December 28, 2009

Meyer’s next move could define him

MORE STORIES: Gut feeling he'll coach | Meyer meets media in New Orleans

PROSPECT REACTION: Jon Dowling | Joshua Shaw

Urban Meyer looked exhausted, emotionally spent and at times confused. He sounded conflicted.

In a rather incredible news conference to explain his decision not to step down as Florida's football coach but rather take a "leave of absence," he used terms such as "full speed ahead," said he expected to coach the 2010 opener and discussed the need to "keep this thing rolling."

Then he'd say something such as, "You put business before God and family, you've got a problem."

He's right about that, you just hope he figures out how. The way he tried to explain himself Sunday revealed a man trying to head in two directions, argue two things, live two lives at once. He sounded like a guy who was still putting business before God and family.

This was and is Meyer's decision and Meyer's decision alone. These are family issues, individual choices. Only in the bizarre world of college football could the public be invited into the middle. It was uncomfortable to watch, let alone write about.

Meyer deserves credit for acknowledging his frailties. He's far ahead of so many of his coaching peers, who like him give up everything in the 24-hour-a day, 365-day-a-year pursuit of glory. Heck, he's far ahead of many everyday people.

Big-time coaching is an all-encompassing job. There's always another bit of film to watch, another recruit to call, another booster group to fly and visit. Coaches often talk about being father figures to their players, but too often they're not ones to their own kids. They fight to balance work and family like everyone else. They just lose more often.

And so here had been Meyer, 45, suddenly coming to grips with it all. He had been darn near perfect on the field, won two BCS titles. In a series of introspective interviews after he said he was quitting, he admitted he was imperfect away from the spotlight.

He was a workaholic. He was a distracted parent and husband. He emailed recruits while in church. He rarely ate. He slept even less. He arrived for work predawn and left post-midnight. He could never, ever turn off his competitive drive. The need to win had overtaken him. He suffered chest pains for the past four years and sideline headaches long before that. After losing the SEC title game earlier this month, he wound up unconscious and rushed to the hospital with heart trouble.

He was killing himself, he said.

"It was self-destructive," he told the New York Times.

There was no way to stop, he said Saturday. He had to quit cold turkey, like an alcoholic and booze.

"I didn't want there to be a bad day where there were three kids sitting around wondering what to do next," he told the Times. "It was the pattern of what I was doing and how I was doing it."

When he informed his family, his 18-year-old daughter cheered, "I get my daddy back," he told the Times. He said his 16-year-old daughter told him she didn't think they had engaged in an actual conversation in two years. This was a guilt-ridden man laying it all out there. It was the most human Urban Meyer had ever sounded. There isn't a parent alive who couldn't empathize.

He called the entire thing "a sign from God." It was an incredible decision backed by powerful, eloquent words.

Then he went to practice Sunday morning and watched as his players put forth great effort just hours after hearing that their coach was leaving them. He loved it.

And that was enough to change his mind. That was it. Suddenly he'd take some time off, but he expects to be back.

"It was our players," he said.

You can only hope that Meyer finds what he needs to find during his time off. How long that is or how "off" it is remains to be seen.

If he needs time to get his health together, why is he even coaching the Sugar Bowl? Why is he going through the rigors of game preparation for a game that means nothing?

When the team returns to Gainesville, he needs to replace several assistant coaches, including a defensive coordinator. Is he going to delegate that? Then recruiting kicks into high gear. If losing - or the fear of losing - is what causes him so much inner turmoil, then not signing top recruits practically guarantees future trouble. Can he really stay away completely? Is he not going to make phone calls or host prospects?

It's not like he's going to the Bahamas.

"I'm not a person who lies around," he said.

"I'm going to get this fixed," he said Sunday, and he didn't mean medically, although by refusing to discuss his medical condition he hinted that there may be a pending procedure. What he was again acknowledging is that it's his very essence that needs to get fixed. His Type-A personality is what made him successful. How does he change that and still win?

More than once Meyer has brought up the 2007 death from a heart attack of Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser. Meyer would be best served focusing on how Prosser lived, not died. Prosser was a coach who carved out significant time for family and outside interests such as reading, history and travel. He was the antithesis of the over-consumed coach.

Meyer is the poster child for it.

"Relentless effort," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley described Meyer's work ethic, admitting he's feared for Meyer's health for five years.

"You can't keep up that pace," Foley said.

You can only hope Meyer doesn't try. You can only hope that the step he took in admitting his weakness isn't lost. You can only hope he's serious about this. You can only hope that he figures out how to not take the losing personally, how to give his assistants more authority, how to back away from the job and truly embrace the rest of his life. You can only hope next year is different than this year; he's 12-1 and miserable.

Meyer kept talking Sunday about how he felt a need to not let the people around him down - his boss, his staff, his players. That's a nice sentiment, but if those people really love him, they wouldn't care if he coached the Sugar Bowl. They wouldn't care if he never won another game. They wouldn't care if he wound up coaching at Florida State.

Consider your best friend in the world. If he was suffering from stress-induced heart problems and overworking himself to the point of deep regret and personal concern, would you encourage him to continue with the job?

"At the end of the day," Meyer said, "you're going to be judged by the kind of husband and father you are."

He kept saying the right things Sunday. Then he'd say the opposite.

This was as raw and as exposed as you'll ever see a major figure in sports. He was like millions of us, trying to be everything to everyone, trying to fight through confusion and chart a course, trying to do the right things, even if they require opposite actions.

You can only hope Urban Meyer figures it out. Sunday he was still trying to be all things to all people, still trying to fool everyone, mostly himself.

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