Monday December 28th, 2009

Forget the medical specifics, which Urban Meyer clearly didn't want to address on Sunday. If Florida's current coach/former coach/current coach-in-waiting doesn't radically change his approach to his job, he made the wrong choice Sunday.

Saturday night, the 45-year-old Meyer painted a Norman Rockwell picture in an interview with The New York Times. The coach, at Christmastime, surrounded by wife and children deeply concerned for his well-being, tells the brood he's walking away from his high-paying, high-profile job for everyone's sake. "I didn't want there to be a bad day," Meyer told the paper, "where there were three kids sitting around wondering what to do next."

Sunday afternoon at a press conference in New Orleans, Meyer painted a Daniel Moore picture. The coach, watching the Gators bounce around on the practice field, decides he simply can't leave his players. As they sit on a plane on the Gainesville Regional Airport Tarmac waiting to take off for New Orleans, he tells them he's not stepping down. He's only taking a leave of absence of indeterminate length. Moments earlier, he told his family the same thing. The scene probably wasn't so touching this time.

Obviously, this is Meyer's choice. It's his life.

But if he comes back to the Gators the same Urban Meyer who rampaged through college football first at Bowling Green, then at Utah and then at Florida, then he's risking that life. He knows this. He admitted as much Sunday. "I've had a 30-year coaching career in nine years," Meyer said. "You can't do that. I just have to be smart. I'm not very smart. That's part of the problem."

Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio will guide the program for a while, but Meyer said Sunday his gut feeling is that he will coach the Gators for the 2010 season.

Meyer said he has suffered chest pains for four years. For the past two years, he has suffered severe chest pains. Though Meyer refused to acknowledge whether he needs any medical procedure to fix his current ailment, any medical weakness combined with his damn-the-torpedos style is a deadly cocktail. Meyer works so hard he forgets to eat. He frets so much he practically melts away as seasons progress.

"Taking care of himself hasn't always been the highest on his list," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said Sunday. "I see lunches on his desk go uneaten. I see him in the middle of the season where he's dropped a bunch of weight. You get concerned about those things. I've seen it every single day for five years."

That has to stop if Meyer wants to keep his promise to his family -- the one that shares red blood, not orange and blue -- that he'll be around for a long, long time. If he wants to avoid another ambulance ride like the one he took Dec. 6, he can't stay at the office until 4 a.m. trying to decipher why his right tackle can't block the jet sweep perfectly. He can't blame himself every time one of his players flunks a class. Sunday, Meyer said he wasn't sure if delegate was the correct verb, but it was.

We glorify coaches who bring pillows to their offices to pull all-nighters. We hold in highest regard the ones who can visit five recruits between sunrises. We rarely think of their wives or children. We never worry about the dinners that grow cold on the table or the story times missed. Sure, the coaches make millions, but sometimes a kid just wants to play catch with his dad. We praise the effort, but we never worry a man might be working himself to death.

Then someone like Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser drops dead. We carefully examine the issue, and we dutifully quote coaches who swear they'll change their ways. Then they don't change a thing.

Meyer will have to change. "Is Urban Meyer going to be coaching football when he's 60 doing it the way he's doing it now? No," Foley said. "I knew that. I knew that when he signed his new contract. If the University of Florida got the entire contract out of him, we'd be lucky. You just see it. He can't keep up that pace."

Of course, there's a catch-22. Can a more laid-back Meyer succeed at the level to which Gator Nation has become accustomed? He may have to work even harder to erase the stain of this weekend. Meyer was understandably reluctant to release medical specifics, because any weakness will be exploited by the coaches recruiting against him. But by not revealing specifics, Meyer might have made the situation worse. Now, those other coaches can simply use their imaginations as they whisper in recruits' ears.

Foley understands all this, but he wants his man healthy. To Foley's credit, he offered Meyer a plethora of options -- including this leave of absence -- and didn't tell Meyer he was in or out. "Urban Meyer is very, very successful -- check the records -- because of how he has done things," Foley said. "Part of this process here is that he's going to have to evaluate how he's been doing things. ... What does that mean? We don't know. Are we all going to be here to help him? You're darn right we are. But that's the challenge."

Meyer has reinvented himself once, so maybe he can do it again. When Sonny Lubick replaced Earle Bruce at Colorado State, Rams assistant Meyer was shocked to learn he didn't have to scream every instruction. He could coach his players hard and love them hard.

Meyer probably doesn't want to hear this, because he heard it every day from Dec. 4, 2004 to Jan. 8, 2007, but he's going to have to be a little more like former Florida coach Steve Spurrier. Spurrier, now at South Carolina, doesn't pull all-nighters. He plays golf in the offseason, and he carves out time most days in season for workouts that make him healthier at 64 than many 30-year-olds. While Spurrier hasn't exactly dominated the SEC East at South Carolina, he kept a similar schedule while coaching the Gators to six SEC titles and a national title between 1990 and 2001. Few coaches had a hotter competitive fire than Spurrier circa 1996, but he knew how to flip the switch.

Meyer must acquire that skill if he wants to stick around for his family. "I have an obligation," Meyer said. "At the end of the day, you're going to be judged by the kind of father you are." While Meyer treats his players like sons, he's talking about the two young women and the boy who share his last name.

Foley always worried he would lose Meyer to burnout. "You're concerned that one day," Foley said, "he'll walk in and say he's leaving." This week, Meyer did that. Sunday, he changed his mind. It's up to Meyer and Foley now to make sure the Gators -- and, more importantly, one beautiful family -- don't lose their patriarch permanently.

Saturday, when it appeared Meyer would step down, Lou Holtz offered some sage commentary on ESPN. Holtz, who hired Meyer as an assistant at Notre Dame and who remains a mentor, repeated an old coaching chestnut: "If you can live without coaching, don't coach."

Maybe Meyer couldn't live without it. Hopefully, he won't let it kill him.

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