Colorado State won five games in 1993, 10 the next. Meyer credits Lubick with saving his coaching career—he learned the value of relating to players, of talking instead of screaming, of letting a kid know that his coach cared—and describes his pre-Sonny self in the half-horrified, half-proud tone of a reformed partyer recounting the wild days. "Out of my mind," he says. "I took my job so seriously that it was nuts."
His remorse is so emphatic that Meyer watchers speculate that after the crusty influence of Bud and Bruce, Lubick had freed Urban to follow Gisela's warmer example. The resulting combination resonated more with a generation of players that had replaced Yessir! with Why? Meyer made an effort to encourage his receivers as well as harangue them. "He did change his style," Phillips says. "To some extent."
In truth the players joke that the arrival of his daughters—Nicole in September 1990 and Gigi in March 1993—saved them more grief than anything Lubick did. The new father discovered his softer side, touching off an internal tug-of-war between coaching styles that has yet to end. Indeed, when he moved to Notre Dame as wide receivers coach in 1996, his new players hardly felt coddled; Meyer brought Vietnam with him, screamed for ever-harder hits, loved it when gold paint chips flew off the helmets.
Off the field, though, he began reaching out. "He would put his players through the wringer," says Mickey Marotti, then Notre Dame's strength coach (and now Florida's), "then in summer they were over at his house every night playing cards." If anything, his intensity had deepened: Now Meyer would also care harder than other coaches. Shelley and the kids became part of his players' lives. The job became even more consuming; after a weekday snowstorm dropped 19 inches on South Bend, closing his daughters' school, a distracted Meyer dropped them off there anyway. "Not one car in the parking lot, and he takes off to work," Marotti says. "Kids are trying to get in, there's nobody there, a neighbor had to come over. He didn't even notice."
After that siege of head pain during the Michigan game in 1998, doctors discovered an arachnoid cyst on Meyer's brain. It wasn't life-threatening, but the doctors warned that the attacks would continue to flare up under high stress. Urban wasn't nearly as concerned as Shelley. "I know you want to be a head coach," she told him, "but if it's going to make you sick and old and crazy? I don't want you to be a head coach."
Questions about family and mortality arose from another flank, too. Gisela was found to have breast cancer in 1987 and began years of treatment. In 1989, the same month the Berlin Wall fell, Gisela's mom died in West Germany, and Gisela returned to Muppberg for the first time in four decades to bury her mother next to her father. People squinted, recognized her. There was a frayed East German flag flying on a pole in her old yard. Her daughters had it hauled down and brought it back to Cincinnati.
Gisela returned again in the summer of '91, this time with Urban and Shelley, and they went to the mansion he'd been hearing about all his life, made shabby by years of hard use. Gisela led them past the place where the Christmas tree once stood, upstairs to her parents' old bedroom. There, on the doorjamb, were her heights marked in pencil, GISELA, 8 YEARS OLD. GISELA, 9 YEARS OLD.... Tears filled her eyes.
These were the days before everyone had a cellphone. By the end, Gisela had gone through chemotherapy a half-dozen times, and Urban had set up a routine before each Notre Dame game: After the speeches and the final warmups, with exactly 7:30 left before kickoff, he'd sprint off the field, through a door the trainer would hold open, and dial Ashtabula. "Hi, Mom!" he would say. "How you doing? I love you. Are you watching?"
Gisela died in June 2000, 64 years old. "She never saw me coach a game as a head coach," Meyer says. "That was her dream. That was all she talked about ... all she talked about ... all she talked about." Told that he must miss her, Meyer doesn't hesitate. "Horribly," he says.
The second one struck six years ago, just as the nation was seeing what Urban Meyer could do. It was his fifth game as coach at Utah, a program long known for gagging against ranked opponents. No. 19 Oregon had come to town, and ESPN2 was beaming the game from Salt Lake City to the masses, so Meyer unleashed his whole repertoire—not just the shovel passes and quarterback draws that had gotten him through the first third of the season, but also long downfield throws, the option, reverses, even a squib kick after a field goal. The Utes took a 17--13 lead early in the fourth, 44,000-plus fans howling in the night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. All that was needed to seal one of the biggest wins in school history was for the defense to hold, no mistakes, no panic....