Commentary

Determined Meyer elevated Gators

Originally Published: December 26, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Ever since Urban Meyer blazed a red-hot trail from Utah to Florida, turning the college football world upside down in his wake, his school's fans feared where he'd go next.

Would it be Notre Dame? Meyer, a Catholic, has long professed his love for the school, where he once worked as an assistant coach.

Or would Meyer take his revolutionary spread offense to the NFL, where other successful college coaches had gone and largely failed?

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
James Lang/US PresswireUrban Meyer coached Florida to two national championships.

In the end, Meyer couldn't find a better coaching job than Florida.

But now, after leading the Gators to two national championships and within one victory of playing for a third this season, he's leaving Florida for a better lifestyle and, hopefully, better health.

Citing health concerns, Meyer announced Saturday night that No. 5 Florida's game against No. 3 Cincinnati in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day will be his last contest as the Gators' coach.

Meyer, 45, had a tireless work ethic. When I arrived at a Florida spring practice in 2008, expecting an interview I had scheduled days in advance, I learned there was a scheduling conflict.

"What time do you wake up, young man?" Meyer asked me.

"Whatever time is good for you," I told him.

I arrived at Meyer's office at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at 6 a.m. the next day.

Meyer worked as hard and tirelessly as any coach I've known in recent college football history. Meyer's drive and determination helped him direct Florida to BCS national championships in 2006 and '08 and Utah to an undefeated season in 2004.

But Meyer's work ethic also took its toll. Only hours after Alabama ended Florida's 22-game winning streak with a 32-13 victory in the SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on Dec. 5, Meyer was rushed to a Gainesville hospital.

Florida officials said Meyer was suffering from dehydration. But sources told ESPN.com that Sunday morning that Meyer actually suffered chest pains.

Then on Saturday night, Meyer delivered even more shocking news: He will step down as Florida's coach.

"I have given my heart and soul to coaching college football and mentoring young men for the last 24-plus years and I have dedicated most of my waking moments the last five years to the Gator football program," Meyer said in a statement released by the school. "I have ignored my health for years, but recent developments have forced me to reevaluate my priorities of faith and family."

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Paul Abell/US PresswireUrban Meyer led Florida to a 56-10 record during his five seasons with the Gators.

At the age of 45, Meyer will step down after becoming one of college football's most successful coaches. He won 95 games in nine seasons at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida and his 84.1 winning percentage was best among any active FBS coach with at least five years of experience.

Just like that, it's over.

And it seems far too early for one of the sport's greatest coaching careers to end.

Apparently, the health scare after the SEC title game was more serious than originally believed. Meyer lived to coach and there's no other reason for him to walk away other than having serious health concerns.

Only recently did Meyer reveal that he has lived with an arachnoid cyst on his brain for several years. Doctors discovered the benign growth when he worked as a Notre Dame assistant during the late 1990s. The condition isn't life-threatening, but it can trigger severe migraine headaches and dizziness when aggravated by stress.

In the book, "Urban's Way," Meyer told author Buddy Martin that he nearly passed out while coaching Utah in a game against Oregon.

Then came the scare after the SEC championship game earlier this month.

Apparently, it was too much.

Meyer and his wife, Shelley, have three children. His oldest daughter, Nicki, is a freshman volleyball player at Georgia Tech. Daughter Gigi is in high school and son Nathan is in middle school.

For Meyer, watching his children grow old means more than winning football games.

Meyer isn't the first college football coach to walk away at the height of his career. Two of Notre Dame's most famous coaches, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian, resigned because of health concerns. In the NFL, former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs and former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden walked away because of concerns about their health.

Legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler was forced to retire after the 1990 Rose Bowl because of health issues. Schembechler, who was 60 at the time of his retirement, had spent much of the previous two decades battling heart problems. He suffered a heart attack before the 1970 Rose Bowl and underwent bypass surgery several years later. He suffered a second heart attack and underwent another bypass operation in 1987.

"After the second surgery, I was advised by my doctor it was time to get out of coaching," Schembechler said, when he announced his retirement. "In coaching, you work seven days a week, 12-14 hours a day. You're late to bed, eat on the run, you don't have time to take care of yourself or exercise. It probably takes its toll. I'm doing this in fairness to [my wife] Millie and my family and all the people interested in me."

Leahy, who won four national championships and coached four Heisman Trophy winners at Notre Dame, resigned after leading the Fighting Irish to a 9-0-1 record in 1953. Leahy had been hospitalized that season with pancreatitis. When he fell ill during halftime of the 1953 Georgia Tech game, doctors feared he suffered a heart attack. A Catholic priest even gave Leahy his last rites.

When Leahy announced his retirement on Jan. 31, 1954, former Notre Dame star Johnny Lujack was so stunned he told reporters, "I just can't believe it; I was convinced Frank Leahy would never leave Notre Dame."

Florida fans had to feel the same way about Meyer.

But just like that, he's gone.

Odds are Florida will find a suitable replacement. Meyer led the Gators to a national championship 10 years after Steve Spurrier won the school's first national title in 1996. Gators fans never envisioned anyone would surpass what Spurrier did at Florida. Remarkably, Meyer did it in far less time.

College football fans can only hope the Sugar Bowl isn't the last time they see Meyer on the sideline.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

ALSO SEE