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Published: Sunday, 1/17/2010

Sideline Stress: Coaches understand Urban Meyer's pain

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The hotel suite in the Phoenix area was choked with friends, boosters, and family, all celebrating Utah's Fiesta Bowl domination of Pittsburgh, and the Utes' 12-0 record.

While the revelry pulsed off the walls and the participants cloaked themselves in laughter and hugs, Urban Meyer — the architect of that season of perfection — slumped on a cushy sofa. Physically, emotionally, and psychologically depleted, Meyer was still wearing the khaki slacks and windbreaker sticky with Gatorade from the victory bath he received on the sideline.

Meyer had invested every BTU his raging internal furnace could produce into the preparation for the bowl game, the implementation of the game plan, and the management of that three-hour flurry of controlled mayhem that played out in front of a national television audience.

While Utah rejoiced in its finest hour on that first day of 2005, Meyer only wanted to decompress. For him to be simply exhausted, Meyer would need to rest for the first time since the start of the season, four months earlier.

“I have never met an individual who puts so much energy into everything he does,” said Bowling Green businessman Tim Dunn, who has known Meyer since the young assistant coach from Notre Dame took over the Falcons' program in December, 2000.

“The stress is incredible, and it has multiplied each time he's moved up. That job takes so much out of you — a lot of people are worried that his tank might be near empty now.”

Those concerns lurched into the critical stage around Christmas when Meyer, completing his fifth season as the head coach at Florida, abruptly announced that he would resign his post with the Gators after the Sugar Bowl over concerns about his health and the deleterious impact coaching was having on his life.

At just 45 years of age, with two national championships and a Heisman Trophy winner to his credit, Meyer first said he would walk away, presumably before he had to be carried off on a gurney. Chest pains, chronic headaches, insomnia, several hospital visits, a 9-1-1 call in the middle of the night — he had a laundry list of stress-related issues that would have been shocking for any man of his age.

Meyer quickly modified his stance, accepting an unprecedented offer from Florida's athletic director to take a leave of absence after the bowl game, better assess and address his health situation, spend therapeutic time with his family, and then return to the Gators if and when he felt ready.

In the hours after his stunning announcement the day after Christmas, and the abrupt, partial about-face, Meyer has done everything but sit down on Oprah's couch and bare his soul. He called his maniacal work ethic “self-destructive.”

“People who know me know that when we lose, it's my fault, and we've got to get that fixed,” Meyer said. “If that means staying until four in the morning, if that means rehashing over and over again what to do ... I've lived a 30-year coaching career in nine years, and I can't do that. I just have to be smarter.”

• Out on the playing field, Meyer lost only once in the last two seasons — in December's Southeastern Conference championship game against Alabama. He ended up in the hospital the next day. In his five seasons at Florida, Meyer has enjoyed unparalleled success — those two national championships, four seasons with the 2007 Heisman Trophy-winner Tim Tebow, two SEC championships, three SEC Eastern Division titles, a 22-game winning streak.

His Florida team has won 13 games in each of the last two seasons — a first in NCAA history. Meyer's overall record after two years at Bowling Green, two years at Utah, and five with the Gators is 96-18, for a .841 winning percentage — the best in the nation.

But the stress, the pressure to do it all and do it all of the time, prevents him from enjoying such tremendous success. Meyer's close friend, Dan Dakich, the former men's basketball coach at Bowling Green, said that syndrome is not unique to Meyer.

“As a coach, when you win you are happy for about an hour, and then that's it. It's the darnedest thing, but you don't enjoy it a bit,” Dakich said. “It's never enough, and you are always worried about what's next, so you never really sit back and think ‘this is great.' ”

Dakich, an Indiana grad who was on the staff with the Hoosiers a couple of years ago when the head coach was dismissed during the season, recalled a vivid example of how the pressure stalks a coach. Dakich had been named interim coach and had just led his team to a critical win at Northwestern.

“As we walked off the court, I see my family and friends there in the stands and they're just going crazy, because we won a really close game, but I'm just in a daze, not even enjoying the moment,” Dakich said. “We just had a great win, and all I can think about is playing Ohio State three days later.”

Dakich said people can look at Meyer's record and his salary and think he is on top of the world, but that is never a position where you can relax for even a moment. Family, recruiting, alumni, media, fans, staff, boosters — the G-forces tug at you from all directions, at all hours.

“Urban is all-in, with everything he does — family, team, friends. I think the pressure and the stress he feels is not external,” Dakich said. “He's the best college football coach in America, but it's really tough for him to accept that and enjoy it. It's impossible for me to explain, but I totally understand it.”

Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, who readily admits he's had “a few issues” with stress and pressure since taking over the Wolverines' program two seasons ago, said that as a friend of Meyer, Rodriguez was immediately concerned about the health of the Florida coach.

“This had to be weighing on him for a long time,” Rodriguez said. “As coaches, most of us are wired the same way. We put a lot of this on ourselves, at all levels. It's not just the winning and losing — it's about wanting to do everything, and do everything right.”

Dakich said that to many outside the profession, Meyer would appear to have it all, but winning is not the elixir it is perceived to be.

“Winning is usually just a relief, but it's not joyous,” Dakich said. “And for any coach, losing is death. Urban and I have talked about that a lot. It's not what everyone else puts on you — it's you, and it's how you feel about it.”

•

When Meyer explains it, the Ashtabula native and former Ohio State assistant coach shuns the use of the words stress or pressure. Instead, he speaks of a sense of obligation.

“We've kind of created a monster at Florida where we've had some great success,” he said. “Florida deserves that, and you just feel an enormous amount of — I don't want to say pressure — but you want to do right by your players, and do right by that school. They deserve right.”

Meyer, who went 17-6 at Bowling Green and was a perfect 5-0 with the Falcons against teams from the major BCS conferences, is probably his own toughest critic, said Dave Clawson, who leads the BG program today.

“I think we're all that way, so anybody in this profession can sympathize with Urban and what he is going through,” said Clawson, who has been a college head coach for 10 seasons.

“The wins are such short joy, and the losses tear you apart. Anytime something happens, you just kill yourself over what you could have done to avoid it. I always thought that the longer I was in this job, the highs and lows would even out, but sometimes it is worse, because we have so much more invested in it.”

Ohio State's Jim Tressel, who at 57 years old has been a college football head coach for 24 seasons, said most coaches are heavily involved in every aspect of the program, and in the community. That leaves them scaling a mountain that rises in height every day.

“Everything is important to us,” Tressel said. “All of the way from events to practices, recruiting, helping in the community, taking care of our obligations at home, taking care of ourselves and all of the rest. It's a full plate. I don't know that any of us have figured out the way to get it done, but we'll keep working at it.”

•

Coaches from a previous generation will tell you that they could escape the 100-mile-an-hour treadmill of the job by anchoring a fishing boat in the middle of a lake, or chasing golf balls around a resort layout, but today's environment is void of such sanctuaries.

“In this age, you don't escape — you are never away or on vacation because the contact is constant with cell phones, BlackBerrys, laptops,” said Mike Wilcox, whose Toledo-based Wilcox Sports Management represents more than 120 coaches and athletic directors from across the country as an arm of Wilcox Financial.

“These guys have never been trained to downshift, and they tend to micromanage everything. The doctors tell you that this young coach who looks like he belongs on the cover of GQ Magazine is really a 45-year-old living in a 56-year-old body. The stress is very destructive.”

Former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, who had a much younger Urban Meyer on his staff more than 20 years ago, visited Meyer in Gainesville, Fla., recently, after the Gators destroyed previously unbeaten Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl. Bruce said the stress of being the head coach at Florida is tremendous, and a lot of it is “self-inflicted” because of Meyer's tremendous drive.

“Urban's only got one speed, so he's been under exceptional pressure since he accepted the head coaching job at Bowling Green,” Bruce said. “He wants to succeed, and he wants to be a great father, great husband, great coach, great leader, great recruiter … he wants to be great at everything — and that's the problem.”

Toledo coach Tim Beckman, who was on Meyer's staff at Bowling Green and has coached in the pressure-cookers at Ohio State and Oklahoma State, said that external forces add to the strain of the job, but the primary source of stress is the man in the mirror.

“You're dealing with the lives of young men, and you want them to be so successful in everything they do. You take it personally, as if you're the father of 105 kids,” Beckman said. “The biggest weight on you is that you care about everything. The pressure I put on myself is tremendous, because like every coach, I want this program to be considered the best at everything.”

Paul Krebs, the athletic director at New Mexico, was in that position at Bowling Green in 2000 when he hired a virtually unknown assistant coach from Notre Dame to resurrect the Falcons' program, which was reeling from six consecutive losing seasons. Meyer then led BG to the biggest turnaround in the country by powering the program with his perpetual motion and energy.

“Urban had a singular focus, an intensity, and he was always thinking about the next move,” Krebs said. “I never saw him let his guard down or unwind, and he always looking for an emotional or psychological edge. I contrast that to other successful coaches who I have hired or worked with, and I still maintain he has more of this singular focus than anyone I know.”

Meyer, who while he was at Utah would get up at 4:30 a.m. to ride the commuter tram around Salt Lake City and sell tickets to the Utes' games, admits that little has escaped his pervasive radar.

“I worry about everything,” he said recently.

Meyer does not appear to be alone when he confesses to being terribly passionate about just a few things — family, faith, and his team. He admits his devotion to the job often equates to him being a fully loaded locomotive, barreling down the tracks, with no discernible air brake in reach.

In one unforgettable image, he is hoisting the glass football, symbolic of the national championship, at the end of the 2008 season. In the next frame, 12 months later, he is sprawled on the floor semi-conscious, squeezed with chest pains as his wife calls 9-1-1.

Meyer has said that over the next few months he plans to take time away from the job, but he expects to return to the sidelines by the fall. Meyer and the rest of the current and former coaches are in consensus that their plunge into this boiling cauldron of stress is a completely voluntary leap. He will climb out, but only temporarily.

“I'm not a person to lay around,” Meyer said. “That's not the answer.''

Contact Matt Markey at:mmarkey@theblade.comor 419-724-6510.



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