When Urban Meyer retired abruptly in December 2009, it came as a shock to the college football world. Meyer was in his mid-40s and regarded as one of the top coaches in the game, capturing two national titles and becoming King of the SEC.
But not everyone knew about the ongoing health problems plaguing Meyer. They came to a crescendo in the early morning hours after a loss to Alabama in the 2009 SEC championship game, when Meyer had the sensation of a heart attack. It turned out to be esophageal spasms, but the incident was a wakeup call to Meyer and his family.
“I have ignored my health for years, but recent developments have forced me to re-evaluate my priorities of faith and family,” he said at the time.
The day after his resignation, however, Meyer had a change of heart. Instead, he took an indefinite leave of absence. Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio became the point man for the Gators with Meyer’s actions during recruiting season shrinking. It didn’t mater, though, as Florida still signed the nation’s top class.
In March, when spring practice began in Gainesville, there stood a refreshed Meyer on the practice field. But the spark was missing. Meyer didn’t seem like himself, the upbeat coach with a touch of wizardry looked burnt out. The Gators stumbled through a 7-5 regular season and Meyer again announced his resignation. This time it was for real, though a return was inevitable.
Incredibly, almost six months after Meyer hung up his whistle, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel resigned after months of turmoil related to a growing NCAA case in which Tressel knowingly lied to investigators. The wheels for a Meyer-to-Ohio State union were already set in motion.
After a year sabbatical that included working for ESPN as a college football analyst, Meyer was poised for a comeback and it just so happened that Ohio State slogged through a 6-6 season. Two days after the program’s first loss to Michigan in eight years, he was announced as the Buckeyes’ 25th head coach.
Some criticized Meyer for jumping back into the deep end too soon. But during his year off, he did some soul searching and reflected on what went wrong at Florida. He knew a return would require delegated power and responsibility. In his final seasons at Florida, Meyer became too much of a micromanager and it wore him down.
“I let that destroy me,” he said.
Meyer came back nearly 40 pounds heavier and with a clean bill of health from his doctors. Visits with his peers led to discussions about how to coach college football without sacrificing other aspects of life, most importantly family. Building a national championship caliber program is possible even if you’re not spending every minute on the job. It’s a valuable lesson Meyer learned, and it became famous when daughter Nicki made her father sign a contract penned on a pink sheet of notebook paper. In that document lay Ohio State’s national title hopes.
The balanced life – or as Meyer calls it “keeping it in centerfield” – proved possible during Ohio State’s undefeated season in 2012. Meyer stayed in touch with his college-aged daughters and even managed to attend some of their volleyball games. Back in Ohio, he was a fixture at his son Nate’s Sunday morning football games.
“My problem was I left centerfield,” Meyer said. “I tried to cure NCAA issues, started trying to cure agent issues, maybe drug issues, whatever. I went out of centerfield.”
Year 1 was a success beyond imagination. Meyer assembled a coaching staff that gelled and became the envy of others across the country. His offense took hold under the guidance of coordinator Tom Herman and quarterback Braxton Miller. Recruiting levels surged to where they were at Florida thanks in part to Mark Pantoni’s involvement.
Everyone has a comfort zone and Meyer made sure to bring those along who helped build a machine at Florida – Pantoni, Mickey Marotti and Brian Voltolini.
“This is my home state, and it’s great to be back home.”
As the Buckeyes enter the second season of the Meyer era, they’re positioned to win at a steady rate. A 12-0 season was had during the feeling out process. Now Meyer is looking to make history. Eleven head coaches have left the school where they won a national title. Only one has returned to coaching and won another championship: Nick Saban.
To join that illustrious group of one, Meyer must beat the man who founded it. Saban has been at the peak of the sport’s tallest mountain since he strode into Tuscaloosa. Alabama is winners of three of the past four national championships.
Meyer, like Saban, has the benefit of going from one big-time program to another. That wasn’t always the case with the other title winners. Meyer was also able to surround himself with a star-studded supporting cast.
Hiring coaches who can teach, get every ounce of talent out of players and recruit at a swift pace is what the Meyer model calls for. When he was hired, it became a worrisome topic.
“One of the issues that I'm dealing with right now is my guys are all gone,” Meyer said. “Everybody has their little coaching tree and mine are a bunch of head coaches all around the country. So I'm going to go and have to find a guy.”
Or guys. Herman, Luke Fickell, Everett Withers, Mike Vrabel, Ed Warinner, Tim Hinton, Kerry Coombs, Stan Drayton and Zach Smith make up Meyer’s Ohio State tree.
Sports evolve on a yearly, monthly and daily basis. Meyer, however, has his ways and they served him well last season. The offense has been tinkered with, but by and large, the philosophy remains the same. Meyer’s “Plan to Win” is the formula that’s won 116 games at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State.
Despite Alabama’s penchant for winning championships, they aren’t easy to come by. Coaches speak to the difficulty of winning single games, let along national titles. It takes a cocktail of coaching, talent and luck.
Few coaches seem to possess that magic elixir that produces an endless look of victories. But Meyer and Saban each contain the secret component. In highly scrutinized positions, the pair has lived up to expectations on an almost yearly basis.
If the plan comes to fruition for the Buckeyes in 2013, Meyer will not only become the second coach to win a national title at two different schools, he will become royalty in a city and state that is defined by football success.
Said Meyer: “This is my home state, and it’s great to be back home.”