By Andy Staples
January 02, 2010

NEW ORLEANS -- After Florida quarterback Tim Tebow shattered every Sugar Bowl passing record, after the orange and blue confetti fell to cap a 51-24 annihilation of Cincinnati, The Question hung over the Superdome. Sure, the preceding four hours - which included 482 passing yards for Tebow in his collegiate swan song and hundreds of smiles and tears for everyone in the Gainesville contingent - had provided a pleasant diversion, but when it all ended, The Question remained.

When will Gators coach Urban Meyer be back?

Meyer, winner of two national titles in five seasons, quit less than a week ago, citing health concerns. He changed his mind Sunday and accepted an indefinite leave of absence, but what does that mean?

The short answer, from one of the few privy to the discussions that led to the leave, is that no one -- not even Meyer -- knows the answer. In a candid interview late Friday night, University of Florida president Bernie Machen explained the genesis of Meyer's leave and what it will take for Meyer to return to the Gators. Though Machen has seen all the speculation in the media about when Meyer might return, he said the truth is there is no target date.

"It could be six months, it could be a year, or it could be never," Machen said. "But this is all about Urban and helping him get well and get himself right."

Machen also wanted to quell any rumors that Meyer is suffering from a specific ailment. "You guys have been on a bit of a wild-goose chase looking for some illness or something that's wrong with him," Machen said. "He just gave all of himself to his job, and he's exhausted mentally and physically. He doesn't, as far as I know, have any serious medical problem. There's no heart deal."

Machen explained that Meyer went to athletic director Jeremy Foley on Dec. 21 to explain his health issues and to suggest that he step aside. Foley contacted Machen, and the men hatched a plan. The following day, Machen laid out the leave of absence option, which, while uncommon in the coaching world, is quite common in the academic world. Machen, who is known for being flexible when valued faculty members need time to recharge, told Meyer to take as much time as he needed. "He was thinking what was best for the university was for him to leave," Machen said. "It was typical Urban. He always puts himself last in the conversation. At that time, I said, 'Urban, think about yourself. If you coach again, wouldn't you like to do it at Florida?' He really wasn't thinking about that."

Machen, who also worked with Meyer while president at Utah, understood Meyer's situation better than Meyer realized. In 2000, a burned-out Machen had told Utah's Board of Trustees that he would take a two-month trip to Europe. Machen told the board he planned to return to the United States, but he probably wouldn't return to his job. During the trip, Machen realized he had only needed a break. "There's some of Urban Meyer in me," he said. "I'm a little too driven. I take too much time away from my family for my job."

Even after hearing Machen's offer, Meyer still wanted to step down. So Machen told Foley to prepare for a coaching search. "We were moving on," he said. "We had prepared to go ahead. We were going to start down here [in New Orleans]."

This past Sunday, Machen was attending a function with his wife in Indiantown, Fla., when his phone rang. It was Meyer. "Remember what we talked about on Tuesday?" Machen remembered Meyer saying. "I think that might be the right thing for me."

So Foley, Machen and Meyer hammered out a deal to allow Meyer to step aside and allow offensive coordinator Steve Addazio to take over as the interim coach. The plan is risky, to say the least. "It is a gamble. But what the hell? I'll take that bet anytime," Machen said. "He's the best coach in America. He loves this program. He built this program. It's his program. I would hate for him to wake up a year from now and decide he wants to coach again and we've moved on."

For Meyer's part, he still hopes to return in time for the 2010 season. "In my gut, I feel like I'll be back," Meyer said. "I just want to make sure my family and health are No. 1. And I've just got to get that right." Asked how he'll feel when he wakes up Saturday or Sunday and realizes he isn't Florida's head coach, Meyer didn't offer much insight. "I know I'm anxious to get home," Meyer said. "We'll address ?? I'd rather this be about the players. We'll address the future when it's the appropriate time." At this, Tebow chimed in with his plan to help Meyer convalesce. "Better be looking forward," Tebow said, "to getting beat at some golf."

Machen said he plans to huddle with Meyer and Foley this week to lay out a plan for what Meyer must do to make himself well enough to return. "I don't care if he's not there in August or September or November or December," Machen said. "I want him to be right. And he's not going to call me up and say, 'I'm right.' We're going to have to have some real conversations about that."

In other words, Meyer will have to make real changes to the way he works. This season caused him to melt weight. He has suffered anxiety-related chest pains for four years, and they've become excruciating the past two. On the morning of Dec. 6, Meyer's wife, Shelley, called an ambulance because he'd awoken with chest pains and subsequently collapsed. That episode scared Meyer enough to quit. Machen wants Meyer to change his ways so nothing like that incident happens again. "I don't think anybody can change their personality," Machen said. "But you can modify your behavior and the way you operate. Obviously, he can't take a month off. And he has to think about doing things differently."

Meanwhile, Addazio and the remaining assistants -- remember, defensive coordinator CharlieStrong is leaving for Louisville and reportedly taking assistant VanceBedford with him -- will hit the road recruiting. Defensive line coach DanMcCarney said the Gators should send the NCAA maximum of seven assistants on the road next week. McCarney said he's prepared for questions about the future from recruits, and he believes Florida's Sugar Bowl romp will help answer some of those questions. "This is no different to me than a family," McCarney said. "If you've got issues, problems, a setback or if there's a health issue in your family, you rally. That's all we've done. It was a good sign tonight to see this team ... rally the way we did tonight."

Addazio, meanwhile, has crafted his sales pitch as well. "It's real simple," Addazio said. "Florida's Florida. Coach will be back."

The Gators should have a little better gauge Saturday on what they must do in recruiting. During the Under Armour All-America Game, which airs at 11 a.m. on ESPN, Pahokee, Fla., receiver ChrisDunkley will announce his college choice. Dunkley has long been considered a lock to sign with the Gators, but the past week has cast some doubt on what once seemed certain. If Dunkley picks another school, it would signal that recruits have been truly affected by Meyer's status. If Dunkley chooses Florida, it would send a message that elite players still want to go to Florida.

Machen probably won't be worried about Dunkley's decision. He believes the program will be fine because of the system Meyer has built. Even if Meyer never returned, Machen believes Florida football would remain a national power. That's why The Question doesn't vex Machen the way it does Florida's fans. Machen offered the leave of absence not just because he cares about Meyer, but also because he didn't want to lose a rock-star employee forever. "If there's any chance that Urban Meyer is going to coach again," Machen said, "I want it to be at Florida."

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