Commentary

Retirement doesn't seem permanent

Originally Published: December 8, 2010
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It didn't look or sound like I was watching someone's retirement news conference Wednesday night.

Urban Meyer, 46, walked to a dais inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, made a very brief statement that he intended to step down as Florida's football coach to spend more time with his family and then took questions from reporters.

Outside the stadium affectionately known as The Swamp, Florida students went about their normal business, seemingly unaware that the coach who led them to two BCS national championships in six seasons was leaving the program for good.

It was almost as if everyone in the Gator Nation knew this day was coming, sooner rather than later.

"I wasn't shocked at all," said former Florida quarterback Shane Matthews, who still lives in Gainesville. "I think a lot of people could tell it was coming. I think what happened last year with his health situation scared him a lot."

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/John RaouxUrban Meyer's retirement announcement was brief. So could be his time away from the game.

A year ago, Meyer quit as Florida's coach only weeks after he was taken to a local hospital with chest pains. Meyer was hospitalized the night of the 2009 SEC championship game, in which the Gators were beaten badly by Alabama.

But Meyer changed his mind about retirement the next day, before the Gators flew to New Orleans to play Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley and university president J. Bernard Machen persuaded Meyer to take a short leave of absence in the spring, but Meyer was back coaching the Gators during spring practice and never really left during his leave of absence.

"Last year, his life was in turmoil," Foley said.

Meyer said this summer that doctors diagnosed his health problem as esophageal spasms and corrected it with medication. Also this summer, Meyer spent more time traveling with his family, visiting Hawaii, Israel, Italy, Key West and the Bahamas.

Meyer said he spent more time away from football than ever before and vowed not to let his job consume him like it had in the past.

"I'm talking about certifiable," Meyer said in July when asked about his work ethic in the past. "They'd lock me [up] if they really knew."

The coach who always seemed to work 100 mph for 100 hours per week tried to slow down this season. He delegated more responsibilities to his staff and wasn't consumed by every minute detail of the program.

But Meyer's new way of coaching didn't work for him -- or the Gators. Florida finished 7-5, losing to South Carolina 36-14 at home on Nov. 13, which cost the Gators an SEC East championship. Two weeks later, the Gators lost 31-7 at Florida State, their first loss to the Seminoles in seven years.

I wasn't shocked at all. I think a lot of people could tell it was coming.

-- Former Florida quarterback Shane Matthews

"[The program] has to be fixed," Meyer said Wednesday. "It's a little broken right now."

And Meyer could no longer be the coach to fix it. If Meyer couldn't coach the way he had in the past, there was really no use in him coaching at all. If Meyer wasn't willing to sacrifice himself to his profession, he couldn't win at the level he was accustomed to. But if Meyer returned to his previous coaching habits, he was putting his health and family at risk.

"I think it was a little more wear and tear here at Florida, more than it was at his other two stops [Bowling Green and Utah]," Matthews said. "The pressure really wears on your family. There comes a point where the pressure is too much."

Even Foley said he wasn't surprised when Meyer called him Saturday and told him that he was having thoughts about quitting again. Foley gave Meyer a couple of days to think about his decision, and the men met Monday. On Tuesday, Meyer decided to resign as Florida's coach for a second time.

"I wasn't totally surprised," Foley said. "[It's] not that he gave me any indication [this season] that this is what he wanted to do. But I could see it a little bit in his eyes, so I wasn't totally surprised."

This time, Foley didn't try to talk Meyer out of quitting.

"I know this is not a knee-jerk reaction to being 7-5," Foley said. "He changed some things that caused his [health] situation last December and worked his tail off this summer to fix them. I think it changed his life, and he's a better person because of it and he's a better coach because of it."

[+] EnlargeFlorida Players
AP Photo/John RaouxMike Pouncey and Ahmad Black said Meyer impacted their lives.

Meyer told his players about his decision to resign during a team meeting at 2 p.m. ET Wednesday.

"I was very supportive," Florida center Mike Pouncey said. "Coach changed a lot of lives at this program and obviously turned this program around from nothing. We were very supportive, just like we were last year."

Said safety Ahmad Black: "We were a little surprised, but I knew deep down he was going to do the best thing for him and his family comes first."

Meyer's final game as Florida's coach will be against Penn State in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., on New Year's Day. Now we can add even Meyer's name to the long list of those who couldn't outlast Joe Paterno, 83, the Nittany Lions' iconic coach.

"Someone made a comment if Coach Paterno would have stepped down at my age, it would have been 1972," Meyer joked.

Just like that on Wednesday night, one of the greatest -- and brief -- coaching careers in college football history might have come to an abrupt end.

But it still doesn't seem like a retirement.

It seems more like an interruption.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book is available in stores and can be ordered here. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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