Sunday, December 27, 2009

Urban Meyer Calls It Quits

The biggest shock of this college football bowl season won't be any result that takes place on a field -- no matter how important the game, how big the upset or how wildly dramatic the finish.

The overshadowing shocker came Saturday in a press release that emanated from Gainesville and fast-blasted across the country in an instant of modern technology: The man who sat on top of the world in his sport had suddenly and without warning stepped down as head coach of the University of Florida's Gators.

Urban Meyer is in the fight of his life.

It is hard to imagine that that's overstating it when the immensely popular and successful coach of an envied major-college power steps down abruptly and unequivocally cites his health as the reason.

``I have ignored my health for years, but recent developments have forced me to re-evaluate my priorities of faith and family,'' Meyer said in the statement explaining his decision.

Ominous words, those. When football coaches talk about priorities in their lives, they generally have in mind whether to run or pass. Little beyond football outweighs the game to so many driven coaches -- and Meyer admitted that in 24 years in the profession, he became one of those men.

Something changed. Details of the medical fight facing Meyer will emerge soon enough, perhaps even Sunday in his arrival press-conference in New Orleans, where the Sugar Bowl vs. Cincinnati will be Meyer's final game with UF, the game itself shrunken to a sidelight of the Meyer drama.

For now, the only speculation that seems safe and fair is that Meyer, who won national championships in 2006 and 2008, would not be suddenly walking away from his life's obsession at its pinnacle unless the matter was urgent or grave. The coach admitted the decision was ``in my best interest'' after consulting with doctors.

Coaching changes in major-college football this time of year usually are cold as winter -- all business. Change normally comes because a Board of Trustees, impatient for success, has fired a man as win-starved fans cheered the guillotine. Or because an upwardly mobile coach hungry for the next rung on his ladder and maybe another comma in his bank account has forsaken his school for a better offer.

This is so, so different. Meyer's job could not have been more secure. He had reached the highest rung. This is so, so different because it is as sad as it is shocking if the implication of a medical crisis proves true.

Meyer has tended to suffer from headaches and fatigue for many years. While at the University of Utah, where he coached in 2003-04 before joining Florida, he was diagnosed with an arachnoid cyst in his brain. It was said to be benign.

Meyer had checked himself into Gainesville's Shands Hospital a few hours after the recent loss to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game, reportedly suffering dehydration.

It was not immediately known late Saturday whether Meyer's abrupt resignation is related to his cyst or recent hospital stay. Also immediately unanswerable: Speculation that Gators receivers coach Billy Gonzales' leaving UF on Dec. 11 for a similar position at Louisiana State may have been related to knowledge within the staff that Meyer's leaving for health reasons was imminent.

In any case, what were the odds that the University of Miami's Hurricanes with Randy Shannon would be the beacon of stability today among the state's Big Three college football programs?

Florida State icon Bobby Bowden prepares for his final game as the Seminoles' head coach at age 80 after being eased out -- no, more like shoved out, albeit with velvet-gloved hands -- one year earlier than he'd planned and hoped to retire.

Now the stunning Meyer announcement that was breaking news Saturday and breaking hearts all over Gainesville.

You want some instant perspective?

Feel bad not for Bowden or Penn State's Joe Paterno, octogenarian coaches trying to keep their jobs.

Feel bad for a 45-year-old man facing a medical crisis and praying to get to octogenarian status.

Sports' calendar year is ending with a second national stunner, for sure.

Nothing can top the fall of Tiger Woods, whose impeccable public image crumbled in a crush of tawdry scandal, of tabloid revelations of infidelity.

The Meyer development, though, hits with the same jarring, gut-punch suddenness.

Meyer was the Tiger Woods of his sport -- no college football coach was flying higher -- and now, just like Woods, though for immensely different reasons, everything has changed to the extreme for him, and quite literally overnight.

Meyer was 56-10 in five Florida seasons entering this week's game, including a 32-2 mark at home in The Swamp. Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News called him coach of the decade. He was a man obsessed with and seeing no further than Florida's Sugar Bowl date and recruiting to follow.

Then something changed.

For driven football coaches, priorities usually change only when absolutely necessary, like when unsmiling doctors say they must.

You'll hear a certain rote wish a lot over the next few days. Wish it for Urban Meyer, no matter the college team you cheer for or hate. Wish it and mean it.

``Health in the new year . . ."

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