Florida’s Meyer invigorated by changes

Urban Meyer made it clear shortly after he was hired at Florida which football activities were his top priorities when the workaholic coach told Gators sports information director Steve McClain, “All I care about is third-and-seven.”

So McClain and Meyer’s secretary, Nancy Scarborough, learned to use the coach’s weekday lunch hour to schedule less important activities, patiently waiting for Meyer to emerge from marathon coaching meetings for individual media interviews, greeting boosters and autograph requests.

But noon to 1 p.m. has become an untouchable hour for Meyer, ever since he decided to return to Florida and take a leave of absence less than 24 hours after stunning everyone by announcing his resignation as Gators coach on Dec. 26 because of then-undiagnosed chest pains.

As part of an effort to take better care of himself, the 46-year-old now dedicates that hour to a workout of running and lifting weights. It’s the first time he’s regularly exercised in years, but he’s so committed that he rescheduled his weekly media sessions during this season to 11:15 a.m. instead of noon like previous seasons.

“At noon, it’s shut the door,” Meyer says.

The result shows. Instead of appearing gaunt and exhausted as he did last season, Meyer is tan and refreshed, in part thanks to a new lifestyle that includes eating six times a day and delegating duties to assistants.

And Meyer says he hasn’t experienced any chest pains since the end of January, when he was diagnosed with and starting taking medication for esophageal spasms.

“I feel fantastic,” he says. “I’m jacked and excited. I’m really excited about where I’m coaching at, the coaching staff I have and the group of players I have.”

The coach was widely criticized for reversing course and taking a leave of absence after his initial resignation. But he explains he quit because he was concerned when doctors weren’t able to pinpoint the cause of the chest pains he’d been experiencing for three years and that sent him to the hospital in early December.

The two-time national championship coach said the uncertainty was “terrible.” He feared he would die on the sideline.

The signs that all was not well with Meyer, who has a 57-10 record in five seasons at Florida, weren’t evident to everyone. Redshirt junior quarterback John Brantley, who has the unenviable task of replacing legendary Tim Tebow this season, says he and other players didn’t really notice Meyer’s difficulties last season – which explains why they all were shocked by his initial resignation.

Now, Brantley says, “I’m just happy to see our coach is healthy.”

Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, who was interim coach during Meyer’s leave of absence and has known him since the late 1990s, noticed concerning signs about Meyer’s health even early last season, and they only increased as the season progressed. Addazio says he mentioned them in “roundabout ways” before finally telling Meyer about his worries in December.

“But you’ve got to come to the conclusion yourself that you need to make some changes,” Addazio says.

The results of Meyer’s changes are undeniable, according to Addazio.

“What I see is a guy that looks great and is back to his old self,” Addazio says. “Great energy. Great tempo. I see somebody that’s taken time to take care of himself.”

The diagnosis at the end of January alleviated Meyer’s own concerns and also explained his chest pains.

Now Meyer brags he’s gained 30 pounds and weighs 217 – noteworthy for a man who previously would eat only a granola bar some days. Both eating habits and stress contributed to Meyer’s 20-pound weight loss last season, when Florida went 13-1 and won the Sugar Bowl.

In addition to the change in eating habits, Meyer has taken steps to reduce his stress, which used to control him to the point that he would send text messages while in church. He’s been traveling, taking trips to Hawaii, Israel and Italy – where the devout Catholic was mesmerized when he came within 10 yards of the Pope. He’s also turning off his cell phone at times and making sure time he spends with family is of better quality. Plus, he’s begun delegating – turning over special teams to new assistant D.J. Durkin, among other things.

Meyer’s delegating was influenced by talking with Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who himself took a leave of absence from the Blue Devils during the 1994-95 season because of back pain and exhaustion. Meyer received a call from Krzyzewski while he was in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, and later visited him at Duke.

“If you look at his staff, they’re all former players,” Meyer says of Krzyzewski. “If you look at all the people around his office, they’re people that he trusts. That’s kind of the approach I’m taking, too. I’m not going to take chances much anymore. It’s going to be hiring people I’m sure of and who understand the way we do it.”

Addazio says he believes Meyer’s willingness to trust assistants more has been rewarding for all involved. “You can talk about things, but to actually see how things work, that gives you faith,” he says.

“I’m at peace where we’re at,” Meyer says. “I guess that’s probably new. That’s real important.”

So at peace that, despite not finding the time last season, Meyer plans to take his family to visit his lake house in Melrose, a small town about 20 miles away from Gainesville, during this season.

Still Meyer knows not to become too relaxed. With the departure of Tebow, whom Meyer won national titles with in 2006 and 2008, he knows he needs playmakers to emerge offensively for his fourth-ranked team, even with the capable quarterback he has in Brantley.

Yet Meyer insists he won’t neglect himself and his health will remain important. That’s easier said than done for someone who sleeps with a pen and paper near his bed.

“I’m always concerned, but I’ve also got a job to do,” Meyer says of his health. “I take that job real serious, but I’m going to be a little smarter.”

And that’s why Meyer is hustling out of his office after his interview. He still has another interview to do, but it’s 11:45 a.m., and he’s not about to miss a minute of his workout.