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He couldn't stand the heat, so he got out of the kitchen. No shame in that. Urban Meyer burned out after six seasons at Florida, then took some time off. Now that he's back—he was hired at Ohio State on Nov. 28—he knows there are people watching him to see if he has gone soft, if he still has his edge. He knows he's got something to prove.
"Of course that motivates me," says Meyer, who has gone soft. Not physically. Physically he's lean and fit but not gaunt the way he'd get at Florida, when his Gators were winning two national titles in three years and his most trusted assistants were leaving for head coaching gigs elsewhere. Lacking the same level of trust in their replacements, Meyer found himself trying to do everyone's job—micromanaging, forgetting to eat. Neglecting his health, failing to delegate, he worked himself sick. In December 2010 he resigned from Florida (for the second time, but the first time officially), citing the need to spend more time with his family, to find a new balance in his life.
He is also striving to find a different kind of balance—with mixed results, according to a recent critical story in the Sporting News. Meyer and his new staff are trying to walk that fine line between aggressive recruiting and falling afoul of NCAA bylaws governing contact with high school players. Citing unnamed sources, SN reported that Wisconsin accused ex-Buckeyes now in the NFL of phoning recruits, and that Ohio State coaches accidentally-on-purpose "bumped" into a four-star lineman during a "dead" period. Both forms of contact are NCAA no-nos.
Meyer forcefully refuted those allegations last week. "I want to say this real clear: There is no violation that we had as far as that whole conversation. I'm not sure why that keeps coming up. If you would bold that for me, underline it, there is no NCAA violation. There was not one turned in."
Well, that didn't take long. Before coaching one game in the Big Ten, Meyer had trod on toes from Madison to Ann Arbor. To anyone who has watched him turn around programs at Bowling Green, then Utah, then in Gainesville, this comes as zero surprise. Meyer has always operated with a near-total absence of regard for what others think of him. While he may be a bit of a loner—his intensity makes him slightly awkward socially—he's very comfortable venturing up to the edge of the rules, but never crossing the line, he insists. In the convocation of Big Ten coaches he is very much the unpolished arriviste. Between that glower and his SEC pedigree, there seems to be something Machiavellian and cutthroat about him. His coaching peers are right to feel threatened.
After spending the 2011 season as an analyst for ESPN, this son of Ashtabula, Ohio, was hired to take over a Buckeyes program still reeling from Tattoogate, which forced the resignation last May of Jim Tressel, the program's most successful coach since Woody Hayes. The gimlet-eyed Meyer took the Ohio State job when many of the nation's blue-chip players had already given nonbinding verbal commitments to other schools. But they'd made their decisions before Meyer arrived in Columbus. Perhaps, then, they would like to reconsider?
His instructions to his new staff were simple, recalls defensive line coach and ex--New England Patriot Mike Vrabel, one of three holdovers from Tressel's staff: "Let's talk to the best players in the country. Let's tell 'em who we are, tell 'em who we got, show 'em our excitement."
As Meyer's new offensive coordinator, Tom Herman, points out, it helps that "to some of these kids, he's kind of a rock star. And there's a lot of substance beneath the flair." Meyer's winning percentage (.819) is the second highest of any active coach, behind Boise State's Chris Petersen (.926). He's one of only two active coaches with multiple national titles. (His old 'Bama nemesis, Nick Saban, has three.) High school studs tend to take his calls.
With his new staff, Meyer transformed what was shaping up to be a below-average collection of talent for the Buckeyes, into the nation's No. 4 class, reeling in nine Rivals.com four- or five-star recruits who committed during the two months after Meyer was hired. That list included four-star, 6'6", 310-pound Kyle Dodson, an offensive tackle from Cleveland who'd previously pledged his troth to Wisconsin. During his national signing day news conference, Badgers coach Bret Bielema accused Meyer of "illegal" recruiting practices, though he did not delve into specifics. Two days later, at a meeting of Big Ten coaches in Chicago, Meyer and Bielema talked. "There are no hard feelings," reports Meyer, who may well have been speaking only for himself.
Meyer took the Ohio State job after signing two contracts: one from the university, which will pay him $24 million over six years, and another, composed on pink binder paper, from his daughter Nicki, a junior at Georgia Tech. Now framed and hanging on the wall behind his desk, the contract stipulates, among other things, that the 47-year-old Meyer eat three meals a day, exercise regularly and sleep with his phone turned off.