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Florida Gators coach Urban Meyer's next challenge is relaxing

NEW ORLEANS

In the terms of his profession, think of it as a quick change of direction. Think of it as a perfect audible.

Or perhaps you can look at it as the greatest comeback in University of Florida history.

He was down, and for the better part of a day, he seemed to be out. He was leaving, and the richest era of Gator football history appeared to be ending. Urban Meyer, the best football coach the University of Florida has ever had, was heading out the door.

And then he wasn't.

The man who needs to change because of his heart had a change of heart Sunday morning, and just like that, Florida fans were smiling all over again. Turns out, Meyer is still the coach of the Gators.

Meyer, who had announced his decision to resign a day earlier, will instead take a leave of absence from his job. Officially, his leave is indefinite, but Meyer said he believed "in his gut" he would be back by opening day of next season.

So relax, Gator fans.

And if you have any influence on him at all, try to make sure Meyer learns how to do the same.

This is going to be the most difficult part of Meyer's readjusted game plan. For his leave to work, for it to be a brilliant compromise that allows Meyer, 45, to keep his health and the Gators to keep the coach who has won two national titles in his five seasons at UF, Meyer has to learn to throttle back. For a driven man, nothing is more difficult than slowing down.

It is the best thing you can say about Meyer, and it is possibly the most dangerous: The guy is packed tighter than gunpowder. He has an intensity that has allowed him to become one of the most successful coaches in the past decade, and yet, that intensity is largely responsible for the pain that has seared through his chest for four years now.

So how do you get a man who is wound so tight to relax? How do you convince him that defeat doesn't mean he should work all night to make sure it doesn't happen again? How do you convince him it's okay to take time to smile after victory?

"We're going to find out," said Shelley Meyer, Urban's wife. "He has to learn to. We'll have to see how he handles his leisure time. I've never seen him handle leisure time."

Can he? There is a reason Meyer has attacked his job so relentlessly. It's because he has believed that was the way to success. So what's to say when he comes back, he won't fall into the same trap? When a coach is consumed by the game, is he going to find a way to be satisfied with half-consumption?

For Meyer, and for Florida, he will have to, or the fire inside will devour him.

Understand, part of this is because of who Meyer is, and part of it is because of what he does. If Meyer were a kindergarten teacher, or a sanitation worker, or a house roofer, he would be driven. It's in his makeup.

Instead, he is a football coach, and it's a more difficult job than you can imagine. Athletic director Jeremy Foley talks about all the uneaten lunches left on Meyer's desk. Meyer has been known to send recruits text messages, he told the New York Times, in the middle of church. A thin man, Meyer has been known to lose as much as 20 pounds during a season.

"People who have known me know that when we lose a game, it's my fault," Meyer said. "We've got to get it fixed. If that means staying until 4 in the morning, if that means rehashing over and over again what to do different, it's our fault. When a young man flunks a class, that's our fault.

"I think what I have to learn is you can't just accept. You've got to delegate, and you have to function."

Let's face it. No one wants to see Meyer walk away, not after the past five years. But when a man's health is failing, how do you blame him? That said, this leave of absence is a terrific alternative for Florida fans. This way, they don't have to look for a new coach. This way, they don't have to fear Meyer winding up on the wrong sideline.

"If I am able to coach, I want to coach in one place, the University of Florida," Meyer said. "It would be a travesty, it would be ridiculous to come back and get the feeling back, get the health back, and then all of a sudden to go throw some other colors on my shirt and go coach. I don't want to do that.

"I have too much love for the university and these players for what they've built."

In other words, if Meyer's regard for his players and his program led to the health scare that caused him to consider resigning, it is the same regard that brought him back.

"I think there are certain jobs — and ours is one of them — that are pretty big," Foley said. "Everyone will say 'I know he gets paid $4 million' and everything. But it's not just X's and O's and recruiting ballplayers. It's 24/7, it's managing a program as CEO of a major, major company, so to speak. The world is different with the Internet and expectations. The job is difficult. No one is complaining, but the expectations are high, the intensity is high. But that's also why he came to Florida."

That being said, a lot of other coaches have found a way to survive. But football in the '50s, in the '70s, heck, even in the '90s, was different. These days, the job can grind a man into the ground. Every booster knows every prospect, and these days they look at recruiting like victory and defeat. We are a world of microwave success, and patience has never been more scarce.

And so Meyer worked, and he pushed. In his words, he squeezed a 30-year career into nine years, and it took a toll.

"He and I have had a number of conversations," Foley said. "Is Urban Meyer going to be coaching football when he's 60 and doing it the way he's doing it now? No."

Perhaps he will change. Perhaps he will lighten up. Perhaps he will find a hobby.

For Meyer, it won't be easy. Passionate coaches don't become calm overnight, and loud ones don't become quiet.

Meyer? He doesn't have a choice. If he wants to return to the sideline — and of course he does; don't all coaches? — then he has to make a few adjustments.

Most of those start with him.

Florida Gators coach Urban Meyer's next challenge is relaxing 12/27/09 [Last modified: Sunday, December 27, 2009 10:48pm]

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