GAINESVILLE — Florida cornerback Joe Haden was running past Urban Meyer after the Gators' practice Saturday afternoon, when he heard his head coach yell out to him: "Joe, I love you. I want you to know I love you."
A startled Haden responded, "I love you too, coach."
Despite their extremely close relationship, he couldn't help but find the interaction odd at that particular moment. A short time later, he understood it very clearly.
During a team meeting after the Gators' bowl preparation practice Saturday, the 45-year-old Meyer informed his players and coaching staff he is resigning as Florida's coach, effective immediately following the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl game against Cincinnati. Meyer said he needs to concentrate on his health and family.
Haden, a junior who most likely is headed for the NFL after this season, called his parents, Joe and Zakiya, in Maryland shortly after Meyer informed the team.
"Joe called us about 20 minutes before it was announced on ESPN, and he was like in shock," Zakiya Haden said. "He said, 'Coach Meyer just retired, Coach Meyer just retired.' He was still at the stadium when he called us. He said everybody was crying. The coaches didn't know, the players didn't know. Nobody knew. He was stunned, but he said he completely understood. He was saying, 'If it's for his health, nobody can get mad at him. He had to do what was best for his family.' "
Meyer, who has a wife and three children, has led Florida to a 56-10 record over the past three seasons, and won two national championships — in 2006 and 2008. He was recently named Sporting News and Sports Illustrated "Coach of the Decade."
He will travel with the team to New Orleans today and will hold a news conference at 4:30 p.m.
"I have given my heart and soul to coaching college football and mentoring young men for the last 24-plus years, and I have dedicated most of my waking moments the last five years to the Gator football program," Meyer said in a statement released by the university. "I have ignored my health for years, but recent developments have forced me to re-evaluate my priorities of faith and family.
"After consulting with my family, (president) Dr. (Bernie) Machen, Jeremy Foley (UF athletic director) and my doctors, I believe it is in my best interest to step aside and focus on my health and my family. I'm proud to be a part of the Gainesville community and the Gator Nation, and I plan to remain in Gainesville and involved with the University of Florida."
Although Meyer's announcement stunned his players and the college football world, his health issues aren't new. A few hours after the Gators' 32-13 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, Meyer was hospitalized with chest pains. He was treated for dehydration, and released later that day. UF athletic officials said reports that Meyer suffered a heart attack earlier this season are false.
Meyer spent a week in California recruiting the week after the SEC game, then returned to begin preparations for the bowl game. He said after the Gators' Dec. 18 practice that he felt fine but realized he needed to take better care of himself, which including eating better.
"I don't eat," he said at the time.
Meyer also has an arachnoid cyst on his brain, which is benign, but becomes inflamed the more stress he is under, causing excruciatingly painful headaches. He told Sports Illustrated in an article earlier this month that he has learned to control the problem.
Several people who know Meyer said he has no imminent health issue such as a heart attack or cancer. But those who know him well and have spent considerable time around him acknowledged his driven nature and the stress of the job have taken a toll.
"It's overwhelming," said Scot Brantley, a former Florida All-American and now an analyst for the Gators' radio network. "And there's so many young guys coming up. … I truly believe a lot of this is about his family and his children. People can say, it's this or it's that, he couldn't handle the stress. That's bull. Nobody can handle the stress better than Urban Meyer. But he's had some problems in the past with the headaches, it was documented. You can control that to a degree, but the money, the practices, the recruiting, the pressure. With the head coach, you are the main man, you are the center point of that university. And that's a lot of pressure. And when you're trying to raise young children and you're mentoring to so many athletes? I think he's seeing things from another angle. There's more to life than just football. His family is first and foremost."
Zakiya Haden said she, her husband and other parents, noticed the stress on Meyer on the Friday before the SEC Championship Game during their normal family outing in which players and families gather.
"He gets so into it," Zakiya Haden said. "He's so into it, I can see how he'd be stressed. He's 24-7, all the time. He's so intense. Before the SEC Championship Game, he made the comment that he was really worried about the game. That's how he is. He was just constantly thinking about it (football), always. But if the doctors are going to tell you you have to make a decision, it's not really a decision when it comes to your life and you have young kids."
Meyer's departure opens up one of the premier coaching jobs in college football. Among those who are said to be potential candidates to replace Meyer are Utah coach Kyle Wittingham, who coached under Meyer; Houston coach Kevin Sumlin; Boise State's Chris Peterson; Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino; TCU coach Gary Patterson; and former Gator defensive coordinator and current Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
Florida currently has what many recruiting experts consider to among the top five recruiting classes in the nation, and with the loss of defensive coordinator Charlie Strong (hired as coach at Louisville) and the potential loss of several juniors to the NFL, finding a replacement for Meyer becomes a top priority for UF athletic director Jeremy Foley. Haden's brother Jordan is among a handful of recruits who are early enrollees. They are scheduled to report next Sunday. Foley said he respected Meyer's decision.
"Coach Meyer and I have talked this through, and I realize how hard this was for him to reach this decision," said Foley in a statement. "But the bottom line is that Coach Meyer needed to make a choice that is in the best interest of his well being and his family.
"I certainly appreciate what he has meant to the University of Florida, our football program and the Gator Nation. I have never seen anyone more committed to his players, his family and his program. Above all, I appreciate our friendship."
Machen, UF's president and Meyer's former boss at Utah, praised the coach for his integrity and work ethic.
"Urban Meyer's integrity, work ethic and commitment to his players are some of the reasons we asked him to become head football coach at the University of Florida," Machen said. "As a Gator, Urban has done everything we asked of him and more. He leaves a lasting legacy on the field, in the classroom and in the Gainesville community.
"I am saddened that Urban is stepping down, but I have deep respect for his decision."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.