Meyer saga reminds us coaches are people first

USA TODAY

By: Mike Lopresti

Urban Meyer is a football coach. The job description includes criticism, doubts, frustration, anguish, heartbreak, anger, disappointment, tension, exhaustion, Himalayan highs and Death Valley lows.

Plus, if a man is not careful, he gets the best seat in the house to watch his life devoured, like a shark gulps a seal.

So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at the news from Florida, as a championship coach searches his soul for what to do next. Maybe we should be surprised it doesn’t happen more often.

The Urban Meyer saga curved through the weekend like a mountain goat path. He was out, and the college football world gasped. Then he watched his players practice and suddenly was not quite out and not quite in.

Now, the coach of the Florida Gators is in his own twilight zone.

“I just have to make sure I have my priorities straight,” Meyer said Sunday at a news conference originally scheduled to discuss how to win the Sugar Bowl but suddenly centered on family and faith, life and death. “A lot of times, coaches don’t have their priorities straight.”

He seemed confused and unsure at times, not knowing when he’ll be back or how it will be any different.

“That’s something I’ve got to figure out,” he said.

His uncertainty can be forgiven. This isn’t a decision about whether to pass or run in the red zone. This is a man whose chest has hurt, whose family is close and whose fear is real.

Notice one of the first people he mentioned Sunday? Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser, who died two years ago of a heart attack at 56.

Now would be the time to remember what is asked of these guys. We pay them well, sometimes absurdly so, as science departments scrounge for money. But we also ask them to produce correct answers, with the infallibility of computers. Those with the luxury of second and third and fourth guesses sit in judgment of those who get only one.

We ask them to be molders of young men.

But we all know what happens to the coach who sends honorable and ethical graduates into the world but keeps finishing 5-7. He will be fired, as surely as fourth down follows third.

The parents among us understand the perils of trying to steer a couple of kids through the mined waters of the teen years.

But we ask them to be father figures to seven dozen, fixing any behavioral problems in a year that may have developed in the previous 18.

Ruination for a coach need not come with an interception in the fourth quarter. It can come with a phone call in the middle of the night.

We ask them to spend nearly every waking hour from August through December with their X’s and their O’s and their film projectors.

Then we ask them to spend nearly every waking hour the other seven months on recruiting.

To be sure, real workers in the real world face enormous pressure. They coach football and get lots of perks.

But in a culture in which accountability is something to be shoveled off to the next sucker down the line, their place of employment comes with a rigid measure of success or failure. Ever try to bargain with a scoreboard? Those implacable numbers up there in lights are the captains of the fates of men such as Meyer.

It is easy to reduce them to figures on a television screen, there to bleed for our entertainment. Gladiators in headphones. It is easy to forget they have vulnerable bodies, vulnerable psyches, vulnerable families.

Perhaps Meyer — intensely feeling every headache in his flock — is wired in a way that makes him even more exposed to the centrifugal stress forces of his profession. He has been a head coach only nine years. For historical context, Joe Paterno coached his ninth season in 1974.

This is a most odd situation, the head coach being a coach in waiting. It might work. Might not. Florida has to try, and so does Meyer. He is only 45.

But he’ll need time to study the down and distance of his world. The next play he calls might be the biggest of his life.

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