The first one struck 11 years ago, amid the chaos of a Notre Dame sideline. Urban Meyer was a 34-year-old whirl of activity then, an assistant coach on the rise. Big-name coaches had marked him; boosters were taking note. The guy was coming. The guy was brainy and disciplined and ravenously aware of what he didn't know. The walls of his boyhood home had been plastered with photos of America's coaching legends, and he already had that sideline act down: the steely Tom Landry gaze, the Don Shula chin jut, that awful, exhilarating Woody Hayes temper primed and ready to blow.
"Get cord!" Meyer would snap at the staffer tasked with trailing him on the sideline, headset wire in hand, as Meyer tried to keep up with his receiving corps. "You're not giving me enough cord!" It didn't matter that the wire was stretched to the snapping point; Meyer was a leashed Doberman, straining to get kitty. He always needed more.
Any football game is a hurricane of ego and testosterone, but a Notre Dame--Michigan showdown has a way of ratcheting the tension to mind-bending levels. Meyer loved the storm; hell, he was the storm. His players dubbed him the Lunatic because he made the usual coaching martinets seem sane. He head-butted his helmeted charges before games. He wailed "Nooooo!" as if facing ruin, when practice got rained out. He sprinted 40 yards down the practice field to get in the face of a player who ran the wrong route. As Irish flanker Joey Getherall remembers it, one time Meyer even punched him in the shoulder pads, bare-knuckled.
Film sessions were no calmer: Meyer shattered one remote against a wall, fired another right through the TV screen. "The second time, a guy missed a block and [Meyer] just lost it," says Getherall. "We'd lost in the last second to Michigan State, and he went berserk—screaming, ready to cry almost. That's how intense he was."
Getherall, raised by a loud and proud Marine, learned to shrug off such tirades. He even thought it funny, at first, when late in that 1998 win over Michigan he saw Meyer reeling: eyes saucered, face gone pale, knocked nearly unconscious by a blast of pain. "My head!" Meyer roared. He was holding the earflaps of his headset, sinking to a knee as if his usual storm—all that furious ambition and energy—had backfired at the source. "Agggghhh!" Meyer bellowed again. "My head!"
It felt, Meyer would later say, like his skull was being split by an ax. He moved to the bench, caught his breath, got back up. He'd had headaches before but nothing like this. Any movement might bring back the pain; he felt it hovering. He was scared. As the clock spun down, every play, every twist, felt like a threat.
But he kept coaching.
Normal isn't supposed to do this. Normal doesn't produce greatness or the manic need to reach it—at least that's what we've come to believe. The artist, the champion, has to have some crack in the porcelain, some hole to fill, some "Rosebud!" moment to explain that superhuman drive. Maybe Mama died or Dad left; maybe it was poverty or shame. Freud and Dickens and Dick Ebersol so often linked childhood trauma to accomplishment that today the rise of a figure like Urban Meyer almost comes off as odd.
Because at first glance the premier college football coach in the land, whose Florida Gators have won two of the last three national championships and have another in sight—depending on the outcome of their SEC title game against Alabama on Saturday—grew up in a home so stable that it's a near caricature of normal. His parents, Urban Jr. (known as Bud) and Gisela, were married 38 years and raised their three kids in Ashtabula, Ohio, insulated from the Rust Belt town's economic decline by Bud's job as a chemical engineer and Gisela's as a gourmet chef. They lived on Lake Erie, and when young Urban III wasn't playing baseball, he spent his summers tacking between a country club and a yacht club. He wanted for nothing; he'd stop at the hotel kitchen where his mom worked for a sandwich before football practice. "He was ordinary," Bud likes to say.
The children were close. Asked what she wanted for her 19th birthday, Urban's older sister, Gigi, requested only that he hit his first professional home run for her. "You're getting something in the mail," he said to Gigi on the phone from the minor leagues nearly a year later. The ball sits on her mantel today.