Commentary

Meyer on verge of contract deal

Updated: June 30, 2010, 6:18 PM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

University of Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said he expects football coach Urban Meyer to sign the six-year, $24 million contract both agreed to last August just ahead of the start of summer practice.

The signing will cap a roller-coaster 11 months for the Florida football coach and program, which saw an emotionally drained Meyer quit last December, only to stage an about-face a day later. Meyer and Florida officials finalized the contract extension Aug. 3, but it was never signed.

[+] EnlargeMeyer
AP Photo/Dave MartinFlorida coach Urban Meyer discusses his leave of absence after arriving in New Orleans on Dec. 27 for the Sugar Bowl.

Foley, a key player in talking the coach out of resigning, downplayed the signing delay, noting that Meyer continues to be compensated under terms of the new agreement. Foley said neither Meyer's health concerns nor any questions about his desire to stay on as coach were factors.

"It'll get signed sometime in the next month or so, if not sooner," Foley told ESPN.com. "There are no hang-ups. Bottom line, he has a [previously signed] contract that has four years left to run on it. It's not like he doesn't have a contract. And he is getting compensated at the new rate [$4 million a year].

"We have an agreement with Urban Meyer at the new rate, and the contract will get signed here shortly."

Florida first approached Meyer about enhancing his salary, then $3.25 million a year, late in the Gators' 2008 national title season. School officials went public with the agreement almost a year ago -- when the university announced $42 million in budget cuts and faculty/staff layoffs. Foley said the contract, which will keep Meyer at Florida through at least 2014, didn't get signed initially because he didn't want to put it in front of Meyer during last season.

"Then, obviously in December, he had some issues," said Foley, referencing the events that followed Florida's loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game: a 911 call made from Meyer's house because he was experiencing chest pains; his resignation on Dec. 26; and his announcement a day later that he would take an indefinite leave of absence instead of resigning.

Lags in the signing of coaching contracts aren't unheard of, but four agents contacted by ESPN.com said the delay in Meyer's case is unusually long. The agents spoke only on the condition of anonymity, because they didn't want to be seen as critical of Meyer or Florida.

Meyer doesn't have an agent, though he has in the past consulted with Toledo, Ohio, financial adviser Michael Wilcox, and Bryan Harlan, owner of a Chicago-based sports management firm. Meyer did not respond to interview requests for this story.

In response to an ESPN.com public records request for a copy of the contract extension announced last August, as well as any memorandum of understanding and draft forms of the agreement, Florida athletic officials forwarded only a copy of a 2007 agreement, saying that was the most recent document.

The agents said contract extensions typically are no more than a two- or three-page addendum to the original contract. Not having something in writing is "bad practice at a minimum. It is an invitation to a problem," said one agent. The Southeast-based agent specifically noted the lawsuit that followed the firing of former Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie, who two years into the job hadn't signed a contract.

"I wouldn't want a coach I represent working without something in writing," another agent said.

Florida athletic officials suggest a potential Gillispie-type problem doesn't exist in Gainesville. Foley has a solid relationship with his coaches and rarely rushes to get deals inked, including in the past with the likes of basketball coach Billy Donovan and former football head coaches Steve Spurrier and Ron Zook.

Foley is known to have a particularly close bond with Meyer, who has brought Florida two national titles since arriving on campus in 2005. "We'll get it signed here shortly," Foley said. "People make more of it than what it is."

Foley also downplayed the impact of the twists and turns of the past year for Florida.

Documents received from public records requests by ESPN.com, and other published reports show that Meyer's indefinite leave of absence amounted to little more than a couple of weeks' vacation -- a trip to Rome and another to Hawaii, which was interrupted by a tsunami scare. There was a weekend getaway to the Masters. And a visit with Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who took leave of his own team earlier in his career to deal with exhaustion and a bad back.

The offseason has proved busy and eventful:

•  Meyer signed the nation's top-rated recruiting class, aiming to find replacements for the team's top three receivers and three best defenders, who left for shots at the NFL.

•  The offense had to be tweaked, and a new quarterback -- strong-armed John Brantley -- was broken in to replace Tim Tebow.

•  Two defensive coordinators had to be hired, when the first replacement for defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who landed the top coaching job at Louisville in early December, left Florida for a gig with the Buffalo Bills the day after national signing day.

•  Players got caught up in off-the-field problems, the most recent being the DUI arrest of wide receiver Frankie Hammond. Meyer, whose initial pitch was that he'd recruit only high-character athletes to Gainesville -- "the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent" -- has had at least 28 players charged with a crime since he took over the program in 2005.

Meyer officially took leave Feb. 13. He returned to the practice field, a whistle strung around his neck, for the start of spring drills March 17. According to media accounts, he was back in the office two weeks prior.

Public records indicate Meyer, as promised, did back off slightly in January, at least not flying about the country on university-owned planes to schmooze recruits and their families. That task was left to assistants. But even going back to the early-morning 911 call after the thrashing from Alabama in Atlanta, there's little to depict Meyer as anything but driven -- and busy.

"Obviously after we lost that ballgame you could see how it impacted him," Foley said. "I had seen that before when he lost. He doesn't like to lose. That is why he is successful. He is a grinder and works hard.

"But I've never been around any of our coaches who take losing lightly, or where it doesn't have an impact because it is their life. It is what they do. They make a huge personal commitment, and when things don't go the way they had planned, sure, they take it hard. If losing becomes easier for them, then you got to wonder about what that means."

The job now of keeping Meyer as stress-free as possible and on the sidelines falls on the shoulders of Foley, the longtime Gators athletic administrator. The reins have been loosened somewhat and more responsibilities delegated to assistants. Meyer's radio show and booster club gigs have been cut back. Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, for one, stepped in to address some Gators booster gatherings in April.

"It's going to be fine," said Foley, whose office is next to his head football coach's. "It's not like I have to worry about him having those issues day to day. He is a high-energy guy. He is a guy who has total commitment to what he does. I don't think that has changed."

Meyer claims to be back on top of his game.

"I just feel fantastic," the coach told reporters in June at the conference meetings. An upbeat Meyer revealed that he'd been diagnosed with esophageal spasms, a common symptom of which is chest pains.

"The biggest thing is I wanted to find out what those damn chest pains were, and I did," Meyer told reporters. "[They] got me on some medication, and I've just got to be smarter in the future, and I'm going to be. I'm not going to let that happen again."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Michaeljfish@gmail.com.