By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
It was quite a run for one of the game’s most accomplished head coaches and, even more impressive given his young age. Winning two national championships and better than 80 percent of his games at one of college football’s most high profile programs brought him an unbelievable amount of respect and reverence. It also brought extreme euphoria for the school’s diehard fanbase.
His team had won the Sugar Bowl the season prior and was victorious in a high-profile bowl game that last season. The outlook for the future was perhaps brighter than it had ever been for the coach who had grown up in Ohio and played his college football in the Buckeye state.
But it all became too much. He had contemplated taking a season off, but decided against it.
How could this be? Even despite announcing his retirement, he considered his job to be the best coaching job in the country.
“The time demands on a head coach are unbelievable,” he said. “The pressures of coaching are only part of it. There’s recruiting, fund raising, bowl games, running all over the country, speech-making, 17-hour work days. You run like a treadmill.”
That quote came from an Associated Press article on Feb. 13, 1983.
The coach was just 51 years old when he retired.
His name was Ara Parseghian, head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Urban Meyer spent six highly successful seasons as the architect of two BCS National Championships at the University of Florida, where he compiled a 65-15 (.812) record and directed his team to two Southeastern Conference Championships.
What an unbelievable run it had been for Meyer. It was almost a whirlwind.
Before that, he led Utah to a 22-2 record in two years, taking the Utes to the 2004 Fiesta Bowl. Utah was the first non-BCS team to play in a BCS game in the system's history. Two short years before that, he had helped lead Bowling Green to a 17-6 tally, including a 5-1 mark against schools from BCS Conferences.
Meyer had coached football for 20 years and somewhere along the way, things got out of balance. The pressures of a high-profile job and the never-ending expectations had taken their toll.
“I was proud I had balance for quite a while,” Meyer said. “I lost that near the end. Believe it or not, there's lot of quality coaches out there that are still able to have a little bit of balance. I don’t want to be one of those guys that’s sleeping in the office saying I missed this, I missed that.”
After a health scare in 2009, Meyer thought he was done with coaching. But his love for the game caused him to decide against retirement or a year off. He returned after a brief hiatus to coach another season, but he quickly realized what Parseghian did.
Sometimes the only way to regain that balance, the only way to reclaim that perspective is to step away completely. The two men still loved their chosen profession, but there was no other way to break the chain of stresses and pressures.
“I think as it rolled on, we were dealing with magical things there,” Meyer said. “I call it the pursuit of perfection. I think, at the end of the day, we all know there’s no such thing. I fell victim to that.”
And really, it’s not the first a decision like this was made when Meyer announced his retirement from Florida.
“This is an age-old problem about the executive or the doctor or the lawyer or the teacher, the professor, the policeman that just gets so enamored or so consumed by their profession that they forget really the purpose of our whole deal,” Meyer said. “And that’s to raise a wonderful family.”
Parseghian didn’t coach during the Twitter era. In fact, ESPN didn’t even go on the air until Sept. 7, 1979, more than four years following the head coach’s last game. That’s probably why his situation isn't as well known as Meyer’s.
College football was still big then though, and it’s even bigger now. So too is the media coverage, the fishbowl effect and the pressure to produce. It’s then perhaps no surprise that Meyer was six years younger than Parseghian – Meyer was 45 – when he stepped down from a dream job at the University of Florida.
Who knows how long Parseghian would have lasted in today’s culture.
When things got so far out of whack that Meyer knew he wanted to step away from coaching, he began thinking about what he had missed. That became the priority and it still is.
“Family – I just wanted to be around them,” Meyer said. “I made the decision to step away from coaching a year ago to focus on family and determine if I could someday return to a profession that I love and I realized I missed so dearly last February. I did that, after having an opportunity to work for ESPN, watch my kids compete, and also reflect and research ways that I could improve.”
And Meyer has found that balance and is ready to take on the next challenge, announcing Monday his return to college football as the head coach at Ohio State University.
Urban Meyer is home.
He is home both figuratively and literally and that should make fans of both Meyer and college football happy.
Let’s look first at why we should be happy for Meyer:
How many times in life do you truly have the opportunity to go home? Meyer grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio, and played defensive back at the University of Cincinnati. He later earned his master’s degree at Ohio State, where he served as a graduate assistant. His first stop as a head coach came at Bowling Green, just down the road from his hometown.
“It’s a great opportunity to come back to my home state where I was born and where I grew up,” Meyer said. “Where I went to school and met my wife [Shelley], who was the Miss Junior Ross County Fair Queen in 1983. I welcome the opportunity to once again work with the state of Ohio high school coaches and re-establish many the many relationships that I had that existed the previous 25 years.”
It’s not hard to already start to see a change in Meyer. His patented “Plan to Win” at Florida was a major component of his strategy. In his introductory press conference at Ohio State, the approach is different and much more broad-based.
“Our objective is simple: It’s to make the state of Ohio proud and recruit student-athletes that will win in the classroom and win on the field.”
Here’s why we should be happy he is back in the game of college football:
Hands down, Meyer is one of the greatest coaches in college football history. That, you cannot argue.
Consider these facts alone:
• Two BCS National Championships
• Two SEC Championships
• Three SEC Eastern Division titles
• A 65-15 record over a six-year span
• A school-record 22-game winning streak, the fourth-longest streak ever by an SEC team.
• A 16-2 record against Florida’s rivals of Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State
• The fastest coach in SEC history to reach 100 career wins
• The second-fastest coach nationally since 1945 to reach 100 career victories
• The first coach in the history of the Football Bowl Subdivision to post consecutive 13-win seasons and the only coach to post three 13-win seasons in a four-year span
• One of only five coaches to win a pair of national championships in his first four years at a school
• The first coach to take a non-BCS team (Utah) to a BCS bowl game
And that’s only scratching the surface of the impact that Meyer has had on the game of college football during his relatively short time as a head coach.
So, given all of those numbers, just who is Urban Meyer?
I’m not sure that’s a question that can be answered easily or by very many people. I worked at the University of Florida during Meyer’s final three years – the highest moments of the 2008 national championship and the unfolding of his two-time retirement saga. While admittedly, I was not involved with the football program during my tenure there, I can say that I don’t believe there are many people who fully comprehend who Meyer truly is, including those who report on him on a daily basis and perhaps even some who work alongside him.
From a fan’s perspective, it might be easy to question his decision to leave football or his decision to return to football. Having spent the better part of the last seven years involved in major college athletics, I can say that it’s not that black and white.
Often times, any work at that level involves trying to strike a balance between extreme passion for one’s job (you have to have that, or you wouldn’t work the hours necessary for these kinds of jobs) and the stress and expectations that accompany those positions.
You can’t live with it and you can’t live without it.
It’s something that might be very difficult to comprehend if you haven’t experienced it first-hand. As Meyer said, it’s a feeling that transcends coaching to other jobs in athletics, or affects professionals such as doctors and lawyers. Some try to rationalize it saying that an attractive salary should fill a void or make up for the stress, but it isn’t true.
What should come to mind on this day is how fortunate the college football world is to have Meyer back on the sidelines, and to understand that, for now, he is healthy, happy and at home.
Meyer isn’t the only coach to experience what he has and history shouldn’t judge him unfairly for that. Because of Meyer, football at the University of Florida and in the SEC is better.
Maybe it was a journey that Meyer needed. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, but this year has given the former Florida coach an opportunity to step back and re-evaluate – it’s something we all need to do from time to time.
And, because of that, one of college football’s greatest is better for it.
“I’ve been to a place I’m not going to go back to,” Meyer said. “I’m sure there are a lot of people in this room who have maybe been places they didn’t want to go. And I was there and I’m not going back.”