Ailing Gator mentor taking indefinite leave
Posted: Monday, December 28, 2009 6:05 pm
By: By MARK LONG, AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Florida coach Urban Meyer tried it his way for years. Long days, late nights, seemingly endless recruiting trips and little time for his health and family.
After countless headaches, four years of chest pain and an alarming trip to the hospital three weeks ago, it was time for a different approach.
How much Meyer’s routine varies remains to be seen. But with his well-being still a major concern, Meyer withdrew his brief resignation and decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from Florida. He will coach the fifth-ranked Gators in the Sugar Bowl against No. 4 Cincinnati on New Year’s Day, then take some time off in hopes of alleviating recurring chest pains.
How will he handle being away from football?
“We’re going to find out,” said his wife, Shelley. “We’ve just got to see how he handles his leisure time. I’ve never seen him handle leisure time. That’s like an oxymoron.”
Meyer’s announcement Sunday capped a wild weekend for Florida. He stunned college football twice in a 20-hour span, first by saying he planned to walk away from coaching (on Saturday) and then by revealing he expects to be back on the sideline next season (on Sunday).
“I do in my gut believe that will happen,” Meyer said.
Flanked by athletic director Jeremy Foley and quarterback Tim Tebow, the 45-year-old Meyer stoically responded to repeated questions about his health, his heart and his head. With his wife and three children seated a few feet in front of him, Meyer declined to reveal much detail about his condition.
He acknowledged the possibility he might need a procedure to alleviate chest pains that started four years ago, but would not say if he had a heart condition. He insisted he didn’t have a heart attack and refused to say whether doctors told him he needed to step away.
“I’d rather not get into that,” he said.
This much he made clear: Players prompted his about-face.
First, he witnessed their tearful reaction to his resignation Saturday evening. Then he spent a few hours with them during a “spirited practice” on Sunday.
“It’s very simple,” Meyer said. “The love that I have for these players, I think that’s well documented. Maybe one of the issues that I deal with is that I care so deeply about each individual. … We’ve had a heck of a run, a run that we’re very proud of. And when I sat back and watched those young guys go at it today and our coaching staff and the program we’ve built, to not try would be not the right thing to do.”
Meyer called Foley from the practice field and told him he wanted to talk about a leave of absence — something school president Bernie Machen first mentioned a week earlier. Foley and several assistant coaches also tried to persuade Meyer to take an extended break, but the coach thought it would be better for the program, his health and his family to get away for good.
Meyer changed his mind in a hurry, even quicker than Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan did when he went through a similar ordeal in 2007. Donovan resigned to coach the NBA’s Orlando Magic only to have a change of heart and return to Gainesville, Fla., a few days later.
Meyer and Foley settled on a rough plan after practice. Meyer told his family as they arrived for the charter flight to New Orleans, then informed the team of his possible return.
“He just didn’t want this program to fail,” his oldest daughter, Nicki, said.
Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio will run the team during Meyer’s absence.
Meyer’s flip-flop drew some criticism and leaves Florida in coaching limbo for the final push for the nation’s top recruits. Surely others will use Florida’s unsettled coaching situation to lure recruits away from Gainesville.
Foley said he wasn’t concerned about the impact it might have.
“If he comes back as our coach, the University of Florida benefits,” Foley said. “Obviously, there’s a chance that won’t happen. You either need a coach then or you need a coach now. The difference about needing one later is that during this period of time, whatever it is, at the end of the day, we may end up with Urban Meyer. The Urban Meyers of the world are hard to come by.”
Tebow and linebacker Ryan Stamper called the last two days a whirlwind for everyone. They both sensed something was wrong during Saturday’s practice when Meyer said he loved them and gave subtle hints that “everything wasn’t right,” Tebow said.
Meyer told Sports Illustrated last month that he suffered from persistent headaches caused by an arachnoid cyst that becomes inflamed by stress, rage and excitement. His chest pains became public after the Southeastern Conference championship game three weeks ago. Meyer fainted getting out of bed and was rushed to the hospital for several hours of tests.
“It’s something that started about four years ago,” Meyer said. “It was chest pains that became rather significant two years ago. Whether it’s stress related … I started to become very alarmed with that. And then I’m a person of faith, and I just wanted to make sure I had my priorities straight. A lot of times coaches do not have their priorities straight. You put business before God and family, you have a problem.
“So when we had the issue, when I had to go to the hospital, and a couple issues after that was when I came to the conclusion that I had to re-prioritize everything. So that’s exactly what it is. I was advised that I have to get this right or it could lead to damage. That’s what made that decision.”