COLUMBUS, Ohio — Back in 1986, when Urban Meyer was a graduate assistant at Ohio State, he shared an office the size of “a little furnace room” with five of his peers, his primary duty the cutting and splicing of 16-millimeter film.
Meyer made about $100 per month and worked 18-hour days, and his wardrobe consisted almost entirely of team-issued apparel. He lived in an off-campus apartment so dilapidated that his wife, Shelley, who was then his girlfriend, still recalls the dirty carpet and crooked shades. His only sources of food were team meals and the free egg rolls available at happy hours around Columbus.
“If it wasn’t training table or happy hour, I didn’t eat,” Meyer said. “That’s serious.”
Nearly three decades later, Meyer has returned to Columbus with a salary that pays him $4 million a year, a palatial office and a much more complicated task than finding free egg rolls. As his career comes full circle, Meyer’s ability to turn the Ohio State football program around will be tied directly to his being able to find the balance between being a relentless coach and a healthy father.
Health problems, burnout and the desire to spend more time with his family prompted Meyer to step down as the coach of Florida temporarily after the 2009 season and permanently after the 2010 season.
“Without getting too overdramatic, you have to go somewhere you don’t like so you don’t want to go back,” Meyer said. “I’ve talked to many people about that. I’ve been so fortunate, and you keep skimming along and moving so fast it’s, ‘What’s next? What’s next?’ instead of enjoying the day. I need to quit looking so hard forward and enjoy moments and days. I have to do that. I will do that.”
Meyer is 37 pounds heavier than he was during his darkest days at Florida, when stress, esophageal spasms and an inability to disconnect from his job led to a gaunt frame. Doctors identified the cause of the esophageal pain, which has gone away, and with that has come a clean bill of health. Meyer said he now felt the best he had since the beginning of his tenure at Florida, where his teams went 65-15 and won two national championships in six seasons.
After a year in which he worked as an analyst for ESPN and spent time with his children, Meyer, according to those who know him best, appears to have regained his health, his energy and, most important, his perspective.
But for all of the assurances and confidence, there is still a sense of trepidation from Meyer’s friends and family. They remember the extreme weight loss, the 911 call and the night spent in the hospital after Florida’s loss to Alabama in the 2009 Southeastern Conference title game. They recall the emotional depths he plunged to after defeats.
“I think he learned that some of the things about coaching college football that he thought were desperate and dire maybe weren’t that important,” said Shelley Meyer, who has worked as a psychiatric nurse. She added that she was still not certain how her husband would handle losses.
“I really don’t know how he’s going to react,” she said. “I feel hopeful and confident that he’s not going to react the way he has before.”
Meyer’s oldest daughter, Nicki, listed on a pink piece of loose leaf paper exactly what changes he needed to make before he became Ohio State’s coach. Meyer keeps the piece of paper in a red Ohio State folder on his desk, a temporary home until he gets it framed.
Nicki Meyer drew up an 11-rule contract that she forced her father to sign Nov. 15 when he broached the idea of returning to coaching with his family.
“Failure to comply with all of the following will result in no more coaching,” Nicki, 21, wrote, underlining the final three words for emphasis. Some of the rules are lighthearted, like buying her an iPad. Mostly, though, they hint at Meyer’s past struggles with balancing his job and his family; the contract demands that Meyer silence his cellphone when he sleeps, eat three meals a day and communicate daily with his three children.
Meyer’s voice caught during a recent interview in his office when he pointed out that last rule.
“I will continue to communicate daily with my kids,” Meyer said, shaking his head. “I lost that.”
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