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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Urban Meyer to Resign; Stirs Memories of Another Famous Resignation -- About 45 Years Ago

You might never have heard of John Wooden had this guy not resigned. Unless you're over 55, a basketball lover or insider, Bob Knight or knowledgeable about Knight, you probably haven't heard of the guy. But he was a heckuva coach, as this book (which I recommend), will tell you. So good that his teams contended for national titles and to the best of my recollection won at least one and perhaps two. So good that when his teams went head to head with John Wooden's from 1960-1964 -- twice a year -- they won all them.

So good that you have to remember that Wooden got to UCLA in 1949 but didn't win his first national title until 1965 -- the year after this guy retired. After that, Wooden's teams won national title after national title, cementing Wooden's legend as a great coach. (And this is not to dispute Wooden's legacy or his greatness as a coach; I'm a big Wooden fan and have read many of his books and learned much from them). But it does make you wonder what the national college basketball landscape would have looked like had Pete Newell not retired atop his game in the early 1960's.

As the linked book will tell you, he did so because his doctor told him that he was a walking heart attack, smoking too many cigarettes and drinking too much coffee. So he quit -- cold turkey. Basketball, that is. He went on to found his big man's basketball camp, for which he was well known in basketball circles, and he remained in the spotlight because of that and because of his relationship with Bob Knight, who revered him as a mentor. Make no mistake, though -- Newell retired because of the toll his job was taking on him.

Urban Meyer announced that he's leaving his head coaching position at Florida after coaching in the Sugar Bowl. His reasons are similar to the ones that Newell gave -- the job just was taking too much out of him, to the point where he couldn't remain healthy enough to achieve a proper balance in life. Meyer is leaving the Gators atop his game. Okay, so they're not playing for a national title this year, but he's accomplished a great deal in his career at both Utah and Florida, and, in his mid-40's, he's leaving the game -- as a head coach -- way too young.

Head coaching in college football is one of the ultimate exercises of survival of the fittest. You begin your career as a volunteer or lowly paid assistant on the fringes of a coaching staff, and your goal is to move up to positions of greater responsibility in higher-profile programs, ultimately trying to attach yourself to some of the biggest names, where you can learn a lot and brand yourself better for the next big job. You go from being a graduate assistant breaking down films to a quality-control assistant to an assistant position coach to a position coach to a coordinator to a head coach, or something like that. Along the way you spend a year here, two years there, never putting down roots. The money does get better, but the hours do not. You're always on -- recruiting, working with your current players, working on offensive or defensive schemes (depending on which side of the ball you're on), very much absorbed in your work. My guess is that the average 50 year-old head football coach has put enough time in the office and on the road to fill up the career of three guys working 40 hours a week in jobs where that's all that's required of them.

You probably don't get the 8 hours of sleep a night that doctors recommend. You're probably not eating meals regularly or in a balanced fashion, and you don't always get the time to exercise that you need. You sit a lot, you don't get much down time to simply watch movies on cable for two or three days or spend a week on vacation with the family on the phone. No, you're twittering for your recruiting class five minutes before you walk on the field for your're homecoming game, calling a recruit from the sidelines of a bowl game to show him how loud your fan base is, you're traveling to recruits' homes, visiting other coaches to see how their innovative defense works, appearing before alumni groups -- heck, you're the head football coach at Florida, but your schedule sounds like you're running for President of the United States.

It takes its toll, as do most jobs where you put your heart and soul into it. Urban Meyer is a great coach, but now he must get off the fast-paced head coaching treadmill to live life a little bit -- at least the aspects of life that justify how hard we work to provide for the ones that we love - -his family. He'll come back -- rested and refreshed -- in some important capacity, but he'll have to avoid the temptation of going full throttle right away or returning to a pace where all he knows is to push the throttles as far forward and as hard as he can. That will be difficult, but he'll do it.

Pete Newell found a good existence for himself after stepping down from one of the best basketball jobs in the country. Urban Meyer should be able to do the same thing.

It won't be easy, but it's well worth the effort -- and the same could have been said to him or about him as he tried to ascend to the highest levels of the coaching ranks in college football.


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