Florida's Meyer goes out a winner, finds state of peace at long last
Florida beat Penn State in the Outback Bowl in Urban Meyer's last game as coach
Meyer didn't know how the end of the game would hit him, but it hit him hard
We don't know what Meyer will do next; for now he seems like a man at peace
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TAMPA, Fla. -- When the interception happened, Urban Meyer finally seemed to be at peace. It has been a turbulent football career, hasn't it? There were the frantic early years when he constantly felt ready to explode, when his ambition and fury and need for perfection won him the nickname "The Lunatic." There were the two years he spent reinventing Bowling Green football. There were the two years he spent winning and showing the possibilities of something called the spread offense at Utah.
In 2005 he came to Florida and endured what he called the most miserable year of his life (a 9-3 season). He won a national championship in his second year. And it was as he was walking off the field after that national championship victory, according to this marvelous and fascinating story by S.L. Price, that Bud Meyer, Urban's father, said: "It's about time you did that." It was his sixth year as a head coach.
He won another national championship, and he coached Tim Tebow for four wonderful years, and a few of his players made news for getting in trouble, and Florida kept on winning, and Meyer had some health scares, and he said through tears that he was going to walk away, and then he decided to take a leave of absence instead, and then he came back, and Florida had a rough year, and finally, less than a month ago, he retired from football. No, there never seemed a moment's peace, and no, there wasn't a moment's peace all week as Florida prepared for its Outback Bowl game against Joe Paterno and Penn State. The stark comparison between Paterno, who has been coaching at Penn State since 1950 and has no interest in going anywhere, and Meyer, who has coached at seven schools since 1987 and is walking away at age 46, was too rich to ignore. Even Meyer had to laugh when asked about it. "There's only one Joe Paterno," he said.
So, no, there was not much peace to be had, and there wasn't for 59 minutes of this game either. It was artless but enthusiastic football played by two 7-5 teams that had hoped to be better. Penn State seemed to be the better team for a while, and then Florida blocked a punt. Penn State seemed in position to put the game away, but the Nittany Lions kept turning over the ball. It was one of those games that both teams very badly wanted to win, but neither team seemed particularly well positioned to win -- like two players going after a fumble in the mud.
Then came the interception. There was less than a minute left in the fourth quarter, and Florida led Penn State by six. But the Nittany Lions were driving. They had the ball at the Florida 25. Meyer has lost one bowl game in his head coaching career -- a Capital One Bowl against Michigan in 2008 that only Florida and Michigan fans would even remember -- and it STILL haunts him. "It's terrible to lose a bowl game," he said, and he emphasized terrible so that it sounded like a Charles Barkley "TU-rrible." One can only imagine the agony of losing the last bowl game he might ever coach.
Then, Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin -- a former walk-on -- tried to throw a quick pass to the tight end. Florida safety Ahmad Black -- "The best safety in college football," Meyer would gush afterward -- took the ball away and ran 80 yards for the touchdown that sealed the game.
And Urban Meyer finally looked comfortable and happy and calm. He has never really opened his soul to the public on this retirement thing. That's not exactly his style. "I think I've said what I'm going to say about it," was his typical response during the week, even though he hasn't said very much about it. There are some who think it is health related -- health was one of the reasons he gave for resigning last year -- and there are some who think he just wants a break and will return to the game soon, and there are some who think he is simply burned out and wants to relax and do a little TV like other burned out coaches, and there are some ... well, people will think what they will think.
But the interception opened him up. It wasn't anything he said. It was how he looked. His whole face regained color. His wife Shelley and two daughters -- all dressed in Florida orange -- came down on the field. They all hugged. Players dumped blue Gatorade on his head. And, he would say, he started to feel this powerful emotion. He wasn't sure how the last few moments of the game would hit him. They seemed to hit him hard.
The last few seconds of the game seemed to last an eternity for everyone else -- the last few seconds always take too long in decided college football games -- but Meyer would say they rushed by for him in a blur. He wandered on the field and got the congratulatory handshake from Paterno, the man he calls the greatest coach in the history of college football. He saw his defensive coordinator and longtime friend Chuck Heater. "I love you," Meyer would remember Heater saying. "What a run." And Heater was tearing up.
Then he went over to the band with Shelley, and they sang the Florida alma mater, and they were soon both crying.
Urban Meyer is 46 years old, and he has won two national championships, and he was one of the architects of the spread offensive revolution, and he says he is walking away from coaching. He insists he wants to stay around the game, but not as a coach, not now. He wants to see his daughters play sports. He wants to spend time with his family. Nobody -- probably not even Meyer himself -- knows how he will handle life away from the madness, away from the daily grind when there is always too much to do, always too many problems to solve, always a scoreboard to tell you just how well you did.
But after the interception, after the win, Meyer said he was at peace. And he did look at peace. When asked about his emotions as Black ran the ball back, Meyer said all he was thinking was that if Black had picked up a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting as he scored, Meyer would have "punched him in the face." It seems that Black used to be demonstrative like that. But four years of playing football for Urban Meyer calmed him. He did not get a penalty.
"Ahmad Black is a grown man," Meyer said. Then he talked about how new Florida coach Will Muschamp will be getting a hell of a talented team, and how happy he was to see the smiles of those senior players, and how he is ready now to face the rest of his life. What will that life look like? Will he simply return in a year like so many coaches do? Will he go pro? Will he try to bring another college to the heights? There's no telling. But after the interception, Urban Meyer looked happy to get back to his wife and daughters. He looked like, at least for today, he was ready to let his mind rest for a little while.