Orlando Sentinel – George Diaz – December 31, 2009 – sports psychology commentary – Urban Meyer’s obsessive pursuit of perfection has been a constant in life. It’s the essence of who he is, from his days as a defensive back coach at Saint Xavier High School in Cincinnati, to the storied Swamp in Gainesville, where he has hoisted a Waterford Crystal Trophy twice to celebrate a national football championship with the Gator Nation.
Meyer now faces his greatest challenge:
Urban Meyer needs to make that guy go away.
His chase to be the best is like a deal with the devil, and it may crush Meyer if he isn’t careful. The chest pains, dizziness, insomnia, loss of weight are a compass, pointing to the dark side. He must change direction, and reinvent himself a less-maniacal, lower-stressed coach.
That journey begins here Saturday night, when the Gators play the Cincinnati Bearcats in the Sugar Bowl. But the more telling moments will come in the next weeks, and in the next months. For the first time in his life, Meyer will need to find another speed other than fast-forward.
“What does slowing it down mean?” said one of his high school buddies Tom Penna. “Not talking to recruits? I don’t think he can do that. Does he stop looking at film? Delegate more to his assistants? What does he stop doing? What can he give up and still be productive?”
Meyer is going to have to ask himself all of those introspective questions, and plenty more. Those who know him now and those who know him from back in the day remain perplexed about how Meyer can find that balance.
Failure is not in his DNA. His father Bud wouldn’t allow it. Urban learned that early on during his days as a baseball player at St. Johns High, when Bud gave him a dollar for home runs and 50 cents for an RBI, but insisted on getting 25 cents back for every strikeout. Football was much the same: While all his friends went out partying after games, Urban would go back to his house to review aspects of the game and how he played with his father.
“He’s been bred for this since he was a kid,” said Rick Pugliese, another one of his hometown friends from Ashtabula, Ohio. “He’s a perfectionist.”
Penna and Pugliese have joined Mark Orlando and George Dragon as four guys from Ashtabula who have made an annual road trip to see Meyer during the football season, dating back in the days when he was a wide receivers coach at Notre Dame. They spend a few days together leading up to kickoff.
He always tells them the same thing: “If we win, come over the house. If we lose, I’ll see you next year.”
Now 45, Meyer’s Type-A personality has many other quirky manifestations. The incessant ring of his cell phone to the beep of a new text message. The lunch that goes cold on his desk because he doesn’t have time to eat. The remotes shattered in a fit of rage while screening game film.
It’s all about working harder than the next guy, busting your butt because that’s the only way you know. It gets you to places that few of his peers will ever see.
It brings two national titles, an undefeated run that stretched 22 games, and three-time National Coach of the Year honors.
But it also gets you to other places, like the Shands Medical Center in Gainesville where Meyer was treated after passing out at his home in the wee hours following the loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. “Urban, Urban, talk to me,” his wife Shelly is heard saying during the 911 call she made that night.
Meyer’s health remains the source of constant speculation, but it seems fairly clear that Meyer is dealing with a health issue more significant than the accumulation of all that stress and strain.
“If he’s got a serious health problem, he’s got to dial it down and surround himself with people who will convince him to do it,” said former Miami Dophins coach Don Shula, who grew up 30 miles away from Meyer’s hometown.
That inner circle should include professionals who won’t sugarcoat the truth. Meyer is setting himself up for a world of hurt if he doesn’t change.
“Don’t try to do everything yourself,” said sports psychologist John Murray. “If you die chasing success or more money, what’s the point of that? Quality of life issues are important.”
Murray suggests any number of things, from Tai Chi, yoga and exercise to “smelling the salt of the ocean.”
It presents a monstrous challenge. Meyer doesn’t do down time, other than snippets of time here and there with Shelly and their three children. And even on the occasional vacations, Coach Meyer, capital C, tags along. A while back, Urban and Shelly went down to the Caribbean with a few friends. One night, in the middle of a faraway tropical bar, a handful of people looked at Meyer and started doing the Gator chomp. He immediately left.
Pugliese recalls having a casual conversation with Meyer at a football camp for kids. In just a few minutes, 10 people were behind Pugliese wanting to talk to Meyer.
Meyer always finds comfort in his extended family, the guys who wear the orange and blue. It’s not some hokey fairy tale.
The four guys from Ashtabula saw it for themselves when Tim Tebow, David Nelson and a handful of other players showed up at a high school volleyball game to cheer on Meyer’s daughter, Gigi. They weren’t doing it to suck up to the coach. They did it because they care.
The best part was that nobody bothered them, but those moments are rare.
That’s why his friends worry about him. They see Meyer “grinding, grinding and grinding,” as Pugliese says, and wonder how he can reconcile that maniacal drive.
“He’s afraid to take his foot off gas,” Pugliese said. “You can’t go at that speed all your life. I’m in car sales. I counted my call log and I had 124 calls come in one day. That’s nothing to him.”
Meyer, intensely private and guarded, isn’t saying much about his game plan. “I have to learn to do is … what they call … delegate,” he said on Sunday, the day after he changed his mind about resigning and taking an indefinite leave of absence. He was also texting while his players addressed the media that afternoon, reflective of a man who can’t sit still.
Meyer is going to feel the squeeze on his privacy even more as he begins his nebulous journey. Everybody wants to know what’s going on. When is he coming back? Will he come back? What’s really wrong with him? The story is riveting. Why else would NPR devote an “All Things Considered” segment on Meyer’s hazy future?
Meyer will hate every single question. He remains most comfortable in the insular world of football, where there is control and everything is easily defined by a scoreboard.
All those victories, all those championships, and all that bling commandeered by Meyer’s senior class define “this crazy monster that we fed,” as Meyer said Thursday.
Another monster waits with a different group of players. If Meyer learns one thing from this experience, it should be this:
Be careful feeding the beast.
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