The countdown for Urban’s finale

Only 13 hours after we count down toward the New Year, Urban Meyer steps up to take his final bow on the Raymond James Stadium stage as arguably the greatest coach in Florida history and one of the standard-bearers in the Southeastern Conference.

As he takes the field, he shall be saluted as a two-time national championship and SEC championship coach, winner of 103 (or 104) games overall and 64 (or 65) at Florida and a traditionalist who build ceremony into his program as a way honoring the game.

Then he will ride off into the sunset.

All of the Gator Nation won’t see it that way. There will be detractors, of course, who will accuse him of setting the program adrift in an hour of need. 

Some would rather the Outback Bowl be canceled, the reins handed over to Will Muschamp and the overhauling of the program begun.

Life as a lame duck may not be all it’s quacked up to be — sorry about that, folks — but it’s a lot better than going out on your sword.

* * *

The final days of his career as Gator coach were not glorious, but they made the story symmetrical: Back in Tampa at the Outback Bowl where it all started, the post-season spot on which his first Florida team landed. This time it was off the fast track, away from the intensity of competing for championships – a chance to be more reflective.

And now, upon returning to the same bowl, Urban is framed against the oldest and winningest coach in college football. Both the parallel and contrast are remarkable, not to mention ironic.

Two people on opposite ends of the coaching spectrum —the 84-year-old guy who never left his school is staying behind and the young, on-the-move guy with the much longer resume who is about to change professions at 46.

One man thinks a Blackberry is something to be picked and served fresh on cereal. Joe Paterno doesn’t own a cell and — and if he thought it would serve his needs, he would probably be happy with an old-fashioned, hand-crank home phone with a two-party line.

Meyer found the cell phone to be a double-edge sword which he used as a weapon to impose himself into the world of college football’s finest recruits, tethering some of the country’s best talent with his long cyber-reach.

Meyer had the fastest thumbs in the SEC and was so good at it that he forced the regulators to place limits on this modern form of communication. But in the end, the intrusion into his personal life presented by that cell phone robbed him of his private moments and stole his presence from his family even when he was there in person.

Finally, to rehab him from the virtual nervous breakdown he suffered a year ago, they took phone privileges away for a while and limited him to a few calls on his wife’s line. Perhaps this was the beginning of the realization that life was going to be different — and so was Urban Meyer.

* * *

The uncanny downward spiral seemed to have its seeds in 2009, although that might sound weird considering the Gators went 13-1. After two national titles in three seasons and what appeared to be a third in the making, things came unraveled. The compounding body blows of three events that year threw Urban into a frenzy.

First came the concussion to Tim Tebow which caused him great concern over a two-week period. Then after speaking out about what he considered to be a late hit on Tebow by Georgia, Meyer received a $30,000 fine from Commissioner Mike Slive. Finally there was the arrest of star defensive lineman Carlos Dunlap, who was found passed out at the wheel of a car at a stoplight. The next Saturday Meyer’s team was manhandled by Alabama in loss of the SEC title game, 32-13, before the largest TV audience ever to see the conference championship.

That night Meyer fell to the floor while asleep and was rushed to the hospital after his wife Shelley called 911. On Dec. 26, he announced his retirement. On Dec. 28 he recanted and opted for a “leave of absence,” with Steve Addazio taking over as interim coach.

There was, indeed, a correlation between the two December Decisions.

Meyer says now: “I think last December was kind of a frontal blow and ‘let’s evaluate this whole thing for a minute,’ and we did.”

* * *

Though we are not privy to all the details of exactly what happened in December, 2009, the night after Florida lost the SEC title game to Alabama, there is no question that Meyer was on a destructive path. It was all over his resume, even in his early days as a head coach, which was reflected in his authorized biography, Urban’s Way:

Nothing in The Plan, however, would teach Meyer how to save him from himself. The real question about Urban Meyer was not if he could continue to succeed, but whether he would overextend himself, implode and drop like a shooting star.

Those closest to Urban would all tell you he will continue to be successful—but with a caveat. His father, his sisters, his mentor Bruce, his closest friends, his assistant coaches, and his players all worry about him burning out.

Some coaches say they’re “all in,” but Meyer makes it the linchpin of his coaching philosophy. Like Amarillo Slim playing four of a kind, Meyer leaves nothing on the table.

The concern for Urban by friends and family is how far he is going to push himself and for how long. Urban says he’s working on trying to delegate more to his staff.

“The last two years I’ve delegated more than I’ve ever delegated in my life,” Meyer said. “At Bowling Green I delegated nothing, I did everything myself. Everything.”

That flashback to the Bowling Green version of Urban Meyer is not necessarily pretty to him. He didn’t like what he had become – “a thirty-six-year-old coach out of control.”

He was not only a control freak who was driving himself crazy, but everyone around him as well.

In the end, it was the decision of he and Shelley to become better parents — which meant Urban being present more often — that tilted the scales in favor of stepping aside.

“They’ve sacrificed for us now we’re going to sacrifice for those kids,” Urban said this week. “It’s kind of a humbling feeling to do that. Not many people have that opportunity to step away and give back to the people that have given so much to us. The ‘people’ are those kids. (Nate, Gigi and Nicki) They deserve to have their dad go watch the games and be around.”

NEXT: Did Urban lose his heart for the challenges of the game?