Dallas–It was the day before the 2009 SEC Championship game and Florida’s team was at the Georgia Dome for an afternoon walk through.
Tim Brando and I were at the Dome for a rehearsal of our CBS pre-game show when we ran into Urban Meyer, the Gators’ head coach. He was cordial but obviously distracted about Saturday’s game with No. 2 Alabama. For the second straight year a berth in the BCS Championship game was on the line. Meyer looked tired and had clearly lost a lot of weight.
As Meyer walked away I remember thinking: He does not look good.
Later on we would find out why.
Alabama would beat Florida 32-13, denying the Gators a shot at a second straight national championship. After Meyer returned to Gainesville he was hospitalized with chest pains and dehydration. The relentless pursuit of another championship had consumed him. He didn’t eat. He didn’t sleep. He was not yet 50 years and was driving himself beyond exhaustion.
Meyer announced that he was retiring from coaching. It lasted but a day and then he agreed to come back for the 2010 season with a promise to every one that he would take better care of himself. Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley promised his support.
But with quarterback Tim Tebow gone after a brilliant four years, 2010 was exactly what everybody thought it would be–a transition year. The Gators went 8-5 and Meyer was clearly laboring. He again walked away from coaching and this time his return was anything but certain.
Those difficult days for Meyer seemed light years away on Sunday morning. Urban Frank Meyer III, now the head coach at Ohio State, sat in a meeting room at the Renaissance Hotel with Mark Helfrich, the young, successful coach at Oregon. Some 35 hours later their respective teams would play for the national championship of the first College Football Playoff.
“(It’s) a tremendous honor to be up here with Coach Meyer, a legend in our game, a guy that’s done it many times and had a tremendous amount of success,” said Helfrich.
Urban Meyer was back. Just four years after it looked like he could not conquer his relentless pursuit of perfection, Meyer was in position to make history Monday night.
In the modern era of college football only one FBS coach has won national championships at two different schools. Nick Saban won a national title at LSU in 2003 and has won three more at Alabama (2009, 2011, 2012). Win tonight against Oregon (13-1) and Meyer joins that very exclusive club.
A win would also put Meyer into another very selective group. Only seven FBS coaches in history (Bryant, Leahy, Saban, Bierman, McKay, Switzer, Wilkinson) have won three or more national championships
So as Meyer fulfilled his last media obligation before Monday night’s game, inquiring minds wanted to know: When he came back to coaching at Ohio State in 2012, was he confident that he would someday get back into this position?
“Well, I don’t think so,” said Meyer, who turned 50 in June. “I think I just was obviously chomping at the bit to get back in it (coaching). But to sit there and say I thought that we could somehow get back to the national title….it’s everybody’s dream and goal, but it’s very complicated.”
Meyer certainly hasn’t made it look complicated. Armed with a new attitude and a promise to his family not to let the losses crush him (he actually put it in writing) Meyer, took over the flagship program in his native Ohio.
He went 12-0 his first season (2012) but the Buckeyes could not compete for the Big Ten championship or the national championship due to NCAA sanctions.
But at the end of that season Meyer was asked to work the BCS Championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame for ESPN. The last time Meyer had been in Sun Life Stadium near Ft. Lauderdale, his Gators were beating Oklahoma for the national title. He walked onto the field and it hit him.
At that moment Meyer sent a text message to his entire team and support staff: “The Chase Is On.”
“That was the moment,” said Meyer. “That was the driving force. It’s why we get up every day and I just wanted to somehow share that experience with our players. And now we are (here).”
In 2013 Ohio State again went 12-0 during the regular season and needed one more win against Michigan State in the Big Ten championship to earn a spot against Florida State in the BCS title game. Ohio State led 24-20 going into the fourth quarter but Michigan State prevailed 34-24.
It Meyer’s first loss at Ohio State and the first test of his promise to his wife, Shelley.
“He was disappointed but you could tell this was not life or death,” Shelley Meyer told USA Today. “This was football. He gets it. He finally gets it.”
Urban Meyer has an incredible 141-26 record in 13 years as a head coach. He is the only coach in FBS history to post 20-game winning streaks at three different schools (Utah, Florida, Ohio State). But the best coaching job of Urban Meyer’s career came this season.
Ohio State was certainly in the discussion for the first four-team playoff based on the return of quarterback Braxton Miller, the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year. But in August Miller suffered a freak shoulder injury and was lost for the season. In steps redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett. Barrett struggled in his second start against Virginia Tech, when the Hokies blitzed him in every conceivable manner in a 35-21 loss in Columbus. But from that point Barrett was brilliant and Ohio State played its way back into the playoff discussion.
Then the unthinkable happened when Barrett suffered a broken ankle on Nov. 29 against Michigan. Ohio State then turned to sophomore Cardale Jones. Ohio State never missed a beat. The Buckeyes beat Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game and then beat No. 1 Alabama 42-35 in the CFP semifinals. Now the Buckeyes are 37-3 under Meyer and one win away from a national championship.
Oregon is about a touchdown favorite in the game so an Ohio State win would be considered a mild upset. But this much is clear Urban Meyer is better to equipped to handle Monday night’s outcome–good or bad–than he was just four years ago.
“I want to make sure our players enjoy the journey,” Meyer said. “These kids have been on a heckuva run for the past three years. Someone asked a question one time: “When does the joy of winning disappear and the fear of losing or the agony of losing overtake that?” When that does, it’s not good. So I make sure that we enjoy the wins the best I can and the best our coaching staff can.”