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Coaching not conducive to health

12/28/2009 - Florida Gators

The legendary Bear Bryant once said this of coaching: "If you can't live without it, don't get in it."

Bryant, who won six national championships as Alabama's head coach, was a coaching addict -- and not always in a good way. Bryant retired after the 1982 season and in his final postgame news conference joked he'd probably "croak in a week" once he retired.

It took 28 days.

A massive heart attack was listed as the official cause of Bryant's death, but many have surmised that not being able to coach was the reason Bryant died.

I'm sure Bryant's story is one Urban Meyer has heard many times, but as Meyer explained his decision to return to coach Florida on Sunday -- not even a full day after announcing he was leaving the program for health reasons -- it was hard not to draw the parallels between the two men.

Meyer's reversal showed what a powerful lure coaching can be. Within a matter of hours, not only did Meyer go from being completely done at Florida to believing he'll coach the Gators as soon as next season, but he also was trying to sell the impossibly naive ideal that he could run a program like Florida in a way that wouldn't be a detriment to his health.

I get that Meyer was torn between doing what's best for himself and his family and what's best for Florida, a university he clearly loves. But seriously, who's he kidding?

It's difficult not to question Meyer's decision when on Saturday his health concerns were troubling enough to cause him to quit, yet now suddenly they're not. Another red flag came when Meyer was asked whether his initial decision to resign was because his doctors gave him an ultimatum, and he responded tersely, "I don't want to get into that."

I'm not suggesting Meyer would purposely ignore his health and coach, but either Meyer prematurely hit the panic button or he let emotion cloud a decision that truly should have nothing to do with football or the University of Florida.

Meyer deserves kudos for trying to remain loyal to the university and his players, but he can't suddenly transform his personality or way of doing things after they've bred so much mind-boggling success.

"I have to learn to do is ... what they call ... delegate," Meyer said.

The fact that the word "delegate" was so foreign to Meyer just proves my point.

The characteristics that make Meyer a special coach are probably some of the same things his doctors want him to change.

Meyer is known for having a relentless work ethic and being deeply involved in his program, which he often refers to as his "second family." For a topflight coach, that kind of dedication is required, and it's already proven that those rigors will do nothing to improve Meyer's health. He said he lost 20 pounds during the course of this season. He also has been living with a benign arachnoid cyst on his brain since the late 1990s. Although that's not considered a serious condition, elevated stress levels are known to cause dizziness and migraine headaches.

Yeah, and we know there's no stress in college football.

Meyer, 45, won two national championships in five years because delegating isn't in his vocabulary. He rebuilt both Utah and Bowling Green and retooled Florida in his own image, making the Gators the best program in the country. Those results meant long hours and neglecting family and, of course, health. ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla, who coached 23 years at the college level, tweeted (in response to Meyer's situation): "A coach wakes up one day and his kids are grown and out of the house and they aren't coming back except on holidays. Is success worth it?"

When you're wired like Meyer and used to such high achievement, it is. And you can't just stop doing what's been successful, even if it's somewhat costly. The best coaches are all like that, from Bill Belichick to Jim Tressel. Coaching can be extremely rewarding, but it also makes them miserable.

Because Meyer is at Florida, I'm also sure he has heard the heartbreaking story of former coach Charley Pell, who tried to commit suicide in 1994. Florida fired Pell three games into the 1984 season after an NCAA scandal put the Gators on probation for three years and banned them from bowl games and television appearances for two. Nobody would hire him as a coach even 10 years later. Although Pell, who died in 2001, learned to manage his clinical depression, his life wasn't the same without coaching.

It's just not a job that can be done at half speed. When ESPN analyst Jon Gruden coached the Oakland Raiders, he said he arrived at his office at 3:17 a.m. every day. Nick Saban infamously declined the opportunity to have dinner with President George W. Bush because it conflicted with Dolphins training camp. The reason Steve Spurrier bombed in the NFL is he refused to interrupt his tee time for something as trivial as coaching the Washington Redskins.

It takes a madman to be a great football coach, and given what Meyer has revealed about his health, how can he possibly expect to perform as well as he has without jeopardizing his health in the process? The Gators are losing Tim Tebow and will be rebuilding next year, and that will require even more of Meyer's involvement. Does he really expect us to believe he can completely step away this offseason and leave recruiting and other important matters in the hands of appointed interim coach Steve Addazio?

Sorry, I just don't believe it.

I realize Meyer knows his body better than anyone and there was a reason he referred to former South Carolina basketball coach Dave Odom, who chose to retire last year and has since admitted to having second and third thoughts. Meyer appears to be just like Bryant, almost lost without the job. As Bryant proved, that mentality is both a blessing and a curse.

On Sunday, Meyer referred to the closeness of his family several times. "A lot of times coaches do not have their priorities straight," he said. "They put business before God and family."

It's fair to say Meyer's priorities were jumbled on Sunday because his family was the last to know about his decision to return to Florida. Let's hope that over time Meyer learns to put his priorities in the proper order.


Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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