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Meyer's leave could change dynamic in SEC, state of Florida

Technically, Urban Meyer did nothing wrong. As strange and as stunning as the Florida coach's 24-hour career crisis has been, it's hard to criticize his handling of a life-altering decision, especially when it involves health factors no one but he can comprehend.

Yet there's no escaping that in the span of 24 hours, everything we thought we knew about the immediate future for both Meyer and Florida has irreparably changed.

On Saturday afternoon, the college football world went about its business assuming Florida to be one of its reigning bedrocks and Meyer the program's unflappable, steel-fisted leader. By Sunday afternoon, the sport's winningest active coach sat at a dais in New Orleans looking exhausted, emaciated and overwhelmed as he discussed his decision to take an indefinite leave of absence -- rather than flat-out resign, as he'd originally announced the previous evening -- from the Gators.

"After careful consideration and spending time at practice this morning with my players and coaches that I care so deeply about, I accepted this offer to improve my health," said Meyer, 45. "We've developed a program we're very proud of at Florida. I owe it to our players and our staff and my family and the University of Florida to get healthy and coach."

As of 6:43 p.m. Saturday, Florida appeared to be searching for a new coach. There was a moment when it appeared Bob Stoops might be roaming the sidelines at the Swamp come fall. By 1 p.m. Sunday, the Gators' current coach had decided to stay after all. The only person that might take his place, temporarily, is interim coach Steve Addazio.

Sportscasters rushed to proclaim the "sigh of relief" that must be sweeping through Gainesville. In truth, Florida's program may face more uncertainty in the months ahead than if Meyer had stuck with his original plan.

Sure, next year figured to bring a potentially tumultuous dose of transition, what with the departure of Tim Tebow, Charlie Strong and a slew of NFL prospects that formed the core of a 25-2 run these past two seasons. But as long as it had Meyer and his career .841 winning percentage, Florida's drop-off figured to be slim. Its offense might look different with pro-style quarterback John Brantley, but there'd still be playmakers galore around him. Meyer was still bringing in five-star recruits by the bushel.

Now, for the first time since the days of Ron Zook, it's impossible to predict what the future holds in Gainesville. Will Meyer be gone for two months or two years? He said Sunday his gut tells him he'll be back on the sideline come fall, but that possibility may depend more on his heart, which reportedly requires medical attention.

Apparently, beneath that tough shell and hypercompetitive personality was a man who for years had been dealing with an enormous physical toll -- a cyst on his brain that caused splitting stress-induced headaches, recurring chest pains, a loss of consciousness after the Dec. 5 SEC title game.

At Sunday's press conference, Meyer unconvincingly brushed off reporters' questions about whether he needs a new heart valve (as has been speculated) or whether his doctors have told him that he needs to step away. The only thing he adamantly denied was the rumor he'd had a heart attack.

His chest pains "started about four years ago, and became more serious two years ago. ... I was advised I had to get this right or it could lead to damage. "

If Meyer had announced his leave of absence from the get-go, perhaps it wouldn't seem so severe. But the fact that he was scared enough for his family's well being to initially quit his job -- telling The New York Times "I didn't want there to be a bad day where there were three kids sitting around wondering what to do next" -- carries serious consequences that, in the cut-throat world of college football, could cause significant problems for the Gators.

Even as fellow SEC coaches like Tennessee's Lane Kiffin were expressing the appropriate remorse publicly Saturday night ("The SEC & college football are suffering a huge loss," Kiffin tweeted), privately he, Georgia's Mark Richt and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier had to be salivating at the prospect of Meyer's departure. The SEC East was suddenly open for takers.

That doesn't change just because Meyer's hiatus is now temporary.

Florida will be at a disadvantage recruiting-wise for as long as Meyer's status is in limbo, and even when he returns, the famously relentless recruiter might not be able to pick off where he left off. (Rivals.com ranks the Gators' current crop of 20 commitments No. 3 in the country.) You can be sure Kiffin, Nick Saban, Les Miles and the rest of Meyer's SEC rivals will be providing prospects with a friendly reminder of the Florida coach's health situation. You never know when he might get another headache and jump ship on you, son. Crass, but inevitable.

Meyer's leave could also affect dynamics within the state of Florida. Suddenly, the race is on for Bowden's Florida State successor, Jimbo Fisher, to seize on the uncertainty in Gainesville. Fisher has already made a remarkably quick impact, landing commitments from two of the top prospects in the country (cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and linebacker Jeff Luc), but was still facing a colossal challenge trying to close the gap between his rebuilding program and Meyer's assembly line. Suddenly he's been gifted a window of opportunity.

But given the two, equally unexpected scenarios that flashed before Florida fans' eyes this weekend, the prospect of Meyer's return seems far more promising than his departure. As one Gator zealot texted me Sunday: "For the other choices out there, I'd still rather have Urban."

It's hard to blame him.

Meyer, whom SI.com recently named the sport's Coach of the Decade, has made such a profound impact on Florida in just five seasons that the thought of someone else coaching the Gators seemed no less unfathomable Saturday night than the day Steve Spurrier abruptly resigned eight years earlier. Had he walked away, Meyer still would have accomplished more in nine years (a 95-18 record, two BCS championships, an undefeated season at Utah) than most head coaches have their entire careers.

"Not to give it a shot wouldn't be fair to the university or to Coach Meyer," said AD Jeremy Foley. "Obviously, our primary concern is Coach Meyer and his health, taking this opportunity to get him fixed. There's no question it's the right thing to do for the institution and it's the right thing for Coach Meyer."

But it's simply impossible to predict what path he and the Gators will take from here.

The most obvious comparison is to that of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who took a leave for most of the 1994-95 season following offseason back surgery. Though he returned the next year and eventually brought the Blue Devils back to three more Final Fours, winning his third national title in 2001, the program first had to suffer through a 13-18 debacle and a first-round tourney exit the year after that.

Furthermore, Krzyzewski had a specific health issue he needed to address. By his own admission, Meyer's own extreme single-mindedness and self-punishing ways have contributed to his stress-related symptoms. Fixing an organ is one thing; fixing one's internal makeup is a far more vexing chore.

If and when he does return, Meyer may need to take on more of a CEO-type approach -- cut back on the long hours and travel miles, let his assistants do more of the dirty work. Yet that would fly in the face of the very reasons he's been so successful (his first-hand involvement from the early stages of players' recruitment, his personal craftsmanship of Florida's offense).

"Urban Meyer is very, very successful because of how he has done things," said Foley. "The challenge is to help him [reevaluate] how he does things but not take away the edge that makes him successful."

Having produced two national championships, a recent 22-game winning streak and a Heisman Trophy winner in his first five seasons, Meyer was well on his way to building a dynasty in Gainesville. In the ideal scenario for both he and his school, he'll return to his office sometime this offseason with a new perspective and to the sideline this fall with renewed zeal. He and the Gators will begin pursuit of their next trophy as if he never skipped a beat.

"Coach Meyer needs to be the Coach Meyer we all know, and we want to help him deal with it," said Foley. "We're very confident we can keep this thing going in the right direction."

In a more realistic scenario, however, Florida could be in for some rough sledding ahead. The demands of the job are too great, the SEC too competitive to be without one's head coach for an extended period.

But even the biggest Gator hater should be wishing Meyer good health and a speedy return. Everywhere he's been, at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, Meyer has orchestrated remarkable transformations. Now comes his chance to perform one for himself.

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