Urban Meyer’s own intensity did what opponents couldn’t — beat him – ESPN

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December 4, 2018 11:07 pm Published by

The relief that Urban Meyer showed in announcing his retirement from Ohio State on Tuesday could be seen in his quick smile, his light tone. He is a relatively young man, 54 years old, twice retired from stress-related illness.

“I believe I will not coach again,” Meyer said.

In the end, Meyer outlasted the Zach Smith scandal that scarred his final season. He certainly outlasted any and all comers that tried to beat him on the field. He will leave Ohio State after the Rose Bowl with a 7-0 record against Michigan, a 75-9 record against everyone else, one national championship and four Big Ten titles.

But the same intensity that his opponents couldn’t beat eventually bested him, too. For the second time in eight years, Meyer quit coaching because he said his body could no longer take the stress that he applied to it.

“It’s not healthy,” Meyer said in a nationally televised news conference on the Ohio State campus, “but I came to work every day with fear of letting people like [two-time Heisman winner] Archie Griffin and my great state of Ohio — our great state of Ohio — and this incredible university down.”

Ara Parseghian retired from Notre Dame at age 51, exhausted by the demands of the job. A closer parallel may be Frank Leahy, who led the Irish to four national championships in the 1940s before stress-related illnesses nearly killed him. He retired after the 1953 season at age 45 and never returned to coaching.

Some runners are best suited for the marathon; others for the sprint. Meyer won two national championships in six seasons at Florida and worked himself into such dire health he thought he might be dying. He lost 37 pounds. He had chest pains that he self-diagnosed as heart-related. They turned out to be esophageal spasms, but clearly he had coached himself into the hospital. Meyer quit, haggard and gaunt, in 2010 at age 46.

Meyer, an Ohio native, came to Columbus a year later and took his dream job as a new man. He declared himself more present. He signed a promise to his wife, Shelley, and three children that he would take better care of himself, commit to enjoy the journey. The family called it the Pink Contract, because Gigi, the oldest child, had written it on pink paper.

This go-round, Meyer lasted seven seasons. He won that national championship in 2014, his third season with the Buckeyes. He appeared to maintain his newfound perspective. But he continued to suffer from an arachnoid cyst, a congenital condition that is usually asymptomatic. Anyone who saw Meyer on the sideline at midseason could see that he had symptoms. He endured headaches that literally brought him to one knee.

The truth, Meyer said, is that he first contemplated quitting again in 2014. He underwent a procedure that alleviated the pain. But the headaches returned in 2017 — especially, he said, around the Penn State game. The Buckeyes came back from a 21-3 deficit in that game to win 39-38.

“It hit real hard,” Meyer said Tuesday, “and we have a great medical team that was over-the-top trying to help me through it. Was on medicine and all that. We had conversations back then, about longevity and the seriousness of it, because as they said, it’s not your elbow or your foot. We were talking about something else.”

The pain returned this season, and by the end, he looked haggard and gaunt again, even as his team went 12-1. Medication at midseason seemed to make the headaches tolerable. Two assistant coaches said that Meyer began to seem like his old self in the last weeks of the season.

“I started seeing it about three weeks ago,” running backs coach Tony Alford said. “He was in a meeting in the special-teams room. He said some things to a player, encouragement in the way that he does it. He has such an ability to motivate and inspire. And I was like, ‘OK, he’s back. Here we go, boys.'”

Maybe the headaches had subsided. Maybe, as Meyer acknowledged Tuesday, he had come to a conclusion about his coaching career. Whatever it was, something clicked for the Buckeyes. They won a game at Maryland they had no business winning, 52-51 in overtime. Ohio State emerged from that game as if it understood it had been granted a second chance.

Ohio State, an underdog, humiliated archrival Michigan 62-39, the most points the Buckeyes had scored in the history of the rivalry. A week later they rolled over Northwestern 45-24 in the Big Ten championship game. It wasn’t enough to sway the College Football Playoff Committee, but Meyer will cross an item off his bucket list when he coaches in the Rose Bowl.

The only thing not complicated about Meyer’s coaching legacy is his record. The man did nothing but win at Ohio State just as he had at Florida, Utah and Bowling Green. It added up to 186 victories, three national championships and nine conference titles in only 17 seasons.

But trouble followed Meyer. Not NCAA trouble — in the end, that may have been less damning. His Florida teams came to be known for their athletic prowess on the field and their criminal actions off it. Find another program with two faces as different as quarterback Tim Tebow, a choirboy in cleats, and tight end Aaron Hernandez, a psychopath on his way to a murder conviction.

To his credit, Meyer had no truck for bad actors in his Ohio State locker room. But his coaching room had Smith, who, no matter how good a receivers coach he may have been, tainted the program because of a long record of allegations regarding spousal abuse.

When Meyer dissembled in answering a question about Smith at Big Ten media day — Meyer later said he didn’t hear the question — the scandal took off. Between media scrutiny and a university-commissioned investigation, the public learned that Meyer had handled Smith poorly for some time. Ohio State first put Meyer on preseason “administrative leave,” then suspended him for the first three games of the season.

“The legacy is — you can only control so much,” Meyer said Tuesday. “And I can lie to you and say that’s not important to me. For any human being, that’s important to you. And people have their opinions. Just do the best to do things the right way.”

Though the Smith scandal, and Meyer’s handling of it, put the university in an unfavorable light, it became clear that the health issues went in only one direction. Meyer may be sick, but Ohio State is not sick of him. Athletic director Gene Smith was fulsome in his praise of Meyer on Tuesday.

Meyer and Smith said that the coach will remain with the Ohio State athletic department in some as-yet unformed role. It is hard to imagine that he will never coach again. Maybe someday we will learn if Meyer can maintain his intensity, win games and remain without scandal.

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