Flourishing Five No. 1: Meyer’s intensity has made Gators best of best

Aug 5th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports
(Last of five in a series. Some schools have great football teams. Some have great basketball teams. But a select few have the best of both worlds. CBSSports.com ranks and profiles the schools who’ve positioned themselves for success now and into the future in both sports. Today, No. 1 Florida.)

It was this nuts: At one point in his driven life, Urban Meyer was texting in church.

In church. “That,” Florida’s coach said, “is certifiable.”

It was this crazy: The man couldn’t delegate. At all.

“Usually I spend hours upon hours …,” Meyer said.

Drawing up the spring practice schedule.

Spring practice.

It was this public: Meyer resigned the day after Christmas, came back, recruited, named an interim coach, saw the light — and the Pope.

“I did not meet the Pope,” as had been widely rumored. “We were right there, though. We listened to him. We were that close.”

The significance of a man named after a pope seeing the Pope should not be lost in the turbulent offseason of Urban Meyer. First consider there was even time to go to Rome. That wouldn’t have happened in Meyer’s previous life. That would be the one with stress, an arachnoid cyst on the brain and esophageal spasms. That would be the one with only two weeks off a year. There was something spiritual, though, about taking off — really taking off — this offseason.

When we last saw him coach a football game, his wife Shelley had tears in her eyes and there was a goodbye quality to the scene at the Sugar Bowl. Standing in an almost empty Super Dome long after his team’s victory over Cincinnati that night, Florida receiver David Nelson knew better.

“Oh, he’ll be back,” Nelson said. “He’s too much of a competitor … He can’t stay away from the game too long.”

Eventually, he did come back, but not a Christmas Carol-like walk through his past, meeting both angels and demons while planning the future. In the offseason, Meyer did go to Italy, also the Bahamas, Israel and Hawaii. He encountered three deities that continue to shape is life — one divine, two human. While overseas, Meyer walked in the footsteps of Christ. While in Hawaii on a Nike trip, he sought counsel from the likes Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden.

“Significantly more,” Meyer said of the amount vacation he took this year, “Now I turn the phone off.”

It took those life changing events of December and early 2010 that convinced Meyer that life is too short. Also, that spring practice schedule-making can be handed over to an assistant (Chuck Heater). That a trusted aide (associate head coach Steve Addazio) can run the whole program in the interim.

“I don’t want to get too deep,” Meyer said. “I always had that [spiritual] side of me. I think I kind of let it step behind football for a while. It was more for the relationship with my daughters and realizing that life is moving real fast.”

One daughter, Nicole, is 19 and in college. Another, Gigi, is 17 and soon headed that direction. This might have been the last time they’ll all vacation together.

We must, then, term it the resurrection of the nation’s best coach without pun. The man was literally flat on his back in early December considering his mortality. At December’s SEC Championship Game, he looked like a shadow of himself — thin and worn.

For the last three years, he has come to this point in the season — right before fall camp — with a pain in his chest that was troubling yet forgotten when the coach poured himself into his work.

“I’d get checked every February, and they’d say, ‘You’re good.’”

That didn’t quell the mounting fear.

“A little [scared]?” Meyer said. “Without being overdramatic, I had some real lifetime decisions to make.”

The doctors finally found the cause of the chest pain, those esophageal spasms. Simple as that. Meyer controls his condition, he said during SEC media days, with fish oil, Nexium and Centrum. In the offseason, though, there was still that ugly and unwarranted outburst at an Orlando Sentinel reporter.

It was a reminder Meyer became the nation’s best college coach by punching the accelerator day after day. Consequences, sometimes, be damned. In 2010, he found out he could keep his best coach title by backing off — a bit. Florida continued to recruit at the top level. Speed continues to be the stamp on the entire program. For the third consecutive year, there is every reason to believe Meyer and the Gators will play a de facto national championship semifinal against Alabama in the SEC title game.

That’s what this series chronicling the nation’s best football/basketball schools has brought us: The best of everything.

Florida has it, from the equally driven Billy Donovan in basketball to Meyer who is entering only his sixth year in Gainesville. Between them, they have brought four national championships, massive glory and a record amount of revenue to the school.

Meyer’s hire by Jeremy Foley in December 2004 arguably changed the balance of college football. Imagine if Notre Dame had been first on the tarmac at Salt Lake City and been able to lure Meyer to South Bend. Maybe Notre Dame becomes a national power again. Maybe Notre Dame wins a couple of national championships that ultimately went to Florida.

Maybe Florida continues to struggle post-Zook. If that’s the case then the SEC doesn’t win four consecutive national championships. Maybe there’s no Percy Harvin, no Tim Tebow.

For Gators everywhere, it’s too frightening to consider.

“I don’t know if it mattered who got there [Salt Lake City] first, more than what Urban ultimately decided to do,” said Danny Ponce, a member of the Florida board of trustees. “Urban may be the first grown adult that some of these young recruits meet who treats them like men and expects them to act like a man.”

What we’ve been reminded of again in the last nine months is that the coaching profession grinds you up. Urban Meyer, though, defines the grind. With the retirement of Vanderbilt’s Bobby Johnson, only Georgia’s Mark Richt has been around longer among current SEC coaches.

The question, then, is not if Meyer can keep winning, it’s how long he can last. Try asking if all this time off has made a difference.

“Will it make you a better coach?” Meyer answered rhetorically. “I don’t know how to answer that. Does it make [someone] a better writer, does it make [someone] a better musician?”

It might make them take stock of their lives. It might make them cut out all the bad stuff that hurt them physically. Remember that texting in church was only a symptom, one that can’t be controlled by just fish oil.

“They’d lock me up,” the coach said of those demons that drove him, “if they really knew.”

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