Meyer’s resignation shines light on impact

Urban Meyer was the most influential coach in college football this decade.

He was one of the pioneers in running the spread offense at Bowling Green from 2001-02.

He delivered an unbeaten, BCS-busting season at Utah in 2004 that helped pave the way for what has become an annual crush of non-traditional teams at the championship-system gates.

He then resuscitated Florida to the tune of two BCS titles in five seasons. That stretch included winning a recruiting war for the decade’s most iconic player, Tim Tebow, whose unique skill-set Meyer used deftly.

His non-Southern background, workaholic ways and all-business system helped turn the SEC from a folksy, regional pursuit to an over-the-top obsession with coaches being hired from around the nation.

Now, after a nine-year run where he seemed to never stop working, Meyer, 45, announced Saturday he would step down as Gators coach after next week’s Sugar Bowl, citing a need to focus on his health.

Meyer told the New York Times he has no heart damage but had felt chest pains for the past two years. Meyer was hospitalized briefly for what the school claimed was “dehydration” after Florida lost the SEC championship game earlier this month. The Orlando Sentinel reported Saturday that Meyer had been hospitalized multiple times this month due to “chest pains, nausea and sickness.” For years, Meyer has also suffered from powerful headaches while on the sidelines during games.

“I have given my heart and soul to coaching college football and mentoring young men for the last 24-plus years, and I have dedicated most of my waking moments the last five years to the Gator football program,” Meyer said in a statement released by the school. “I have ignored my health for years, but recent developments have forced me to re-evaluate my priorities of faith and family.

“After consulting with my family, [UF President] Dr. [Bernie] Machen, [Florida Athletic Director] Jeremy Foley and my doctors, I believe it is in my best interest to step aside and focus on my health and family.”

Whether he can regain his health and coach again is unknown. Meyer’s personality doesn’t allow for anything but full-speed ahead – he can’t go half way – so making a clean break from coaching must make more sense than a leave of absence or reduction in duties.

Suddenly, Florida is without its powerhouse coach. And with that, so much in college football seems to change.

Meyer is making the proper choice if his long- or short-term health is at all in jeopardy. He has a wife and three children and plenty of money to take the luxury of making sure he can enjoy them for decades to come. He may coach again, perhaps in college, perhaps in the NFL. He may not. So many details are presently unknown.

College coaching has become a 24/7, 365-day profession, in no small part because of Meyer’s never-ending work habits. He was one of the coaches who sent so many text messages to recruits that the NCAA had to rewrite its rules. He’d study film into the wee hours, smashing remote controls when he saw things he didn’t like. He’d arrive at work before sunrise and be lucky to leave at midnight. He’d jump a plane to recruit down in Fort Myers as soon as drive across town.

He was a picture of multitasking, the modern coach who simply willed his way to the top in near-record fashion. He went a ridiculous 95-18 in his career.

Wide receiver Percy Harvin, one of Meyer’s all-time great recruits, once told me that when Meyer and assistant Billy Gonzalez showed up at Harvin’s Virginia high school to speak with him, they realized they had come an hour before class let out.

Rather than sit around and kill time, Meyer and Gonzalez changed clothes and jogged two miles around the school track (with students watching through the classroom windows). Then they showered in the team locker room, changed back to appropriate clothing and commenced the recruiting meeting when Harvin got out of class.

“They were like at home,” Harvin marveled.

Needless to say, Harvin signed with the Gators.

That was Meyer, all out, all in, all the time. It’s his enduring legacy to the sport. College football was once dominated by charismatic, sweet-talking personalities such as Bobby Bowden, the retiring Florida State head coach who Meyer routinely defeated.

Meyer didn’t care to exude that kind of image. Oh, he could charm and win people over. He could certainly motivate young players and old coaches to do what was necessary to win. He didn’t care about waxing on with colorful stories or wooing the media, though. He wasn’t the first coach you’d think about having a beer with. One of his coaching mentors was Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, two men cut from the same cloth. If it ever got cold in Gainesville, Meyer probably would’ve worn a hoodie.

Since his arrival in, and dominance of, the SEC, the venerable conference has changed dramatically to keep up with him. LSU’s choice of Nick Saban in 2000 may have started the trend, but Meyer (and his 32-8 league record) made SEC schools look nationally for coaching candidates. When he arrived, the league’s coaches used to overwhelmingly share one of two characteristics – they were working at their alma mater or they played for Bear Bryant. This season, no coach fell into either category.

Meyer was a son of Ohio, a graduate of Cincinnati who in 2004 chose the Florida job over Notre Dame. It was a decision made with brains, not emotions. Notre Dame was Meyer’s self-described “dream job” where he’d worked as an assistant. He had no ties to Florida. It was an easy choice, he said. Gainesville was where he knew he’d have the best chance to win championships.

Meyer’s previous stops were also monumental. After accepting the Bowling Green job at the tender age of 36, he and his youthful staff met for more than a week to hash out how they’d run a team if there was no “old way of doing things.” They embraced the spread offense, which came to help define the decade in the sport.

Two years later he took over at Utah and immediately built a powerhouse. The Utes’ 12-0 campaign in 2004 culminated in the first BCS bowl appearance (Fiesta) by a program from outside the big six conferences and Notre Dame. Since then, five other teams have qualified, including another unbeaten Utah team in 2008. Nothing has done as much to rattle the foundation of the BCS.

What’s next for Meyer is unknown. Perhaps his health can improve and he can return to coaching. Perhaps it can’t and he goes into television or another business. Perhaps we’ll know more Sunday.

For Florida, the questions also rise. Florida AD Jeremy Foley has always prided himself in being prepared for a coaching hire at any point, but this has to come as a timing shock. Other schools (including, ironically, Notre Dame this time) have already plucked some of the best available coaches. UF’s defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong, just left for Louisville.

That said, this is Florida, a crown-jewel job that is up and operating at a nationally competitive level. Even with Tebow leaving, there is nothing to rebuild here. If any school can lure a big-name coach to jump, it’s the Gators. They will want for no resource or advantage.

Florida will be fine. Urban Meyer will also. If he never coaches again, if his career ends in his mid-40s, he’ll have made an impact on college football like few others.

Urban Meyer did everything fast in his career. That includes, perhaps, walking away from the game.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Dec 26, 2009