TUSCALOOSA AL - OCTOBER 02: Head coach Urban Meyer of the Florida Gators looks down at the ground on the sidelines during their game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 2 2010 in Tuscaloosa Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The Urban Meyer Reclamation Project will be airing on ESPN's family of networks throughout the month of August under a bunch of different names, as the network rehabilitates one of college football's biggest programs, Ohio State, and one of its biggest names, probably not coincidentally doing a favor to a former employee who had always been accommodating to ESPN and rather brusque with other media outlets.
Beyond the practices and behind-the-scenes soft-focus features, though, people like Wright Thompson will occasionally try to commit journalism. And that's how you get quotes like this:
Two years after he cried with his father, Urban Meyer stood on the field with his second national championship team, the 2008 Gators, singing the fight song. After the last line, he rushed into the tunnel and locked himself in the coaches' locker room. He began calling recruits as his assistants pounded on the door, asking if everything was okay. Back in Gainesville, his chronic chest pain got worse, and he did test after test, treadmills and heart scans, sure he was dying. Doctors found nothing, and the pain became another thing to ignore. "Building takes passion and energy," Meyer says. "Maintenance is awful. It's nothing but fatigue. Once you reach the top, maintaining that beast is awful."
(Maintaining an image counts as maintaining a beast, too, right?)
I'll be skeptical about Meyer's illness, resignation, and return to my grave, I suspect, and I'm not alone in that regard. The oft-cited collapse early Sunday morning after the 2009 SEC Championship Game has been consistently rumored to be the result of a heart attack since that day, with Emmanuel Moody saying as much in February 2011 — but Meyer, who's likely the only guy who both knows exactly what happened and can legally discuss his health, has held fast to the story that esophageal spasms were the culprit all along, and seems to have repeated that bit to Thompson.
Five months after retiring, Meyer woke up early in a hotel near Stanford University, there for his new job as an ESPN analyst. His chest didn't hurt; a doctor finally thought to suggest Nexium. Turns out esophageal spasms mimic the symptoms of a heart attack.
The really telling thing about Thompson's story, though, is how everything seems to boil down to Meyer losing himself, losing his very soul (Matthew 16:26 figures into Thompson's story, and is apparently posted in Ohio State's locker room) in 2009, when he was on the mountaintop in Gainesville and striving for the clouds. Meyer was always good at selling the mountaintop, because he won, and won a lot, and won big on the way up.
Thompson uses Meyer talking to new Buckeyes about clanking championship rings to illustrate a point:
This is the difficult calculus of Meyer's future, of any Type A extremist who longs for balance. They want the old results, without paying the old costs, and while they'll feel guilty about not changing, they'll feel empty without the success. He wants peace and wins, which is a short walk from thinking they are the same.
But Meyer was never really faced with taking peace or wins until 2010. 2009, which only seemed like the way down because perfection was the bar, was "maintenance," but maintenance that ended with a 13-1 season, his second straight.
Meyer's quote from just before that "peace and wins" passage, to me, is more telling:
"That team that goes 4-7, how many reunions do they have?" Meyer says. "How many times does that senior class come back? You never see 'em."
What if Meyer's 2010 team had gone 10-2, or 11-1, and competed for another SEC title, or a third national title in five years? What if he had found the peace that he had been searching for while getting his balance back, gaining weight, and managing his health? What if he hadn't apparently decided his program was broken beyond his ability to repair it? Why does 2009, and not 2010, serve as the focal point in the Urban Meyer narrative?
I think it's because 2010 breaks the momentum, and because forgetting the losses isn't just for players.
Meyer's six years at Florida were the longest he spent at any one job in his two decades of professional life through 2010, tying his six at Colorado State as the wide receivers coach from 1990 to 1995. He was ascendant throughout it, especially as 2009 dawned, rising from a decade as a wide receivers coach to become the first coach in BCS history with two titles.
After 2010, he was all that ... and a coach whose encore to a BCS bowl win was a 7-5 season. After 2010, the slope of the line was a bit different. With two titles at Florida, Meyer could almost certainly have found a way to stay as long as he wanted, by delegating more and revamping his staff. He didn't.
And now Urban Meyer gets to build again, and the URBAN RENEWAL headlines get to come out again. It's not hard to imagine the URBAN DECAY ones following them again, as well.