Coach Urban Meyer Takes Timeout for His Health
NEW ORLEANS - The immediate future for Florida's football program, the nation's most consistent over the past half-decade, is full of uncertainty after coach Urban Meyer announced Sunday that he will take an indefinite leave of absence following Friday's Allstate Sugar Bowl to deal with health issues.
Meyer's announcement culminated a dizzying 24-hour series of events that ended with as many questions as answers. It began with the university issuing a lengthy news release saying Meyer had decided to resign and included Meyer discussing that decision Sunday morning in an interview with a newspaper based in Gainesville, Fla.
But after running practice later Sunday morning, Meyer spoke with Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley about changing status. Then, after the team flew to New Orleans for the bowl game, Meyer said during a news conference that he not only will direct the Gators against Cincinnati this week but also expects to be on the sideline when Florida begins play next season.
"I do in my gut believe that will happen," he said, flanked by Foley on one side and by star seniors Tim Tebow and Ryan Stamper on the other.
However, no timetable has been set for a return, Meyer provided few specifics about his health situation beyond describing chest pains he has been experiencing, and within moments of the discussion about his possible return, Foley said the primary concern is to get Meyer healthy.
"If I could jump in, I just want to follow up," Foley said. "The intent here is to make sure that Urban goes and deals with the issues that he discussed last night. Those issues still remain. Those are very significant concerns for the University of Florida and for those of us who love Urban Meyer. And so, getting into when are you going to come back or this game or that game, this is a long-term conversation. When it's time, it'll be time."
Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio will run the team during Meyer's absence. Other issues remain unresolved, ranging from Meyer's medical condition and role during his absence to who will decide on replacements for defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, now Louisville's head coach, and receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Billy Gonzalez, now LSU's passing game coordinator and receivers coach.
"It's a unique situation," said Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, who has been in college coaching or administration for more than 50 years. Meyer "is going to have to find out about a lot of different aspects about it, (aspects) that he hasn't even thought about."
National letter-of-intent signing day for recruits is less than six weeks away.
"It leaves more questions than answers for a lot of recruits," said Jeremy Crabtree, football recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "Urban Meyer is so involved with their recruiting process, he's built a lot of relationships with these players. He's a big reason why they selected the University of Florida. You're already seeing other schools doing their best to say, 'We don't have an uncertain situation.' The SEC is cutthroat."
Florida was already looking at a period of transition on the field before the weekend's events. Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and the on-field face of the program in recent seasons, plays his last game Friday. Florida also could lose several non-seniors to the NFL draft, and No. 1-ranked Alabama has replaced the Gators as the Southeastern Conference's best team, at least for now, and is favored to win the national championship game next week.
Meyer, 45, was hospitalized after the Dec. 5 SEC title game against Alabama with chest pains and said Sunday that he had experienced similar problems over the past four years. The pains "became rather significant two years ago."
"I was very concerned and started to become alarmed," he said, and he referenced Wake Forest men's basketball coach Skip Prosser's death from a heart attack at age 56 in 2007.
Meyer said he had not had a heart attack but would not elaborate on the specifics of his physical condition. Asked if doctors advised him to stop coaching, he again declined to answer.
Foley, after the news conference, said, "There's no heart defect."
Changes mind at Sunday practice(AT)
After announcing Saturday that he would resign, Meyer said he changed his mind Sunday at practice in Gainesville, Fla., when he saw his players and coaching staff going full bore in preparation for the bowl, despite Saturday's emotional meeting in which he told the team of his plans to resign.
"When you watched those young guys today, and the staff, to not try would not be the right thing to do," he said.
As late as 8:05 Sunday morning, the Gainesville Sun newspaper had a story on its Web site in which Meyer talked about his reasons for resigning.
However, he was quoted as saying: "I'm going through a lot of soul-searching today. I feel like I have let a lot of people down."
The possibility of a leave of absence had been brought up earlier by university president Bernie Machen, Meyer said.
Meyer, who has a 95-18 record in nine years as a head coach, would have been walking away from a contract that pays him about $4 million a year if he had resigned.
Meyer's wife, Shelley, told the Orlando Sentinel after Saturday's news broke that there was "no chance" Meyer would change his mind about quitting. "This is the best decision for him and us right now," she told the paper.
Meyer said at Sunday's news conference that his family learned of his change "as we stepped on the plane." After Sunday's news conference, Shelley Meyer said: "I really look for him to be able to enjoy his kids and do some stuff with us as a family. That's what he's been feeling guilty about and part of his misery. Now that he's had these signs, I think he'll make a really good attempt to do that."
Foley should be a good enabler, saying Meyer will not be allowed at the Gators' football offices following the Sugar Bowl by mutual agreement. He wants his coach back, but only when he's ready.
"The Urban Meyers of the world are hard to come by," Foley said. "You can't coach when your chest hurts."
The situation is somewhat reminiscent of a decision made in spring 2007 by Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan, who announced he was leaving the Gators after winning two consecutive national championships to take over as coach of the Orlando Magic of the NBA.
Less than a week later, Donovan was back in Gainesville, having changed his mind.
There have been off-field issues for Meyer to deal with in his tenure.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that members of this year's team have been issued 251 traffic citations in Florida's Alachua County in the past four years, ranging from speeding tickets to numerous cases of driving with a suspended or revoked license.
Four days before the loss to Alabama, defensive end Carlos Dunlap was arrested on a DUI charge. Meyer suspended him from the game.