Nobody believed what Urban Meyer said 15 years ago, back in his first year as Utah’s head football coach, before so much of his success was gained, his national championships won. Not even his wife, Shelley, his partner, counselor and confidante, the person who persuaded him to stay in coaching years earlier, at a time when he was on the verge of quitting the profession and going to law school, was buying all of what he was selling.
The first part, she got.
“I can’t function as a human being after a loss,” Meyer said. “I can’t eat. I can’t shave. I can’t hug my kids. I take losses too hard. …”
The second part, she doubted.
“ … I won’t last. At 50, I see myself at the end of my rope.”
Well. Make it 54.
Meyer announced on Tuesday that he is retiring from coaching after his Ohio State Buckeyes play Washington in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. Then, he will move on to hitting knockdown 8-irons into plush greens or to some other endeavor that won’t so quickly trigger the headaches and other health issues that plague him now. The symptoms of a cyst growing on his brain were apparent even when he was at Utah, back before the cyst had been discovered and diagnosed. But wicked migraines were evidence of some condition or malady beyond just his insatiable drive to win.
There were times when Meyer was forced to remove himself from everything swirling around him, lying in a cool, dark room, trying to usher out the pain. The problem was, everything wasn’t just swirling around him, it was swirling inside him, the cyst and the drive turning his brain into a micro particle collider.
He managed the collisions effectively enough to alter the path of Utah football and later, do the same at Florida and Ohio State. But no Ute coach has ever accelerated the school’s football success like Meyer did, a particularly impressive feat considering he accomplished that inside of just two years. He transformed Utah’s program from a nice, little regional story to a national one, one subsequently put in the favorable position to be invited to join the Pac-12. Without Meyer, that might not have happened.
There certainly were bumps en route, at Utah and later. Meyer’s methodology for boosting programs included forcing players to either fully commit themselves to complete diligence or to get the hell out of the way. One former Ute who played under Meyer said he still darn-near breaks out in hives at the mere mention of the coach’s name.
Many players quit, some who didn’t feared the man, hated him. There were other troubles, too. At Florida, a number of his players ran afoul of the law. At Ohio State, Meyer mishandled domestic assault allegations made against his assistant coach Zach Smith and, despite winning as much as he did, was suspended for three games earlier this season. Some argued that he should have been fired.
Meyer, indeed, will go down as one of the winningest coaches in the history of college football, but he was far from flawless.
When he was at Utah, he said: “I came from a background where my high school coach would kick guys in the ass, or in the nuts, if they jumped offsides. … That’s what I had learned. So, I was a real mother———. I was bad. Off the field, I was OK, but on it, if you made a mistake, look out.”
Describing his short stint at Bowling Green, his first college head coaching job which came just prior to his arrival at Utah, Meyer said: “I went nuts. I was all about doing things right. Twenty-two kids quit the team. If they made mistakes, I ran the whole team. If somebody got in a fight, I ran the whole team. Fortunately, the right guys quit the team.”
His philosophy at Utah was a bit more refined, but not by much. That drill-sergeant demeanor remained.
“You don’t need any one individual,” he said, back then. “You need a group. You need everyone to come together. We made it so hard for those guys that there was no way they were going to lose games in the fourth quarter, no chance they would give in. They found a way to win.”
When he took over after Ron McBride’s firing before the 2003 season, Meyer said he purposely avoided criticizing the popular former coach, letting his players know he had nothing to do with the firing. Instead, he complimented McBride, saying there was no way he would have considered coming to Utah had Mac not already done much of the heavy lifting.
“That’s one of the best decisions I made,” he said.
Meyer spent four months living alone in a Salt Lake City apartment, from December to April, his family not yet having moved here, setting his own foundation for what he believed he could achieve with the Utes.
It worked. His teams went 22-2 at Utah, including the undefeated history-making 2004 team that busted the BCS and won the Fiesta Bowl. That success caused him to bail on the program, despite telling everyone in and around it, including boosters who donated large sums of money, that he would stay as long as an environment existed where he could win in Salt Lake.
Instead, he left his players at Utah behind, seeking to fulfill his ambitions and fatten his paychecks in Gainesville (65-15, two national titles) and Columbus (82-9, one national title), and did his mountainous winning in those places. Kyle Whittingham did the winning at Utah.
“I believe in hard work,” Meyer said, all those years ago. “I’m not afraid of losing as much as I’m horrified of underachieving.”
Now, if he stays retired — and there’s some doubt as to whether he will — he’ll escape the competitive clutches of both.
He lasted four years longer than he predicted.
At 54, Urban Meyer has reached the end of his rope.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.