Meyer returns rested, ready

Florida head coach Urban Meyer during day one of SEC Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala. on July 21, 2010.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 4:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 4:19 p.m.

In the parking lot at the Queen of Peace Catholic Church, Shelley Meyer hit her breaking point. When she and her husband, Urban, left their car to attend Mass in December, she delivered a strong but simple message.


Reconsidering after intense discussion

The story of Urban Meyer’s return to Florida’s sideline has become familiar. He stepped down, went to practice the next day and became inspired to come back after watching his team.

But it did not unfold exactly that way. Interviews last month revealed that the turning point in Meyer’s return was a fiery, mostly one-sided conversation with the strength coach Mickey Marotti.

“That was the start of it,” Meyer said, adding: “I started to realize that there’s 70 people at the University of Florida who are counting on the current regime. If that regime changed, there’s a good chance there’s going to be a lot of families ripped apart.”

He said: “There’s secretaries and nutritionists and the video people and the recruiting staff. If I left and they brought in some successful coach, he’s going to wipe everyone out.”

At practice, Meyer asked Marotti how he was doing, and Marotti responded in clipped, one-word answers. Marotti said he soon began yelling, telling Meyer that he could not believe he was walking away from everything that he had created.

“What are you going to do?” he said to Meyer. “Sit in Gainesville and watch someone else run your program?”

Marotti told Meyer to think about all they had accomplished, pointing to the signs on the practice field commemorating Southeastern Conference titles, national championships and the Heisman Trophy won by Tim Tebow.

Marotti went to the weight room. Soon, a manager came to say Meyer wanted to see him. Marotti said Meyer was unsettled and barely watching practice. He walked over to Marotti several times, talking about how a new staff would continue practice traditions they had established. Meyer left and soon called Marotti to tell him he would be taking a leave of absence, not stepping down.

“I think that practice that day, and a long conversation with Mickey Marotti, who is obviously very close to Urban, pushed him to a point where he said, ‘Hey, let’s give this a shot,’” said Jeremy Foley, Florida’s athletic director.

— Pete Thamel

“Leave your phone in the car,” she said.

Urban Meyer did not resist. He had already received a wake-up call.

A few nights before, emergency lights had whirled through the Meyers’ gated community, ambulances rushing him to the hospital with chest pains. Not long after, Urban Meyer stunned the college football world, first by stepping down as Florida’s coach, and the next day by announcing he was taking a leave of absence instead. Amid all the concern and chaos, Shelley Meyer knew one thing: “Something had to change.”

As a new season dawns in Gainesville, change resonates as the prevailing theme. The Gators, though ranked third in the coaches’ poll, are no longer favorites to win a national title, and the iconic quarterback Tim Tebow has left for the NFL.

But for Meyer, who has known only one speed his entire career, there are also less obvious changes resulting from his time away. The most important came from a diagnosis in January of esophageal spasms, which had caused chest pains so severe that Meyer compared them to “an ax in my chest.” He called the day of the diagnosis “one of the greatest days of my life” because he had been searching for the cause of the pain for years.

While working to improve his physical health, Meyer also focused on balancing his life. He shut off his BlackBerry for long stretches, something Shelley Meyer noticed because she was not awakened by its buzzing in the middle of the night.

Meyer did not go on the road to recruit in January and took much of February and March off. In May, a time when Meyer would typically consider himself too busy with the day-to-day minutiae of being a coach to leave the office, he took a 10-day trip with his daughters to Israel and Rome. He later spent five days in the Florida Keys with his son, Nate, fishing for tarpon and snorkeling. And while touring the Garden of Gethsemane near Jerusalem and waving to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, Meyer made sure he powered down his BlackBerry and stayed in the precious present.

“There are two components,” Meyer said. “First was finding out what it was. The second was when I shut it off, I need to shut it off. When I go to dinner with my daughter, I’m going to have dinner with my daughter. I’m not going to be texting some guy in Phoenix.”

Shelley Meyer said her husband got a second phone this offseason, an older model with no Internet connection. He programmed seven numbers in it — for his four immediate family members, his two sisters and his father. No one else knew the number.

“Boom, I shut it off,” Meyer said. “I’d never done that before. I’d check once in a while, but I’d go three days without looking at it, which is mind-boggling.”

Meyer said he came to the realization that it would not be long before his daughters — Nicki is a sophomore volleyball player at Georgia Tech, and Gigi is entering her senior year of high school — would have their own families. Although his family had initially been hesitant about his returning to the sideline after his health scare, Shelley Meyer said they all had eventually seen enough change to become comfortable with the idea. She said that doctors told Meyer, 46, that he had the heart of a 20-year-old.

“As scary and hard as it was on the family and the team, so much good has come out of it,” she said, adding, “The way he is now, he could go 10 more years.”

Meyer is following a strict regimen of working out at noon, taking medicine to control the reflux that contributed to the esophageal problems and eating healthy meals five or six times a day. He must avoid things like red wine and marinara sauce, which can trigger acid reflux.

That is a stark contrast from when Meyer would get so wrapped up in his job that he would stop working out for weeks at a time and leave his lunch uneaten on his desk. In preparing for the Southeastern Conference title game against Alabama last year, Meyer lost 20 pounds.

Although the season will offer the ultimate test to Meyer’s work-life equilibrium, he said that he had found so much perspective that he spoke to small groups of Gator athletes about finding better balance in life. His message: winning does not fill those empty spaces.

“Some person may read this and say, ‘You know what, I need to find more balance in my life,’” Meyer said. “Not to be one of those guys who says, ‘I missed my kids growing up, but I got a new boat out of the deal.’ That’s not the plan here.”

But still, Meyer cannot change his nature. He still worries about the perception that his program has gone soft.

“There’ll be no group hugs or walking hand in hand through the forest,” he said. “We’ll work as hard or harder as we ever have.”

Meyer’s poor health last season could perhaps best be summed up by his sagging shorts. Florida’s strength coach, Mickey Marotti, one of Meyer’s closest friends and confidants, noticed before the SEC title game that Meyer’s khaki shorts drooped further as the week went on.

“When he’d walk, his pants would sag halfway down,” Marotti said. “He looked like one of our players. He completely lost his entire rear end.”

Marotti said that Meyer, in some ways, had not been right all season. In previous seasons, Meyer would stop by Marotti’s office every day around lunch to gauge the mood of the team. But last year, Meyer stopped his daily meetings on Marotti’s couch, instead spending more time on the Gators’ special teams and passing game.

“Every day we’d talk about motivation of the team and what our plans were,” Marotti said. “We didn’t do that this year.”

Things deteriorated quickly in December. Along with his chest pains, Meyer dealt with the arrest of the star defensive end Carlos Dunlap on charges of driving under the influence and the Gators’ 32-13 loss to Alabama in the SEC title game. By the annual Christmas party at his house, Meyer looked ghostly. After practice on Dec. 26, Meyer called a staff meeting that Jeremy Foley, Florida’s athletic director, and Steve McClain, the sports information director, attended.

“When you walk in a meeting with the SID and the A.D., they’re not talking about the Christmas party,” said the Florida assistant Chuck Heater, one of Meyer’s oldest friends.

As the meeting went on, the offensive coordinator Steve Addazio said he thought that one of the great recent success stories in college football was ending.

“We’re on the verge of some historic change,” he said he thought.

But Meyer changed his mind and took his leave, and Addazio took over. Florida’s football machine kept on chugging. The assistants kept together an elite recruiting class, the program hummed along in its offseason workouts, and Meyer came to the realization that delegation would not result in deterioration.

“We’re back exactly where we wanted to be,” Foley said. “This university owes a great debt of gratitude to Steve. Not once did he back down or get overwhelmed.”

There will be significant day-to-day changes for Meyer. He hired D.J. Durkin to run special teams, a unit Meyer once ran himself, although Meyer insists he will attend all the meetings. He has vowed to renew his daily visits to Marotti’s office and is having his assistants join him for his noontime workouts.

Marotti said he had already seen a difference. He said Meyer unfurled a map of Israel on his desk upon his return from vacation.

“It was like the History Channel,” Marotti said. “I’ve never seen him do anything for 45 minutes like that because he doesn’t have the attention span. I’ve never seen him more fired up about something than that.”

As a season of change approaches at Florida, Meyer might have recharged his career by learning how to shut things down.

“I can’t ever see that son of a gun getting out of the game and going into broadcasting,” said the Notre Dame assistant Tim Hinton, another old friend. “He’s too much of a competitor. He loves the fight of the game.”

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