When news broke last December that Urban Meyer was retiring as head football coach at the University of Florida, I know exactly where I was, who I was with and what I was doing. I was in New Jersey , with a female friend, about to go to a Nets game that I’d gotten free tickets for earlier that day.
When the news broke, I remember how I felt too: It crushed me.
Now understand, it’s not because I have any affiliation with the University of Florida. I don’t. It’s not that I have any affiliation with Urban Meyer, because honestly, I’d be less surprised if Martians landed on my front lawn than if Meyer knew who I was, or anything about this site.
At the same time, when the news broke I was devastated none the less.
Whenever such an important figure, in something that you care about as much as I do college football, steps away at the height of their powers, it’s always a tough pill to swallow. The fact that had I started this website just a few months before that announcement, and had written more about Meyer’s Gators than anything else at that point didn’t help. Imagine that you were an aspiring actress, and had just moved to Hollywood, only to find out that James Cameron or Steven Spielberg was retiring. Even if you'd never work with them personally, you’d still be bummed, right? That’s how I felt about Meyer.
Of course after the original announcement, we all know what happened. Meyer ended up having a change of heart, and a few hours later altered his “retirement,” to a “leave of absence.” As the days went on, and Meyer’s focus turned to bowl game preparation, recruiting and spring practice, that leave of absence turned into nothing more than a few missed booster club appearances and press conferences. All of a sudden, Meyer was like a college kid deciding to “quit drinking,” then taking off a Friday and Saturday, before returning to the bar the following weekend. By the time this September rolled around, it was almost like Meyer's retirement never happened.
Which of course brings us full-circle to this Wednesday afternoon, when for the second time in as many December’s, Urban Meyer stepped down as the head football coach at the University of Florida. As expected, it led a lot of people to question the difference between this year and last, and if Meyer was serious about staying away this time. It also led a couple snarky Twitter commentators to remind everyone keeping score at home, that as Meyer gets set to coach his last game against Penn State, he now has two more retirements under his belt than Joe Paterno does. You know, despite being nearly half his age.
Personally, I do take Meyer at his word for this time.
From all reports and accounts, Meyer has none of the health issues that forced his abrupt retirement last time around. Unlike a year ago, he doesn’t have a doctor hanging a statement like “If you don’t slow down, you could end up dead on the field,” over his head. Meyer appears healthy, but not necessarily happy, which is why he’s leaving his position. He wants to spend more time with his family.
Which is great, but it’s also where I’m torn on Urban Meyer and his second retirement. Unlike this time last year, I don’t have a sense of sadness and compassion. Well I have some, but unfortunately, they’re mixed with doubt and uncertainty.
Let me explain.
On the one hand, I was blessed enough to be raised in a house where my parents instilled in me the most important lesson on this planet: A man’s most significant job in life is to be a loving husband and father.
If that’s why Meyer is leaving, more power to him. We live in a world where coaches sell the fans, media and recruits on their programs as one, big, happy 85 person “family," but unfortunately, the truth is, half these guys would sell their own real life families to the highest bidders. Especially if in exchange, it brought a defensive lineman that could run a 4.5 40 or a quarterback that could throw a perfect 25 yard out (I’m looking at you Bobby Petrino). Sadly, the coaches who won't stoop to those levels, usually don’t make it very long in the business.
Of course, in these coaches defense, as much as I’d like to blame them, I can’t.
The truth is, the pressure we put on them is unreal, unfair, and downright outrageous, not to mention impossible for one man to burden. We pay them an ungodly amount of money, which means that beyond just the results on Saturday’s, we as fans expect our coach to be a surrogate father to 85 young men, a pillar in the local community, and make more weekly media appearances, signings, call in shows and alumni brunches than a Kardashian sister. Not to mention that, oh by the way, you better win too. One loss might be fine, but get to two or three and someone, somewhere will be calling for your head. Look at Mack Brown this season. Nine straight 10+ win seasons couldn’t spare some of his assistants their jobs.
Well guess what? With that kind of pressure, something’s gotta give, and sadly it’s usually dinner with your wife, walking the dog or your daughter’s dance recital. That’s the sad reality of the situation. As fans, we want our coaches to be role models, just as long as they keep winning. If they don’t, well, we want to know why they’re not looking over more game film, recruiting harder, and sleeping on the couches in their offices. Dance recitals, Boy Scout meetings and anniversary dinners by damned. It’s no wonder these guys crack, right?
So again to Meyer’s credit, if he is stepping down to spend more time with his wife and kids, God Bless him. He truly is everything that we want our coaches to be, and maybe just a bit more. I truthfully, from the bottom of my heart, hope that retirement gives him every ounce of fulfillment he’s expecting.
At the same time, I’m also a realist. And as much as I’m dying to believe Meyer, dying to believe that he’s a beacon and pillar of everything that can be right in this world, I guess I have my doubts.
The truth is, that along with being a realist, I’m also a huge college football fan. And right now those two characteristics are conflicting violently in my head. Because as Meyer gets set to leave this program, this is an honest assessment of where things are: Florida is on its way down. Sure that might be a bit of my own opinion. But it’s also based on some pretty tangible facts.
Here is the true state of things of at Florida: They’re come off a 7-5 regular that had more twists, turns and drama than a season of Jersey Shore. There were injuries, suspensions, arrests, bickering and calls for coaching upheaval. And honestly, I just don’t see how things would’ve been any better next year.
Florida’s offense (which was once Meyer’s calling card) was so bad that I once called it the “Airport Terminal Offense.” Everyone was bumping into everyone else, people were tripping over each other’s feet, and no one seemed to know where they were going at any given time.
Heading into 2011, a full 18 months after Tim Tebow will have been drafted by the Denver Broncos, I don’t suspect they’ll have an answer at quarterback. Jordan Reed is talented but inexperienced; Trey Burton rarely showed much of an ability to throw the ball at all last season; and John Brantley, well…poor John Brantley. I firmly believe that he could be one of the best quarterbacks in all of college football, just not at Florida. Brantley's skill-set fits in about as well one of the Jonas Brothers would at a strip club. As in, not at all.
Meanwhile, everything else isn’t much better in Gainesville either.
The offensive line (which was supposed to be a strength of this team) struggled to block and snap all year, two pretty important traits for the position I’d say. The Gators have seemingly never been able to replace Percy Harvin as the primary playmaker in this offense, a point I’ve contended for two years now. As much as I love Jeffrey Demps and Chris Rainey, they’re not the type of player that can break one tackle, and turn a three yard loss into a 30 yard gain. Granted, not many people can. But for this offense to be running at full capacity, you need a little something better out of the skill positions than the Gators have been getting these last few years. Tebow covered up a lot of glaring problems these last few years. And from what I can tell there's not another guy anywhere close to his capability on this current Florida roster.
Finally, rounding out Meyer’s internal headaches, is the continued brain drain off his coaching staff. Dan Mullen left for Mississippi State two years ago, Charlie Strong last winter for Louisville and now Dan McCarney is headed for North Texas. It’s one thing to repeatedly lose players, that’s something every coach has to deal with. But to keep bringing in new coaches every year can’t be easy.
Then again, if it were just about a few coaching losses and personnel changes, it’d be one thing. A great coach like Meyer can overcome that. The problem is, Florida’s woes run much deeper.
Let’s take a look at the rest of the SEC. The West is absolutely stacked. Say what you want Alabama and the guys they might lose to the NFL in a month, but Nick Saban has that program humming. At Auburn, Gene Chizik might not go undefeated again anytime soon, but the way he’s recruiting, 7-5 doesn’t seem likely either. Les Miles continues to (somehow) convince boatloads of talented 17 and 18-year-old kids to come play for him in Baton Rouge. And what Mullen and Petrino did at Mississippi State and Arkansas respectively this year, are two of the more underrated coaching jobs in the country.
By the way, did I mention that’s just the West? In the East, South Carolina just made their first trip to the SEC Championship Game and will bring back the two most dynamic play-makers in the division (Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore) next fall. Georgia’s only going to keep going up, as long as Aaron Murray continues to develop at quarterback. And as for Tennessee, I just can’t see them being any worse in the coming years than they were this past season. You know, considering that they basically started all freshmen and sophomores.
When you factor in that Jimbo Fisher is killing it on the recruiting trail at Florida State, I’ve got to wonder if it was realistic to expect Meyer to finish much better than the 7-5 he did this year? if he came back, where were the wins coming from exactly?
(By the way, the most compelling part of this whole retirement announcement is the Cam Newton angle.
Look, I hate playing the “What if,” game with stuff like this, and regardless of what the real reasons were behind Newton leaving Florida, I’m glad he did. What he’s done on the field at Auburn this fall has been one of my favorite storylines in recent sports memory.
But I’ve got to say, if Newton had never left Florida, what kind of season would be looking at in Gainesville right now? At worst we’re talking 10-2 and a BCS at-large berth right? Would Meyer be walking away if that were the case? It's obviously possible considering that he almost did the same last year. I guess I just doubt it though.)
So in the end, I’m going to wrap up this column right where I started it. Urban Meyer’s retirement has me torn. If he stays retired (which I fully expect him to), it’s sad to see such a brilliant mind, such a great coach taken in his prime. At the same time credit to him for putting the important things in life, mainly his kids, his wife and his health into their proper context.
But I can’t help but get past the idea that as much as Meyer’s retirement has to do with PTO meetings, high school sporting events and date night’s with his wife, it also has plenty to do with wins, losses and his legacy as well.
And honestly, I hope I’m wrong about that. I really do.
I hope in six months, and in six years I’ll be eating my words, and that Meyer does 100 times more good off the field than he ever did on it. I truly hope that in two decades, questioning Meyer’s retirement motives goes down as one of the biggest regrets of my writing career.
But again, I’m a realist and a college football fan. And those two characteristics are conflicting right now.
Urban Meyer retired from football today, and he did it for a lot of the right reasons.
I’m just wondering if he did it for a few of the wrong ones too.
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