GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tim Tebow started to walk off stage, then called an audible. The Florida quarterback turned around, grabbed the microphone and told teammates, coaches and fans exactly what they wanted to hear.
"Oh, by the way, let's do it again. I'm coming back," Tebow said.
Never miss a local story.
Tebow thrilled more than 40,000 at the school's national championship celebration Sunday by announcing plans to return for his senior season, with hopes of leading the Gators to their first undefeated season and fourth national title.
"Overall, I just felt loyal to this place," Tebow said. "I feel like I'm a role model, and a lot of times people start things and don't finish them. I didn't want to be like that. I wanted to be loyal to the university. I wanted to finish what I started and play another year."
Tebow threw 32 touchdown passes in 2007, ran for 23 more scores and became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. He did less this season, but accomplished more by leading Florida to its second national title in three years.
Tebow completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,746 yards with 30 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also led the team in rushing for the second straight year, gaining 673 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound left-hander was 18-for-30 passing for 231 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions in Thursday night's 24-14 victory against Oklahoma in the Bowl Championship Series title game. He also ran for 109 yards, most of it in the second half.
There was speculation he might head to the NFL, especially since he has talked about wanting a bigger platform to express his religious message and expand his community work, but Tebow said he never strongly considered leaving early.
Coach Urban Meyer set him up with several NFL coaches to talk about his pro prospects. Although Tebow said he got mixed feedback, nothing he heard swayed his decision.
"It was tough because some of that stuff is tempting at the next level and everything that goes along with it, especially ending on a great note, ending with the national championship and moving on from there," Tebow said. "I love these guys and Coach Meyer and this program too much and I feel we can still end on a bang next year."
The Gators had three seniors in the starting lineup against the Sooners, meaning just about everyone could return next season. Receiver Percy Harvin and linebacker Brandon Spikes, fellow juniors considering turning pro, didn't address their futures Sunday. The deadline for underclassmen to apply for the NFL Draft is Thursday.
Meyer said assistant offensive line coach John Hevesy has decided to leave Florida for a job at Mississippi State. Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio also missed the celebration because he was in the hospital recovering from a knee infection.
Meyer said Tebow's announcement clearly means a lot.
"There's the functional football player part of it, but we all know it's much deeper than that," he said. "He is so good for college football. He is unbelievable. When my daughter texts me in the morning the Bible verse he has under his eyes it's good for college football, it's good for young people, it's good for everything."
Tebow spent most of Saturday with Meyer and told the coach his decision late in the day. Not coincidentally, Meyer said he enjoyed his best night's sleep in a while. It eased Tebow's mind, too.
"I could barely sleep as it is, thinking about it, and I just wanted to enjoy winning a national championship and not have to worry about this," Tebow said. "It was a little bit of a burden on me. I wanted to just get it done with and enjoy winning a national championship for a week or so."
Still, Tebow wasn't sure how to announce his intentions. Meyer suggested rewarding fans who showed up for the celebration on a cloudy, drizzly day. Tebow obliged, but not until the very end of the 75-minute celebration.
The day started with a replay of the title game, then everyone watched a highlight video of the season. Meyer introduced his seniors, his assistants and then handed things over to players. They quickly turned it into a combination of Dancing With the Stars and American Idol. Safety Major Wright and defensive line coach Dan McCarney danced on stage and the team chaplain sang a cappella.
Throughout it all, fans kept chanting, "One more year, one more year." Tebow laughed them off at first. He might have even duped some fans when he walked on stage to the "Superman" theme song and started thanking everyone.
Then he called his audible.