NEW ORLEANS — Urban Meyer's players have dissected the past few months, wondering whether they missed any warning signs.
When the University of Florida football coach announced Sunday he was taking an indefinite leave of absence for health reasons, many players said the initial shock quickly turned to understanding because they all know how driven Meyer is.
"He puts in so much work, so much," senior receiver Riley Cooper said. "He gets there early, and it's not just the X's and O's of football. … He's trying to change young people's lives and be their father figure. He's always calling and checking on players and things like that. He calls and checks on everybody — 110 people — all the time. And I think it takes a toll on you after a while. I know I couldn't do it. Not at all."
"It's crazy, what he puts himself through," junior center Maurkice Pouncey said. "He's got three kids at home, then he's got 108 college kids that he's got to look out for and be responsible for."
On Monday, players said they now notice the weight loss they once wrote off as a middle-aged man trying to drop a few pounds. They talk about catching Meyer, 45, "a little slouched and tired-looking" when they unexpectedly walked in on him in his office. But he always assured them he was okay.
In retrospect, they say, everybody should have seen it coming.
"Coach Meyer was just always working; the man couldn't help himself," junior offensive lineman Mike Pouncey said.
"He calls people all the time. Even when he's on vacation with his family, he's calling guys. He's called me while he's on his family vacation, trying to see if everybody is okay. He's a good guy. And he's always worried about somebody or something else."
In less than a decade, Meyer reached a peak that many coaches only dream of. He has been a head coach at three schools in the past nine years, compiling a 95-18 record (56-10 at Florida), two national championships and two conference championships. But the drive to succeed and his meteoric rise — along with the pressure he placed on himself — have exacted a toll, said his wife, Shelley. She and Meyer have two daughters and a son: Nicole, a freshman volleyball player at Georgia Tech; Gigi, a high school student; and Nathan, who is in middle school.
"He took a career that should have taken (some time) and he just shoved it into a few years," she said. "He just went at this pace, and this is all he had. Nine years head coaching at his pace, this is what he had."
For several years, Meyer said, he has suffered from chest pains caused by stress, and he has dealt with a benign brain cyst that causes severe headaches.
His pace at Florida included arriving at work no later than 7 a.m. then insisting that his entire staff pack up by 10 p.m., a schedule that is not unusual for college coaches. But Meyer's assistants said it wasn't the hours the coach and his staff put in but the demands he faced within those hours — then every waking hour afterward — that consumed him.
"Depending on the time of year, you're constantly juggling the management of your team and your players," said Steve Addazio, the offensive line coach who will be interim head coach in Meyer's absence.
"Right now, the day-to-day demands of recruiting are incredible, from the phone calls and communication with high school coaches, kids and parents. In the recruiting business, you're traveling to see kids. We're in a dead period now, but we just came from a contact period, so you're juggling the whole recruiting, you're juggling getting your team prepared on the football field, you're juggling personal things that come in your life, your players' lives. You're juggling your family, speaking engagements. It's a nonstop deal."
And being in charge at Florida, where the demands are sometimes unrealistic, doesn't help.
"It is a tough life," said Dan McCarney, the Gators' defensive line coach who spent 11 seasons as head coach at Iowa State. "It really can take you over, especially at this place, where if you don't score 50, what's wrong with your offense? If you don't get a shutout, what's wrong with the defensive players and coaches? Because of the expectations and the great tradition of success at this place, it even adds more of that."
McCarney said he hopes Meyer's absence will not only help him get well but also give him a new perspective on handling things.
"No one takes it more personal than Urban," McCarney said. "He has great faith and trust in his staff and he lets us do our job, but he's so involved and takes everything so personal. Any setback, any problem, anything that comes up, he just takes it so personal."
Those who know Meyer best said it will be up to him to learn a new way of coaching, and perhaps living, if he is to return to the profession he loves.
At a place like Florida, for a man like Meyer, that's not going to be easy.
"When you're a personality that's a worker, you're a grinder, you're taking everything on head-on, you feel like you've got to have your hands on everything, and it becomes very consuming," Addazio said.
"And the management of that is obviously always a challenge when you have that kind of personality, that kind of drive, that kind of focus. The great ones do, you know? Obviously, we have a great one. Coach Meyer is a great coach, but it ain't absolutely pretty. … Every ounce and every bit of fiber in his body has and is going into the University of Florida program. On every front. And it's very demanding, without question."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.