For Meyer, Great Coaching Staff Critical to both Health and Success
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Urban Meyer has been to the dark place. He has stared in to the abyss and he has seen the worst of what college football can be.
In many ways, he has also seen the worst of what he can be.
After winning his second BCS national championship at Florida in January 2009, Meyer’s control over himself and the program began to spiral out of control. He lost his most trusted assistants, and a handful of others, including one who defected to coach for one of Meyer’s most hated SEC rivals.
The man who had always been in control of everything in his life was losing his grip.
“You’ve won two national championships; now what’s good enough?,” his wife, Shelley Meyer, said.
“There’s nothing ever good enough again. You have the fans on you, you have criticisms from the media, you’re missing your family because you’re pouring all of yourself into that job and you’re not seeing your kids like you think you should.”
The Heavy Burden of Success
It began to weigh heavy on Meyer, whose Gators began the 2009 season ranked No. 1 by the largest margin in the history of the AP preseason poll. They had Tim Tebow back at quarterback and star linebacker Brandon Spikes returned for his senior season, but the Gators had lost playmaker Percy Harvin, who elected to turn pro after his junior season.
They had also lost offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, who had been with Meyer every moment since his days as the wide receivers coach at Notre Dame. Mullen was a graduate assistant in South Bend, who eventually became his quarterbacks coach at Bowling Green and Utah before following him to Gainesville in 2005.
Mullen was considered to be one of the brightest offensive minds in college football, but he was also Meyer’s right-hand man.
The Gators went undefeated during the 2009 regular season, but they did not look like the same team that dominated just about everyone in 2008, including Alabama in the SEC title game and Oklahoma in the BCS Championship Game.
Tebow was dealing with concussion problems and Meyer was taking on more and more responsibility in the absence of Mullen, who had been intimately involved in running Meyer’s spread offense for the last decade.
“I think as it rolled on, we were dealing with magical things there,” Meyer said.
“I call it the pursuit of perfection. I think at the end of the day we all know there's no such thing. I fell victim to that.”
The Gators also fell, 32-13, in their rematch with Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship Game. Shortly after returning from Atlanta, Meyer was admitted into a Gainesville hospital suffering from chest pains and dehydration.
Stepping Away from the Game
After discussions with Shelley and his three kids, Meyer revealed his medical scare to the public and announced that he would resign as Florida's head coach due to health and family concerns following his team's Sugar Bowl appearance against Cincinnati on New Year’s Day.
“I have ignored my health for years, but recent developments have forced me to re-evaluate my priorities of faith and family,” Meyer stated on Dec. 26, 2009.
“I'm proud to be a part of the Gainesville community and the Gator Nation and I plan to remain in Gainesville and involved with the University of Florida.”
He had been dealing with frequent chest pains (caused by esophageal spasms) and severe headaches (due to an arachnoid cyst) for years, but one day after his resignation, Meyer announced that he was not leaving Florida. Instead, he would take an indefinite leave of absence.
Except Meyer never really left anything. He stopped traveling as much, but continued to recruit for the Gators all the way through National Signing Day. By the spring, he was back on the sidelines in his full-time position as Florida head football coach.
“When I coached at Florida I went through stages,” Meyer said.
“I hope I'm the same guy—not hope—I will be the same guy that (I was at) the beginning of the tenure. And that was a guy that did have balance, a guy that took care of himself, a guy that did not try to get involved and change everything.”
The Loss of Trust
Photo by Jm Davidson
For Meyer, the leave of absence should have been the wake up call he needed at Florida, but it wasn’t. He had just lost his trusted defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong, who became the head coach at the University of Louisville in December. His wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator, Billy Gonzales left to take a job on Les Miles’ staff at LSU.
“He was able to delegate early at Florida. He had a great staff that he could do that with, and just some things happened and he just took on too much on his own,” said Shelley Meyer, who has been very involved in Urban’s coaching career.
“You lose some of your great coaches that went and became head coaches themselves. You know, when your core staff, that great staff, started to pull apart, then you don't have the trust with maybe some new guys that you have to hire. It was just a whole lot of things.”
Without Mullen and Strong, the two guys he trusted most, Meyer began to lose control. He no longer felt comfortable delegating important tasks to his assistants, not if the Gators were going to compete for a third national championship.
He did more, spent less time with his family and even less time worrying about his healthy.
“I tried to do other people's jobs, because I'd sit in the staff room. I'd hear about all the nonsense going on and where were recruits, why they were going here, and what's going on,” Meyer said.
“That's age‑old. And I tried to, maybe a fault, I think some things were going on, obviously there were, because all you do is read the newspapers for the last 12 months or last two years, and we all make mistakes, but willful and intentful mistakes, I have a real problem with that.”
The End of Reason
Meyer had a huge problem. His life was falling apart. He was pulling away from his family and ignoring his health. There were times when he slept in his office and didn’t make it home to see his wife. It didn’t help that the Gators were struggling mightily in the first season without Tebow.
In their first game of the year against Miami University (Ohio), new quarterback John Brantley—the 2006 Gatorade National Player of the Year—had major problems running Meyer’s offense.
There were a number of fumbles, numerous bad snaps, some poor throws and lot of a frustration for Meyer and his offensive coordinator, Steve Addazio. The Gators would win their first four games, but got hammered by Alabama, 31-6, in Tuscaloosa. It was the start of a three-game losing streak, which ended with a 10-7 loss in The Swamp to Mississippi State and Dan Mullen.
The Gators rallied to beat Georgia in overtime the next week, but they would lose to both South Carolina and Florida State down the stretch before knocking off Penn State in the Outback Bowl.
It was before that game, on Dec. 8, 2010, Meyer again announced his retirement from coaching for much the same reasons he mentioned in December 2009: his family and his health.
“I had a health scare a couple of years ago that made me sit back, reflect. I didn't feel right, and I just took that opportunity to do two things. First of all, get my health get my family—I wanted to go spend time—I missed so much of them growing up,” he said.
“But I also went out and I researched and I spent time with colleagues, colleagues that I respect in this profession. Believe it or not there's lot of quality coaches out there that are still able to have a little bit of balance. I was proud I had balance for quite a while. I lost that near the end.”
Rebirth at Ohio State
Photo by Jim Davidson
That ability to hold on to his newfound balance was one of the biggest sticking points for Meyer during his negotiation with Ohio State. If he was going to come back, he was going to need to some help staying balanced.
That meant designated family vacations and more time on Ohio State’s private jet to see his daughters, who are playing volleyball at Georgia Tech and Florida Gulf Coast. It also meant the ability to hire quality assistant coaches that Meyer could depend on.
That started with keeping Luke Fickell, who had impressed both Urban and Shelley during his time as the interim head coach at Ohio State.
“He got dropped right into it without warning. He got dropped into this position and had to do that to pull this staff together and this team together,” Shelley Meyer said.
“And did a great job. He’s a very mature coach and he just did a great job, and we watched. We watched Ohio State. We watched him. We’re very, very excited that he’s going to stay with us. I feel really good about him helping Urban with all of this.”
With Fickell’s help, and potentially an all-star cast of assistant coaches that could include names like Mike Stoops and Tim Brewster, Shelley Meyer has faith that her husband will not return to the place he was in during his final two seasons at Florida.
“If you've ever been in a dark place before, you know you don't want to go back there,” she said.
“He did some work on himself. He knows he's not going back there. There are always concerns, but I'm feeling really confident that he knows exactly what he's doing.
“And he told me, 'I think you'll be really proud of me.'”
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