It's not often a man emerges from Christmas so conflicted he comes off as equal parts George Bailey, Mr. Potter, Tiny Tim, Hamlet and Cindy Lou Who, but then, you can't expect consistency in crisis. Urban Meyer's holiday included a Boxing Day resignation ("I've got my daddy back...," said his daughter, Nikki), a whiplash change of mind, an indefinite leave of absence and a press conference in which his stonewall persona struggled to regain control after 24 hours of selective soul-baring. Who could look away? Such compelling and perhaps life-threatening gyrations provided all the theatre a distraction-hungry fan could hope for in the early dry days of bowl week. The Meyer story had everything, in fact, except the power to shock.
Of course, the revelation that the Florida head coach had been suffering from chest pains for years -- and not just in the wake of the Gators' 32-13 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship on Dec. 5 -- was news, and the idea that, at 45, he was set to walk away from the top job in college football and its attendant millions was jarring. But those close to Meyer had long been familiar with his health problems -- ranging from in-season weight loss to searing headaches to the ongoing threat of an arachnoid cyst on his brain -- and his intense, inherently at-odds devotion to family and coaching made his recent flip-flopping almost inevitable.
That Meyer happens to hail from the first generation of men expected to engage hands-on in family life is no coincidence, either. Despite the prominence his two national championships provided, over the last five years Meyer's personality barely dented the national consciousness; stiff and guarded in press conferences and on-field interviews, he always came off as tightly-wound, a slick and constant stranger. That didn't change much in New Orleans: Meyer stopped nearly every personal question cold. But the sincerity of his struggle was unmistakable, and in his new effort to find a balance between family and career, he became, for the first time, familiar. We all know someone like Meyer. Sometimes we see him in the mirror.
Indeed, it was intriguing to see the contrast, these past muddled days, between Meyer and his departing antagonist at Florida State, Bobby Bowden. The architect of the FSU program was decidedly old-school in his love for the military, his die-with-my-boots-on attitude toward work. No one could ever imagine him even thinking about quitting at 75, much less 45, or accuse him of not knowing his own mind.
Meyer? On Sunday he couldn't even begin to explain himself. He spoke of how he wanted to keep his family his No. 1 priority, yet said he expected to be the coach when Florida took the field next fall. He spoke of getting his health problems "fixed," admitted vaguely that there may be some procedures undergone, but also said how the plan was for him and his team to go "full steam ahead" for the upcoming Sugar Bowl. He seemed both scared and determined, rattled yet unyielding, a man caught between what he knows is important and who and what he truly is. Asked what had led to his health problems -- his own intensity or the high-pressure job of coaching, Meyer smiled and uttered his most revealing word of the day: "Yes."
Why did he change his mind about quitting? Meyer says it's because his players' attitude and demeanor in practice Sunday touched him deeply, made him realize what he owed the university and the program. Maybe that's true. Meyer isn't being cute when he says his players are his second family, his "sons;" he lives that devotion, demands that his assistants live it, too, and thus he's better than almost any coach alive in creating a program's tough-love unity -- and knows it. Meyer also knows it's rare for a man to discover such skill in himself, and he's smart enough to sense that walking away from that without being certain will leave an abiding emptiness.
I knew the feeling. Not only because I'm a contemporary of Meyer's, another 40-something with three kids and a career that takes me too often away, but because I'd also gotten an early glimpse of his struggle. When I first spoke to Meyer and his wife, Shelley, last July in Gainesville, they spoke openly about his ambitions and failings, his headaches; he revealed the existence of the cyst on his brain for the first time. He didn't say a word about chest pains. Maybe Meyer wanted to keep that private. Maybe he thought he had them under control.
Shelley, a psychiatric nurse, spoke then of just how damaging coaching was both to her husband and family; any loss, much less the one to Alabama that helped send him to the hospital early this month, always left Meyer devastated.
"He's miserable," Shelley said then. "He can't sleep, and he can't eat: He's in the tank. The 2004 Utah season was the best ever, because we didn't lose a game. Last year we lost to Ole Miss, and he went into the depths as he always does: The game ends and I'm like, 'Oh, I know what it's going to be.' And so do my kids: 'Oh, great, dad's going to be in a terrible mood.' He sits alone, and the worst thing is if we have people over. Because we have people every week for games and the worst part is if we lose, what do you do with your company? They don't want to sit around and cry.
"And you can't ask them to leave -- even though we all want to leave. He just wants to sit all by himself. He goes in the den, he doesn't want to talk to anybody, doesn't want to see anybody. He usually puts the TV on and he usually just wants me to come sit with him. He can't sleep that night. Terrible, terrible. And he's up by 5 a.m. the next morning and in (his office) watching that film: What went wrong? It's the most distraught thing you've ever seen, because it's all his fault -- in his mind: It's my fault. What did I do? I didn't put the players in the position to win."
I learned, then, three keys to understanding Meyer. One: that he failed twice before finding his niche in coaching. After a great high school baseball and football career, he couldn't cut it as a professional baseball player, or when he tried to play college football at, yes, the same school he'll be playing this week in New Orleans, the University of Cincinnati. Washing out of the Atlanta Braves organization was the first taste of his own limitations and also contained the seed of the second key: Giving up isn't an option. When the 17-year old Urban called his dad, Bud, with the news that he wanted to bail out, mid-season, on minor league ball, Bud replied, "You're never welcome in this house again. There's no such thing as a quitter in the Meyer household."
Meyer went back to baseball for another season-and-a-half before ending his career with an arm injury, then enrolled at UC. Realizing that he wasn't good enough to play safety for even a bad Cincinnati team, Meyer told me, was, "crushing -- because I worked so. Staying late at that Armory Fieldhouse, I just would train and I'd lift and run more than everybody -- just nuts. I mean, nuts. But I just couldn't break the starting lineup. Then we'd get our brains beat in, and I think I should be playing and I'm not."
Coaching was Meyer's last chance to fashion a career out of something he loved, and he latched onto it like a drowning man determined not to go down for a third time. In stops at Illinois State, Notre Dame, Colorado State, then as a head coach at Bowling Green and Utah, he became known for his hardline demands, his no-stone-unturned tendencies, his hunger to create the toughest, most inventive teams in the game. Failure wasn't an option.
The third key to understanding Meyer's flip-flop is that, by last summer at Florida, he was as happy as he'd ever been. His previous head coaching stops had started fitfully and ended too soon. In Gainesville, he had finally been at a school long enough to build a program his way, with his recruits, his system. For the first time, he had a built a machine capable of creating its own self-sustaining fuel. "He's finally stayed somewhere long enough to where the team is where he wants it," Shelley said then. "I told him that: Bowling Green was two seasons, same thing at Utah. We've been here four seasons, he's getting the guys he wants in here, everybody's buying into the program, everybody knows the expectations and the rules: This is what you've been working for. Why would you want to leave it now?"
For years, Meyer had spoken about being out of coaching by the age of 50. But heading into this season, his timeline had changed. Last May, Meyer had gone to dinner with former Gator coach Steve Spurrier, and "for some reason it came up: What are you going to do?" Meyer said. "And he said, 'When I was your age, I never imagined I'd be coaching in my 60s, but what do you do?' He likes golf but he can't play every day. He doesn't like TV. 'What are you going to do? Travel'?
"So I started thinking: I'm 45, and I always said when I'm 50-something I'm done. I'm still going to be in good health, I hope. So Shelley and I, ever since I heard him say that, we've been talking: What do you do? I have to have a challenge. So that, along with the temperament and we're here because we built this place -- well, not built it, I should say we've got this thing going -- it makes me think: I can do this for a while."
He spoke then about trying to defuse the stress, the tension. "I think I've made those adjustments," Meyer said. "I think I love where I'm at. I love my players. It all comes down to your players: I can't wait to be around players. There's (been) other times I can't stand being around them. When I can't stand being around them that's when I say, 'I want to do something else.' I love being around them. I've adjusted my lifestyle, my temperament. I can see me doing this -- and I've talked to my wife about this -- it's going to go well beyond 50."
Yes, that was all said before the chest pains became an emergency, before Meyer got frightened enough to pledge to family and friends that he would, indeed, quit. But the press of ambition and success long ago burned on him an indelible tattoo; anyone who knows Meyer understands he had no choice but to change his mind, throwing himself and the Florida program into months -- perhaps years -- of uncertainty. Whether he can solve his problem, whether he can coach without killing himself or his family, is the question of the season, it turns out. Here's hoping, if not predicting, that he can.