Then it hit. The pain stampeded through his skull, near-blinding, far worse than the time in South Bend: "It was killing me," Meyer says. The Utes won, the game ended in a roiling riot of celebration, and, Lord, Meyer tried. He took his ecstatic players into the locker room and led them in prayer, grinning to show he was happy, though the grinning hurt too. He stumbled into the training room, and the men there laid him out on a table.
This time Meyer didn't blow it off. He went to a doctor the following week, and when he was shown the CAT scan, he could see the big, dark mass. "That's a tumor on my brain," Meyer said. "Oh my gosh...." He felt a flash of terror, saw images of Shelley and the girls and four-year old Nate, and at 39 he realized that he just might die.
But no: It wasn't a tumor but the same arachnoid cyst, inflamed again by stress, rage, excitement. Again, a doctor told Meyer he had to ease up. This time he listened. "Ever since that day, on the sideline you'll see me—I'm trying to stay very composed," he says. "I have headaches, but not like that. I've changed."
It helped, of course, that by then Meyer was well on his way to the coaching elite. His stop before Utah, Bowling Green, had all the handicaps of a mid-level program gambling on a first-time head coach: a 2--9 record and a roster full of, Meyer says, "drugs and misfits." A week after his hiring, in 2001, 27 players skipped study table, so Meyer summoned the team to the training facility at 5 a.m. Garbage cans stood along the sidelines, and for the next three hours Meyer ran the players without mercy. Some walked out, never to return, and about half vomited. "It went forever," says Ryan Wingrove, then a senior defensive end.
That session came to be known as Black Wednesday, but those who stayed noticed a startling shift in atmosphere. "Everything was team," Wingrove says. "Everything was together. On Thursday coaches' wives and their kids were there after practice handing out candy. [Coach Meyer] had us over to his house. Whether you were a starter or a last-string guy, you felt part of it."
But on the eve of his first game, at Missouri, Meyer wasn't sure love and toughness would be enough. His roster was depleted. He asked Shelley, "How many years do you think they'll keep us if we don't win a game?"
Bowling Green won 20--13 that day and went 8--3 to complete the most startling turnaround of the 2001 season. Nine wins the following year brought Utah to Meyer's door, and though the challenge in Salt Lake City wasn't nearly as extreme as at Bowling Green, Meyer had to build all over again. He ran the Utes through another infamous conditioning drill—chains on the doors and garbage cans awash in vomit—but the worst part was the four months he spent away from his family. Shelley, the only person he fully trusted, was back in Ohio with the kids, finishing out the school year.
"It doesn't matter if I get home at two in the morning, she's up," Meyer says. "She knows I need that 15 minutes of decompression; we're going to discuss the children, whatever. I need that 15 minutes. And every morning, whether I get up at 4, 3:30, 5, she'll get up and we'll have a cup of coffee and those 15 minutes. That's 30 minutes of husband-and-wife time. If I don't get that? It's not good. Some people have vices, some people have magic pills. I have the woman I've been married to for 20 years."
The Utes went 10--2 in 2003, and Meyer's reputation soared; top-tier programs began to circle. Twelve years after coaching with Meyer at Colorado State, Chuck Heater joined the Utah staff as cornerbacks coach for the 2004 season. It took a week for him to realize how much Meyer had grown. "I marveled," says Heater, now Florida's assistant defensive coordinator. "It's like a guy reads a manual and jumps behind the wheel of an F-16 and somehow knows how to fly it. He combined it all: intelligence, great work ethic, great personal skills."
Meyer's approach to troubled players, though, was still evolving. Utah tailback Marty Johnson had one drunk-driving conviction before Meyer's arrival, and the new coach at first tried supporting his sobriety by including Johnson in family activities, such as his daughter Gigi's softball games. But when Johnson was arrested for another DUI in the fall of '03, all the old-school instincts kicked in and Meyer thought, I hope he goes to prison for a long time. No one would have blinked had Meyer cut him loose.