Those close to [Urban] Meyer say he lives in his head, with a constant interior monologue, which is why he’ll zone out at dinner with his kids or start calling people he knows by the wrong name.
Q: How do you determine what causes a change of quarterback?
A: It’s something that I have to make sure that you’re on the same page that they are, and that’s not easy. The thing that I worry about and I know that’s happening is just the overwhelming mess that is on these 19, 20, 21-year-olds as far as that’s why I’m probably going to say just let them stay away from the quarterback for a while. …Very unique situation that I constantly evaluate am I doing the right thing by them?
—Urban Meyer press conference, September 21, 2015
I have no idea if Urban Meyer is truly happier than he was six years ago, when he was popping two Ambien every night and washing them down with a beer to fall asleep. I’m sure he’d tell me that he is; I’m sure he’d tell me, as he implied to Wright Thompson a few years back, that the wrenching panic attacks that forced him to resign from Florida have lended him a perspective on life and family that he didn’t possess before. I’m sure Urban Meyer would like to think he’s a different person than he was back then, and maybe this is true, but this is also the paradox of being Urban Meyer: the things that make him one of the greatest college football coaches of all time are intimately related to the things that rendered him (in his own words) “mentally broke” in the first place.
The first three years of Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State felt almost effortless, at least in terms of on-field results. Despite being burdened by NCAA sanctions in 2012, the Buckeyes went 12-0; in 2013, they went 12-2; and last year, of course, they snuck up on everyone, going 14-1 and winning the national championship. Every hardship that came Meyer’s way, from the loss of two starting quarterbacks to injury to the death of one of his own players, he handled with dignity and aplomb, and in the offseason, he somehow managed to convince each of his three quarterbacks to come back for another season, which rendered the Buckeyes an overwhelming favorite to repeat as national champions.
And they still might. But this is already the most fascinating season in Meyer’s time at Ohio State, because he doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with everything he has. His two prodigiously talented quarterbacks, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, are struggling with themselves, and his offense is laboring to put up points against far inferior teams (most recently pulling out a 20-13 win over MAC school Northern Illinois), and Meyer is reckoning with himself the notion that he could potentially botch one of the most talented teams in the recent history of college football.
How many coaches would use the phrase “overwhelming mess” to describe the psychic burden inherent to playing high-profile college football? How many coaches would even hint at the workings of their interior monologue?
But this is what makes Urban Meyer unique. He is the first emo college football coach; he is as much Woody Allen as he is Woody Hayes.
It is not often that a football coach — especially a universally respected football coach — publicly exposes us to his fears, but ever since his resignation from Florida, Meyer has become that guy. Most coaches in Meyer’s position, if forced to quit because of their inner demons, might have lied about (or at least glossed over) the reasons. Most coaches in Meyer’s position would have found a way to keep that vulnerability to themselves.
Meyer did none of that, in large part because his family wouldn’t let him. At his introductory press conference at Ohio State, Meyer shared the contract he’d signed, written up by his daughter, in which he promised to be more present in his personal life, in which he pledged not to be “overanxious” and vowed to consume three meals a day. It was a portrait of a successful man publicly wrestling with his own deep-seated neuroses (as well as that same man attempting to convince the public he’d come to terms with himself in a satisfactory enough fashion to start coaching again); it humanized Meyer to the point that it was impossible for any of us with our own deep-seated neuroses not to sympathize with his plight.
Was some of this a calculated effort by Meyer to sell himself as a different kind of football coach? I’m sure it was. The man is also one of the greatest recruiters who ever lived; he is intimately aware of how he’s perceived at all times. In this way, at least, Meyer can sell himself as the anti–Nick Saban, as a players’ coach who can sympathize with the self-doubt and conflict a young adult thrust into the public spotlight might feel.
But some of this is obviously legitimate. Meyer is an overthinker; even as Florida won its first national championship under him in 2006, and then a second title in 2008, things got far worse for Meyer. That’s when he started getting chest pains. That’s when he lost 35 pounds and needed pharmaceuticals to get himself to sleep. And why? “Building takes passion and energy,” Meyer told Thompson. “Maintenance is awful. It’s nothing but fatigue. Once you reach the top, maintaining that beast is awful.”
So here we are, in 2015, with Meyer having built the beast at Ohio State faster than anyone could have reasonably expected, and the maintenance phase is setting in. Now is the difficult period, the part of the process Meyer dreaded in the past, the part of the process that dragged him down in the first place. You can feel his anxiety in the way he seems to be mulling over his decision-making in his own press conferences, the way he seems to be obsessing over his own shortcomings, the way he’s legitimately torn about what to do and about how to win games without wounding the psyche of any of his star players.
That’s maintenance, and that’s the thing Urban Meyer found so awful in the past. And there’s something fascinating, even admirable, about watching a man as accomplished as him publicly wrestle with it now. “You’re the hunted instead of the hunter,” Meyer said this week, and how he deals with that will determine not only the tenor of Ohio State’s season, but his very future as a coach. And as someone who just spent several minutes overthinking the writing of this very sentence, I kind of want him to succeed.
Michael Weinreb (@MichaelWeinreb) is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.