Urban Meyer had been a head coach for exactly four years (two at Bowling Green, two at Utah) when he became the head coach at Florida in 2005. It didn’t take him long to learn that he had entered a culture that was different than anything he had ever known.
“When I went into the sorority houses at Bowling Green and Utah, the girls would ask about the color of the uniforms,” Meyer told me in an early interview. “But when I went into the sorority houses at Florida, the girls reached into their purses and pulled out a depth chart. They wanted to know who was going to play the backup left tackle. It was totally different.”
If Meyer still had any doubts that the SEC was a different competitive animal, it was confirmed on Oct. 1, 2005. That’s when Meyer took his first Florida team, 4-0 and ranked No. 5, into Tuscaloosa, Ala. It was never a contest as Alabama destroyed Florida 31-3. I was there. It was a major league beat-down from beginning to end.
But Urban Meyer, whose mother named him after a Pope, was nothing if not confident in his ability to recruit and to coach. In just his second season (2006) he won a national championship. Two years later (2008) he won another one. In 2009 Florida was preseason No. 1 and good enough to win a third national title in five years. But in the SEC championship game, Florida ran into a hungry, determined team from Alabama which dominated the Gators (32-13) and denied them a shot at another national championship.
And today I can say with confidence that Urban Meyer was never the same after that fateful night in Atlanta.
You know the story. You know that in December of 2009 he announced that he was walking away from coaching out of health concerns. Then just 24 hours later he changed his mind and said he would just take a “leave of absence.” He would try to take a calmer, less intense approach to his job instead of being the driving, striving Urban Meyer who was simply relentless in his pursuit of perfection.
But we now know that the Urban Meyer of 2010 was not the same one who coached the first five seasons at Florida. Somewhere along the way the fire in his belly had been subdued. Maybe it was a survival mechanism. I just know that when this season began the edge I once saw in Urban Meyer was gone as were quarterback Tim Tebow and five NFL Draft choices off the 2009 defense. Not only was a lot of playing talent gone, but so were some of his best coaches as DC Charlie Strong became head coach at Louisville and OC Dan Mullen became head coach at Mississippi State.
Put all of the factors together and it’s not hard to see why on Wednesday Urban Meyer decided, at age 46, that he could finally live without coaching. Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant said it a long time ago: “If you can live without coaching then you need to get out of it.”
Bryant’s point was that it’s too hard a profession, especially in the SEC, to be in if your heart is not 100 percent committed. It can absolutely suck the life out of a man.
Yes, in the final few years when Florida was at its best, Meyer was sometimes at his worst. He became short with the media and as the wins piled up so did the pressure of great expectations.
He once dressed down a reporter at practice in front of cell phone cameras. He was fined $30,000 by the SEC office for complaining about officiating. He suspended linebacker Brandon Spikes for only one half of a game for sticking his hand into the facemask of a Georgia player and attempting to gouge his eyes. Only when the outcry became so loud did Spikes suddenly “suggest” that his suspension be for an entire game.
He received significant criticism with the decision to bring Chris Rainey back onto the team after the player had threatened a woman in a text message.
There was a running tally of the arrests involving his players. A lot of those arrests were for knucklehead stuff that all college kids do but the headlines were still there and they still stung. There was a lot on this man’s plate.
And as North Carolina’s legendary basketball coach Dean Smith once told me, that is the stuff—not winning and losing games--that ultimately drives a man out of coaching.
As the program became more successful, he pulled in the reins and became more insular and less approachable. It’s called pressure and at times Urban Meyer did not handle it well.
For the sake of this discussion, however, let’s take the 2010 season out of the equation. And if we do that we have to say that Meyer’s legacy at Florida will be as its second greatest coach. He took the foundation that Steve Spurrier built (122 wins, six SEC championships, one national championship) from 1990-2001 and built upon it. Meyer’s record of 102-23 (81.6 percent) in 10 years as a head coach is going to be hard to beat.
Where does Florida go from here? It would make sense to call Dan Mullen, who has done yeoman’s work in two years at Mississippi State. Mullen turned Tebow into the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy in 2007. And earlier this year Mullen took his Mississippi State team to Florida beat the Gators 10-7. He’s young, he’s confident. He knows the state and the transition would be pretty seamless.
This much we know. Florida will find another really good coach. And with the talent on hand from three straight highly-ranked recruiting classes, the Gators will be back in the SEC race sooner rather than later. Florida just has too many advantages that the right coach can exploit.
And Urban Myer? Oh, he’ll be back. In fact, I predict he’ll take a year off, recharge his batteries, and will jump back in. Next time he’ll be a little wiser. Next time he won’t let the job consume him. For five years Urban Meyer’s star burned as brightly as any coach we have seen in the SEC in a long, long time. Ultimately, it burned out. We will see it burn again. For now, he is doing the smart thing by stepping aside and giving someone else a chance.