Urban Meyer Balances Football and Family

Lou Holtz is wearing a tuxedo. It is the summer of 1987 and Holtz is the head football coach at Notre Dame. His youngest daughter, Liz, is in her prom dress—it’s the biggest night of her young life. Her date rings the door bell and Holtz answers.

“I never got to go to the prom when I was in high school,” he says. “This is my last chance. I’m going with you and my daughter.”

Liz was mortified. Her date was shocked. But Holtz was just having fun. He was a very busy man, so he had to make the time he did have with his children memorable.

Urban Meyer retired as the head coach at Florida partly because he wanted to spend more time with his family. When he was hired by Ohio State in November, after sitting out just one season, he preached about balancing work and family. Meyer, then: “At the end of the day I’m very convinced that you are to be judged on how you are as a husband and as a father and not on how many bowl games you’ve won.” Meyer, now: “Believe it or not there are a lot of quality coaches out there that are still able to have a little bit of balance [in their lives]. I was proud I had balance for quite a while. I lost that near the end.”

Holtz is qualified to share insight on Meyer’s situation. He has four children (to Meyer’s three), coached at a football-crazy institution (Notre Dame, Florida, and Ohio State all qualify), returned to the sidelines after a brief retirement (Holtz sat out two seasons before taking the head coaching job at South Carolina), and works as an analyst for ESPN (as Meyer did this past season). On top of all that, the 74-year-old Holtz is a good friend of the 47-year-old Meyer and often gives him advice.

Does Holtz think Meyer can maintain a football/family balance? “Absolutely,” Holtz said shortly after Meyer was hired at Ohio State. “You need to have your priorities in order. Mine were faith, family, football, and social, in that order.” During his coaching days, Holtz had a sign on his desk that included four questions: Will this help us graduate our student-athletes? Will this help us win? Will this help my family? Is this something I want to do? “When requests came, and I looked at budgeting my time, you have to make sure your efforts are fulfilling one of those four items. If not, you’re wasting your time. It’s not about the amount of time you spend with your family, it’s the quality of time.”

Meyer is back on the field. Can he maintain his family life? (Credit: Harrison Diamond)

That’s Why They’re Called Assistants

Holtz believes there are two types of head coaches: the Chairman and the Meddler. The Chairman hires top-notch coordinators to run the team on a daily basis while he recruits and handles public relations. The Meddler? “I was involved in everything,” Holtz says. “I ran the offense and knew what we were doing on defense and special teams. I love coaching on the field, I love working with the athletes. That was the most fun part—seeing the players get better. More coaches now are chairman of the board types.”

Fisher DeBerry, the Air Force head coach from 1984-2006, seems to fit that mold. During his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame last month, DeBerry spoke about balancing football and family. “I hired the best assistants I could. I wanted all my coaches to think of themselves as potential head coaches. And so I hired them to do a job. I didn’t stand over them and tell them how to do it. We had a system and we all went in the same direction, but they had freedom.”

Early in his tenure at Florida, Urban Meyer was a Chairman. His staff included four future head coaches: Dan Mullen (Mississippi State), Charlie Strong (Louisville), Steve Addazio (Temple), and Doc Holliday (Marshall), along with Greg Mattison (Michigan’s defensive coordinator, by way of the Baltimore Ravens). This was a staff that turned the Gators into national champions in Year Two and won it again in 2008. Mattison and Holliday had left by the second title, and Mullen was gone the following season. By 2010, only Addazio and a couple of position coaches remained from the original staff, and Florida went 8-5, its worst record under Meyer.

After Meyer’s introductory press conference at Ohio State, his wife, Shelley, told The Mansfield (Ohio) News Journal that Meyer is a “control person,” if not a control freak. Shelley said that after the two titles, “You lose some of your great coaches who became head coaches themselves. When your core staff, that great staff, starts to pull apart, then maybe you don’t have as much trust in the guys you have to hire.”

The coach admitted to this at his press conference. “I hope I’m the same guy—not hope—I will be the same guy from the beginning of the tenure [at Florida]. And that was a guy that did have balance, a guy that took care of himself, a guy that did not try to get involved and change everything. I think as it rolled on, we were dealing with magical things there. I call it the pursuit of perfection. I think at the end of the day we all know there’s no such thing. I fell victim to that.”

Age Matters

How old were you when you stopped craving your parents’ attention? What about when you preferred they not pay you any attention?

Meyer’s children—two college daughters and a middle school aged son—made him sign a contract before accepting the Ohio State job, promising to maintain his health and not overwork himself. Wild guess here, but his daughters didn’t include a clause about checking up on them on Friday nights.

“These kids are getting coddled today,” Holtz said. “They’ve got their own life. When they start driving, they’ve got their friends. Yes, you’ve got to be there and be a stable part, but I’m not going to live my life vicariously through my children.” Holtz’s children ranged from newborn to 7 when he got his first head coaching job in 1969.

In both of Meyers’ press conferences—at Florida for his retirement and at Ohio State—he expressed regret: “I missed so much of them growing up,” he said last month; “I can’t get that time back,” he admitted in 2010. His youngest is still at an age where he likely covets his dad’s attention, and Meyer’s plan is to be there to give it to him.

Buckeye Balance

If Meyer fails, he won’t be alone. “It’s not just coaching; there are a lot of careers out there where we lose balance,” said Lloyd Carr, Hall of Fame inductee, father of three, and Michigan’s head coach until his retirement in 2007. “I don’t know too many coaches who have balance. I don’t pretend that I had balance. I think it will be the hardest thing for Urban, because you are what you are. Your personality—it’s hard to change your intense competitiveness. I think that’s where it stems from. I wish him the best of luck. We coaches talk about it and we’re aware of it. But reaching that balance is another story.”

Meyer has referenced a seminar he attended while working for ESPN that made him realize he needed to play center field—and not try to play left and right field, too. There is evidence of him sticking to that early in his Ohio State tenure: One of Meyer’s first decisions was to retain interim head coach Luke Fickell. When NCAA sanctions came down, Meyer told The New York Times: “Something that I’m trying to do personally is not worry about things I can’t control. I’m in charge of the football program, recruits and my family and that’s my focus. I have absolutely no control over that. Wasting time on that is taking away from family time or recruiting.”

That just goes back to Carr’s statement, and we’re reminded that actions speak louder than words. The temptation will be there for Meyer no matter how the Buckeyes perform on the field. If they start winning like Florida did, will he once again pursue perfection? If they don’t win like Florida did, will he revert back to micromanaging and sleeping in the office?

Only time will tell. Time Urban Meyer won’t be able to get back.

Meyer’s new school, Ohio State, will play his last school, Florida, in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2.

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