Destin—Before Tuesday, the last time I spoke to Urban Meyer in person was on the Friday before the SEC championship game in December. Tim Brando and I had a chance to visit with the Florida head coach on the floor of the Georgia Dome prior to No. 1 Florida meeting No. 2 Alabama for a spot in the BCS title game. I remember that he looked tired and way too thin.
As we walked away I remember saying to Brando: “He does not look good.”
A lot has happened to Urban Meyer since that Friday in Atlanta and yesterday, when he stood before a podium and actually laughed while he addressed the media at the SEC Spring Meetings began. Some of us who cover Florida wondered if we would ever see him laugh again. He took some good-natured ribbing from the press and was able to give it back with a smile. We sure didn’t think we’d see that again.
Here is the short version of Meyer’s unusual journey: In 2009 the strain of trying to repeat as national champions and stay No. 1 took their toll on Meyer, who won’t turn 46 years old until July 10. He had been secretly battling chest pains with no known cause. On Dec. 26, 2009 Meyer shocked the college football world by announcing that he was going to retire for health reasons. Then he shocked it again a day later in a bizarre press conference in New Orleans by saying that he was going to simply take a leave of absence.
The flip-flop opened Meyer up to waves of criticism and speculation. A lot of it was deserved. Some of it was not. It came on top of a season that saw him fined $30,000 by the SEC office for complaining about officiating. It came on top of a poorly-made decision to suspend linebacker Brandon Spikes for only a half-game for sticking his hand in the facemask of a Georgia running back. It came on top of the suspension of defensive end Carlos Dunlap for being arrested on the Monday before the SEC championship game. It ultimately came on top of a total meltdown against Alabama at the Georgia Dome. Alabama was the better team. Florida looked dazed and confused and tired. So did its head coach.
“Last year we kind of brought some of that stuff on ourselves. It was a crazy year,” Meyer said. “Every time you turned on the TV it was ‘Gators This” and “Gators This.”
Meyer’s diagnosis was uncertain as was his future as Florida’s football coach. And in the absence of good information, which Meyer did not provide, speculation filled the void. That is the reality of the 24-hour news cycle.
Was he in or was he out? Was he telling the truth about any of this? Was he really going to return as coach and if he did, could he take a bunch of time off and keep the edge that enabled him to win two national championships in three years (2006, 2008)? Could Urban Meyer even BE Urban Meyer is he wasn’t obsessive about the details of his football program?
On Tuesday Urban Meyer looked like a man who had been shaken up over the past year and in the process had learned an important life lesson. He hopes to take that lesson, move forward and be just as good at his job as before.
“I have to be smarter in the future and I’m going to be,” said Meyer, set to begin his sixth season as Florida’s head coach. “ (People said) Just take care of yourself and I didn’t do that. The last year and a half was really a bizarre deal.”
The good news, Meyer said Tuesday, is that he finally got a diagnosis for his ailment: esophageal spasms. They create chest pains, which Meyer said he had been having for years, and can be treated with medication. Meyer said the medication works and that he has not an an episode since January.
Meyer said that not knowing the cause of his ailment only added to the stress of his job.
“When they finally say ‘this is it. Take this,’ then you feel a lot better about things,” he said. “Okay, good. Let’s go.”
Losing to Alabama in the SEC championship game cost Florida a shot at another BCS national title. But it may ultimately serve as the motivational spring board for the Gators to begin life after Tim Tebow.
“I hope that it will,” said Meyer. “I’ve had some discussions with our coaches about it. Some people overlook that but when you’re talking about a group of 18-to-20 year olds you need to talk about what the rallying cry will be.
“Last year it was hard to come up with one. This year it will be a little easier.”
After losing Tebow, one of the most decorated players in college football history, and five drafted players from the Florida defense, the Gators are supposed to take a step back in 2010. Those expectations—or the lack of them—may also be a good thing, said Meyer.
“I don’t want to say that our guys have a chip on their shoulder but we expect to compete for Atlanta (the SEC championship game) every year,” he said. “They’ve heard what people have said. I’m not doing all the talking. I’ve been doing some listening to our players. I like the look in their eye. We’ve still got some really, really good players.”
Finally, Meyer said that he is learning to trust the people who work for him and not try to micromanage every detail of the football program. That, if he can actually pull it off, represents a big change for Meyer, who wants to micromanage everything.
“I have a better appreciation for the guys around me,” said Meyer. “You can just bolt for five days. I’ve never done that in my life. But you know what? The stadium is still standing. Guys are working out and getting faster. And guys are graduating.”
So will Urban Meyer’s new outlook on life and coaching last? Or, will he return to his old habits under the weekly pressure of game preparation this fall? Coaching at the top of his profession and be excessively demanding and unforgiving.
Florida goes to Alabama on Oct. 2. If the two teams are undefeated and ranked in the top five, That week Meyer’s new life will be put to the ultimate test.
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