite an age gap of 23 years, Meyer considers de Fries "one of my best friends I've ever had," and he asked him to join his staff at Utah six years ago as his "chemistry coach."

De Fries jumped at the chance, retiring from Shell to join Meyer as an unpaid consultant. After two years at Utah, Meyer didn't think twice about bringing de Fries with him to Florida as an unpaid volunteer.

Meyer put de Fries in charge of creating and updating his policy manual, which includes guidelines for conduct expected of players. If there's a misstep, Meyer consults de Fries before doling out punishment. When Meyer can't sit in on offensive or defensive meetings, de Fries is there to make sure players and coaches are adhering to Meyer's plan.

"Any staff decisions I have to make, I go through him, because he's been in human resources his whole life, a very successful businessman," Meyer said. "Every staff should have a guy like him - that doesn't have an agenda, just making sure everyone's on the same page."

If a player is having trouble in class, he talks to coach Hiram. If he has too many parking tickets, he talks to coach Hiram. When Meyer gets too fired up, coach Hiram is there to calm him down.

"If I ever had something I didn't want anyone to know, I'd tell coach Hiram," Rowley said. "He's probably the most fascinating person you'll ever meet. I feel like he's one of my grandpas."

Rowley said de Fries has a relationship "with every player on the team." De Fries doesn't make public appearances with the program, but he can be seen chatting with Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Tim Tebow and his father, Bob, after practice, or celebrating with players on the Georgia Dome turf after Florida beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.

"He's just a good guy that's a great role model for these kids," Meyer said.

Teacher of life

De Fries teaches the players the quirks he picked up in his years living in Hawaii - like eating eggs with spaghetti sauce or ways to prevent water from going up your nose when cliff diving.

He's not a chiropractor, but Utah players still asked de Fries to crack their backs and loosen their muscles on game days.

"He never told me a thing about football. His thing was just to develop young men," said Jesse Boone, a former offensive lineman at Utah. "He's kind of the glue that holds the whole family together."

At Utah, Meyer recruited several Polynesian players, and de Fries, who is Chinese/Hawaiian/Caucasian, was instrumental in their transition to life on the mainland, when they lived away from their families for the first time.

"He has a big heart," said Paul Soliai, a defensive tackle at Utah who now plays for the Dolphins. "I know he had other things to do, but he was always there for us, like another father figure."

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