Six years and one day after he was introduced as Florida football coach, Urban Meyer on Wednesday walked away from millions of dollars and one of the most successful programs in the country, saying he has missed too many of his daughters' volleyball games and his young son's activities.
Meyer, 46, leaves with five years remaining on a contract that pays him about $4 million annually. He will receive a $1 million retention bonus that was set to kick in at the end of January.
During his six-year Gators tenure, Meyer won two SEC and two national championships, three SEC Eastern Division titles and went 17-2 against Florida's biggest rivals — Georgia, Florida State and Tennessee. His team finished 7-5 this season, the most losses of his 10-year head coaching career.
"I'm stepping down as the head football coach at the University of Florida to focus on family and my other interests away from the sidelines," said Meyer, who plans to coach his last game for Florida at the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl in Tampa.
"Last year was a wake-up call. … I think sometimes we make it far too complex. At the end of the day I'm very convinced that you're going to be judged on how you are as a husband and as a father and not on how many bowl games we won. I've not seen my two girls play high school sports. They're both very talented Division I-A volleyball players so I missed those four years. I missed two already with one away at college. I can't get that time back."
This is the second time in less than a year that Meyer has walked away from the program. On Dec. 26, 2009, Meyer resigned citing health reasons, but rescinded that decision one day later, instead opting to take a leave of absence.
He was eventually diagnosed with esophageal spasms and placed on medication.
This time Meyer won't be back.
He began seriously considering walking away on Saturday. On Tuesday, he met with athletic director Jeremy Foley and UF president Bernie Machen and informed them of his decision.
Last year, they encouraged him to take a leave of absence instead. They believed he was acting under duress, and just needed time. This time was different. Neither Foley nor Machen tried to talk him into staying because, they said, they believed he was making the right decision.
"I'm at peace with the decision because he's at peace, and last year that was not the case," Foley said. "This is a totally different situation. He was at a different place a year ago, the turmoil was evident. My office is next to him and I've seen how he's been this year, and I've seen the effort he's put forward this year and I know it's not a knee-jerk reaction to being 7-5. He's at peace in his life. I didn't try to talk him out of it. I didn't put that pressure on him. He's at peace and I shared that peace with him."
Foley said a search for Meyer's successor will begin immediately.
Supported by his wife, Shelley, his youngest daughter, Gigi, 17, and his son, Nathan, 12, Meyer insisted that his health was not a factor in the decision as it was last year.
He informed his staff via phone on Tuesday because they are on the road recruiting. His decision stunned them, but they insisted they want what's best.
"We're glad he's doing what's best, we're happy for him and glad he's doing it the right way," quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler said.
The decision also caught his players off guard.
"I was really shocked at this one," senior punter Chas Henry said. "Last year you could kind of see it weighing in. You could see the pressure mounting. Not really pressure, but he wears it on himself. Every loss he takes extremely hard on himself, and you could see that last year. Even the wins, the close wins that we pulled out you could just like see a relief when we'd just pull it out.
"This year he was a lot more relaxed and a lot more like he was kind of getting back into it again. I was very shocked. I did not see this coming at all."
This wasn't the best of years for Meyer and the Gators. It was the first time Florida has had a five-loss regular season since 1988. By the end of the season, fans were regularly booing the Gators for their performance. Meyer said it wasn't a factor.
"I don't think the struggles this season — you can fix struggles," he said. "If it was a different time in my family's lives where they weren't involved in sports and involved in all the things that a dad should be at, it might be different.
"I want to make clear that's it. That's the reason. I think last year was a wake-up call. To see my beautiful daughter Gigi over there sign a national letter of intent to go to Florida Gulf Coast, and I've not seen the school yet. I guarantee I'm going to go see it."
His current and former players said they are saddened, but want what's best for Meyer.
"I think everybody is pretty much supportive of his decision," senior center Mike Pouncey said. "Of course all the young guys are going to worry about who's coming in next. But all those guys have a good relationship with their coaches, their position coaches. Florida is going to be Florida like always, and I think we're going to move forward and it's going to be a good program."
"I respect that coach Meyer had the courage to make the decision that was right for himself and his family," former Heisman Trophy quarterback Tim Tebow said. "He will be blessed and better off for it. I am truly glad that he's happy and no matter what, we both will be Gators for the rest of our lives."
Senior cornerback Ahmad Black said the season was "stressful on everybody," but he had no indication Meyer would step down. Now, he said, the Outback Bowl takes on new meaning.
"It's very important," he said. "And that's one of the things I've been stressing to everyone lately: Let's all go out winners. Even though the season hasn't played out the way we wanted it to, this last game could really make an impact on a lot of different things."
So, too, could Meyer's resignation.
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her coverage at gators.tampabay.com.
0 Losing seasons during Meyer's 10-year head coaching career
3 13-win seasons, in a four year span (2006, '08 and '09), the only coach to achieve that
10 Seasons Meyer has been a head coach (Bowling Green, Utah, Florida)
10 Assistant coaches under Meyer who have become head coaches
7-5 Florida's record this year, Meyer's worst as a head coach
17-2 Meyer's record against rivals Tennessee, Florida State, Georgia and Miami
26 Gators drafted by the NFL under Meyer
64 Wins at Florida
89 Consecutive polls in which the Gators were ranked under Meyer until this season
$4M Meyer's salary for 2010, fourth highest among college football coaches.