I don't know about you, but we in the King household had a terrific Christmas, beginning with last weekend's trip to South Georgia to visit my side of the family, continuing with the traditional candlelight service and meal at Waffle House on Christmas Eve, moving forward to a Christmas Day that began with my six-year-old son waking me up at 5:00 a.m. and later saw the arrival of my parents, my parents-in-law, and my wife's sister and brother-in-law, and including an outing to the Georgia Aquarium with my wife's family this afternoon.
It was late when we got home, so I sat down after a full day with the intention of catching up on today's bowl action, expecting a relaxing evening yet learning from ESPN what MaconDawg already has reported: Urban Meyer is stepping down as the head coach of the Florida Gators following the Sugar Bowl.
When first I saw the news come across the scroll, a dozen thoughts ran through my head . . . I knew Coach Meyer's father had cancer, so I wondered whether that portion of his family medical history might have come into play . . . I recalled Coach Meyer's brief hospitalization following the SEC championship game, so I thought there might be something seriously wrong.
Fortunately, it appears that this is about coaching taking its toll on Coach Meyer, and that it does not represent something more grave. Naturally, as a lifelong fan of the Georgia Bulldogs, I am no fan of Urban Meyer, although he did improve my opinion of him earlier this fall. He did so again today, when he said these words:
I have ignored my health for years, but recent developments have forced me to re-evaluate my priorities of faith and family.
Good for Coach Meyer for reaching that realization. It long has been clear to friend and foe alike that Urban Meyer is driven in his demand for excellence, pursuing perfection with a singleminded devotion that has produced tremendous success in his chosen field but also, clearly, has had an adverse effect on the ability of his body and mind to maintain equilibrium in a stressful profession in which he achieves at the highest level.
I recall listening to Steve Spurrier's farewell press conference, when a Gator skipper who had proven equally dominant over my alma mater announced his departure from Gainesville every bit as suddenly and unexpectedly; I had regarded Coach Spurrier with a visceral disdain for more than a decade, but, when I heard him answering reporters' questions after announcing his resignation, I noticed for the first time that what I had regarded as a nasally whine was, in fact, a Southern accent. The moment I knew Coach Spurrier would no longer be responsible for causing my team to lose football games, I recognized him for the coach he was; I acknowledged his wit as clever rather than obnoxious; I thought of him as one of us (in the larger, Southeastern Conference sense of "us," of course) and I resolved to root for whichever NFL team hired him.
Having been through that experience before, I know now that I never disliked Urban Meyer personally; I don't know the man personally. I didn't like his persona, but it could have been just that, a persona, having no more to do with the real man than the character any celebrity plays on television has to do with the actual human being underneath.
Let us, then, admit this about Urban Meyer: we didn't like him because we lost to him, often by a lot, and every fault we found with him was a projection of that innate revulsion to losing to anyone, much less to a rival, much less to a rival who didn't come across like a nice guy underneath. With rare exceptions (one of which rhymes with "Kane Liffin"), opposing coaches actually have to beat the Bulldogs before I care to bother with disliking them on a personal level.
That admission is important because it is a necessary antecedent to this admission: Urban Meyer was a superb football coach. After distinguishing himself as an assistant, he was placed in charge of the Bowling Green Falcons in 2001. The MAC program had recorded six straight losing seasons and was coming off of a 2-9 campaign; Coach Meyer had them at 8-3 in his first season and at 9-3 in his second. From there, it was off to Salt Lake City to guide the Utah Utes. Most of us on the East Coast were vaguely aware of Utah as the team the BYU Cougars played at the end of the season, and, while the Utes generally boasted a better program than we realized, they had finished below .500 twice in the three seasons immediately preceding Urban Meyer's arrival and had not posted a double-digit victory total in any autumn since 1994. Coach Meyer's Utah squads went 10-2 with a Liberty Bowl win in 2003 and 12-0 with a Fiesta Bowl win in 2004.
Next, of course, was Gainesville, where Ron Zook had guided the Gators to a 23-14 three-year record that had the Sunshine State Saurians competing at the level at which they had performed before Steve Spurrier returned to Florida. Urban Meyer took over an Orange and Blue program which, while far from bad, had won one SEC championship in the previous eight seasons after finishing first in the league six times in the prior seven years. Five years, 56 wins, and two national championships later, Coach Meyer is stepping down after having surpassed Steve Spurrier by every conceivable measure.
I do not relish, but Coach Meyer would appreciate, the only analogy that fits: Urban Meyer is the Knute Rockne of our era, excelling at the elite level from start to finish and going out too soon and on top. The difference, of course, is that Coach Rockne was cut down in his prime, whereas Coach Meyer has seen the signs of burnout and wisely heeded them. While I cannot say that I will miss him, I can say that I respect Urban Meyer for his decision.
Now is not the time to view circumstances through the lenses of a rivalry or to speculate about a successor whose name we will know soon enough. Now is the time to pray for Urban Meyer and his family, and to wish them well as this chapter of their lives comes prematurely to an end.