December 27, 2009
Saturday, we learned that the same relentless drive that made Florida's Urban Meyer one of the most successful coaches in America was poised to become his downfall. The shocking news of Meyer's early retirement from the Gators was followed by details of a litany of health concerns that had accumulated for years, including persistent chest pains and a blackout after his team's SEC Championship loss to Alabama earlier this month, that made it clear he could be putting his life at risk if he continued at his unflinching pace. Meyer himself said he saw his daughters' relief when he told them he was stepping aside as "a sign from God" that it was the right decision.
Today, less than 24 hours after the school released the stunning news, it seems that drive is still going strong:
NEW ORLEANS — Florida Coach Urban Meyer told his team at a 1 p.m. meeting Sunday that he was no longer stepping down but would instead take an indefinite leave of absence.
The Gators’ offensive coordinator, Steve Addazio, said in a telephone interview that he would serve as the interim coach in Meyer’s absence.
... Meyer has now left the window open for his return, something that he will likely be discussing when he meets with the news media at 3:30 p.m. Central time.
His "change of heart" broke just hours after his wife, Shelley, told the Orlando Sentinel there was "no chance" Meyer would change his mind. That was obviously before this morning's run-through in preparation for the team's Sugar Bowl date with Cincinnati on Friday.
UF defensive line coach Dan McCarney, a former head coach himself, told the Sentinel, "[Meyer] was walking off the practice field and he knew he made a mistake. ... He's coming back." Apologies to Dan Mullen, Bob Stoops and all the other early straw poll candidates jockeying for Meyer's seat: The position has been filled.
The most pressing question -- how long will Meyer be out? -- may or may not be answered during Meyer's press conference this afternoon. The logistics of a coaching leave of absence for health reasons aren't unprecedented. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski sat out almost all of the 1994-95 season (with disastrous results, coincidentally) with back problems. Florida fans are hardly enamored with Addazio, whose first season as offensive coordinator in place of Meyer's longtime right-hand man, Dan Mullen, ended with the team averaging 50 fewer yards and 17 fewer points in SEC games than the prolific 2008 BCS Championship team, despite returning virtually every player from that offense. Addazio has never been a head coach above the high school level, but it's not certain yet that he'll actually be asked to coach a game if Meyer returns in time for the 2010 season.
The more interesting question, though, is why? Saturday, Meyer was open with reporters about the health problems he's faced almost from Day 1 in Gainesville; he told the New York Times he was unconscious for an hour-and-a-half with chest pains after the SEC Championship game, and told the local Gainesville Sun that "When I came to Florida, the chest pains were controlling my life." As Meyer portrayed it through those reports, he was facing something akin to a life-or-death decision that cut to the core of his priorities, and he chose family over football, as anyone with a healthy bank account and nothing left to prove professionally would without a second thought.
But Meyer has had second thoughts. What changed overnight? Certainly not the risks if/when he returns. The intensity and stress that triggers the brain cyst and chest pains is an inherent part of Meyer's style as a coach; if he's back on the sideline within a year, can he dial it back enough to continue winning and still feel he's doing the job the way it should be done? Frankly, by his own admission, an Urban Meyer who heeds those risks is not the same Urban Meyer who guided Utah to a perfect season and built Florida into a national juggernaut. If he's determined to return to the job, it's either at the possible expense of his health and future, or at the possible expense of losing the edge that brought him such staggering success in such a short period of time.
I'm not in any position to speculate on his family's opinion of a "leave of absence" as opposed to "retirement," but Meyer does strike me as the kind of person whose future means far, far less to him if football isn't a part of it, whatever the cost -- as he's proven by working full-tilt through years of serious warning signs already. If he can push the envelope this far, maybe he can take it just a little farther, right?