If you didn't know the bizarre-world machinations that led up to the 2010 Sugar Bowl (page 50), of course, the image would've made no sense: Florida head coach Urban Meyer, as the clock expired on his team's 51--24 dismantling of Cincinnati, hands clasped and looking skyward as if to say, Thanks for getting me through this. You'd never think the Gators had just lifted their record to 13--1, ensured themselves of a top 3 finish or sent off senior quarterback Tim Tebow in high style. You'd think the man was seriously confused.
But Meyer's reaction was, considering everything, entirely appropriate. By New Year's Day, after all, the 45-year-old Meyer had revealed a history of chest pains; resigned, vowing to devote himself to his family ("I've got my daddy back," said his 18-year-old daughter, Nicki); changed his mind and taken an indefinite leave of absence; and left the nation's premier college football program—recruits, assistants and all—dangling while he pondered whether he can somehow keep coaching at blue-flame intensity without the job killing him. The man isn't confused: He's in full-blown crisis.
Such a twist in the career of arguably the best coach in the game was at once shocking and predictable. Meyer's history of headaches, postloss desolation, in-season weight loss—not to mention the knee-buckling pain caused by the stress-triggered arachnoid cyst on his brain—had long been a concern to family and friends (SI, Dec. 7, 2009). But even with the occasional chest twinge, before this season Meyer had calmed his once-frenzied approach to the point that he, and his wife, Shelley, had jettisoned a long-held plan for him to retire at 50. After short stints at Bowling Green and Utah, he had seemingly found his professional pace and home.
"He's finally stayed somewhere long enough to where the team is where he wants it," Shelley said last July. "I told him that. We've been here four seasons, he's getting the guys he wants in here, everybody's buying into the program, everybody knows the expectations and the rules. This is what you've been working for. Why would you want to leave it now?"
Meyer, too, spoke about settling in for the long haul in Gainesville. "I've adjusted my lifestyle, my temperament," he said then. "I can see me doing this—and I've talked to my wife about this—well beyond 50."
Still, Meyer is result-oriented in the extreme, most comfortable in a black-and-white world with measurable wins, losses, achievements and failures—and this season left him too often swimming in waters gone gray. From the early flu bug that coursed through his roster, to Tebow's September concussion and the resultant debate on his playing status, to the December DUI arrest of defensive end Carlos Dunlap and the sudden departure in December of longtime assistant Billy Gonzales, Meyer found himself blindsided by issues resistant to clear-cut answers. Handling the unexpected may be part of the job description. But the anxiety left him, by the end, sleepless, haggard and, in the early morning hours after losing badly to Alabama in the SEC championship game, complaining of chest pain and tingling in his side, laid out on his bedroom floor.
For now the Florida program seems to be weathering the storm caused by Meyer's indecision. Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio will take over as interim coach, and last weekend two prized recruits (wideout Chris Dunkley of Pahokee, Fla.; and Staten Island, N.Y., defensive end Dominique Easley) verbally committed to joining the Gators in the fall. Still, the recording of Shelley Meyer, a psychiatric nurse, calling 911 at 4:27 a.m., coolly describing symptoms while trying to rouse her Ambien-drugged husband ("Urban, honey, wake up") is as terrifying a commentary on the coaching life as there ever was. To hear it is to understand how Meyer could want to quit, take a leave, take stock. To hear it is to know why, out of nowhere, he suddenly appears lost.