Urban Meyer will be home for dinner

Ohio State's new coach is committed to balancing work and family

Updated: August 22, 2012, 11:06 AM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Aug. 20 College Football issue. Subscribe today!

PART ONE

B

efore you join Urban Meyer, who is walking toward the exit of the Ohio State football office, there's a scar you need to see. A few years ago in Gainesville, his middle child, Gigi, planned a celebration to formally accept a college volleyball scholarship to Florida Gulf Coast University. It was football season, so she checked her dad's calendar, scheduling her big day around his job. As the hour approached, she waited at her high school, wanting much, expecting little. Some now-forgotten problem consumed Meyer, and he told his secretary he didn't have time. He wasn't going. His beautiful, athletic, earnest daughter would have to sign her letter of intent without him. Meyer's secretary, a mother of four, insisted: "You're going."

Eighty or so people filed into the school cafeteria. Urban and his wife, Shelley, joined their daughter at the front table, watching as Gigi stood and spoke. She'd been nervous all day, and with a room of eyes on her, she thanked her mother for being there season after season, year after year.

Then she turned to her father.

He'd missed almost everything. You weren't there, she told him.

Shelley Meyer winced. Her heart broke for Urban, who sat with a thin smile, crushed. Moments later, Gigi high-fived her dad without making eye contact, then hugged her coach. Urban dragged himself back to the car. Then -- and this arrives at the guts of his conflict -- Urban Meyer went back to work, pulled by some biological imperative. His daughter's words ran through his mind, troubling him, and yet he returned to the shifting pixels on his television, studying for a game he'd either win or lose. The conflict slipped away. Nothing mattered but winning. Both of these people are in him -- are him: the guilty father who feels regret, the obsessed coach who ignores it. He doesn't like either one. He doesn't like himself, which is why he wants to change.


M

eyer strolls through the Ohio State football parking lot with his 13-year-old son, Nate. Years from now, when Urban either succeeds or fails in remaking himself, he will look back on these two days in June as a dividing line. On one side, the past 18 months of searching, and on the other, the test of that search. In the car, he turns right out of his new office, heading some two hours north. There's vital business at hand, which requires him to leave the football bunker on a summer afternoon.

Road trip!

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andrew Hetherington for ESPN The MagazineThough Urban Meyer hasn't won a game in Columbus, he still has lots of fans who want his autograph.

"All right, fun time today," he says, amped and smiling at his son.

Fun? Smiling? Urban? There's gray in his brush cut, weight back on his hips. The radio in the car, as always, is tuned to 93.3, the oldies station. I Got Sunshine. Tomorrow he will meet with the 2012 Buckeyes for the first time, beginning the countdown to the first practice, the first game, the first loss. Today he's driving to Cleveland to take Nate to an Indians game.

In front of him is a second chance. Behind, there's his old dream job in Florida, which he quit twice in a year, and the $20 million he left on the table, unable to answer the simplest of questions: Why am I doing this? During the break, he studied himself for the first time in his life, looking for a new him or maybe trying to get the old him back -- the person he was before a need for perfection nearly killed him. At least he can laugh about it now. During one of his many recent visits to a children's hospital in Columbus, he told a group of nurses on an elevator, "My wife's a nurse."

They turned and he said, "A psych nurse," which is true.

He paused.

"I'm her patient," he said.


L

ike any man who destroys himself running for a finish line that doesn't exist, Meyer often longed for the time and place where that race began: Columbus, 1986. As a 22-year-old graduate assistant for the Buckeyes, right up the road from his hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio, each day brought something new. He romanticized the experience; in later years, when the SEC's recruiting wars got too dirty, he waxed about the Big Ten, where it was always 1986, which was just another way of hoping he could look in the mirror and see his younger, more idealistic self. After Jim Tressel resigned in shame a year ago, a joke passed among SEC insiders: "Who's gonna tell Urban there's no Santa Claus?"

[+] EnlargeMeyer
The Ohio State University Athletic DepartmentMeyer still romanticizes the time when his career began, at Ohio State in 1986.

It might have been genetic. His father, Bud, idolized Woody Hayes, who died a year after Meyer arrived in Columbus. Bud Meyer thought Woody offered the perfect template for a man: Hard work solves every problem. Never accept defeat. Stay focused on the future; reflection is weakness wrapped in nostalgia. Urban grew up in a house free of contradiction. Bud Meyer believed in black and white.

"No gray," Urban says.

Bud studied three years to be a priest before he met Gisela, who escaped Nazi Germany as a child. They raised three children and never missed a game or a recital. A chemical engineer, Bud enjoyed Latin and advanced mathematics, but when his son struck out looking in high school, he made him run home from the game. The Braves drafted Urban after his senior year, and when he tried to quit minor league baseball, realizing he wasn't good enough, Bud told him he no longer would be welcome in their home. Just call your mom on Christmas, he advised. Not only did Urban finish the season, he told that story to every freshman class he recruited. His whole life had been unintentionally preparing him to coach; after baseball, he played college football at Cincinnati, and the stern men in whistles seemed familiar. Some boys rebel against demanding fathers. Urban embraced his dad's unforgiving expectations, finding a profession that allowed him to re-create the world of Bud Meyer: the joy of teaching, the lens of competition, the mentoring, the pushing -- the black and white.

He discovered more than a calling in college. He met a beautiful woman named Shelley, and after he got his first job in Columbus, she moved to town. Once, a possum peeked its head over the television, and Urban and his roommates screamed and stood on the couch, yelling for Shelley, the Ohio farm girl, to do something. Urban made less than his rent. He lived on happy hour egg rolls. Staying up all night during the season, he cut 16 millimeter tape, nursing a six-pack of beer through the tedious job. He loved it. To make ends meet, he picked up shifts at Consolidated Freightways, driving a forklift. Shelley calls it his "Archie Bunker job." He bought steel-toe boots, and three or so nights a week during the offseason, he pulled the graveyard, getting off at 6 a.m., showering and heading to the football office. At the warehouse, they got a breather about 2 a.m., those callow faces yellowed in break-room light, eating peanut butter sandwiches, maybe a bag of chips. He looked around and saw the same question on every face, one he knew they could see on his: Why am I doing this?

In 1986, he knew the answer.


O

ften he lets in only what he wants; you can watch him listen to a story and pick certain details, turning the facts into an allegory that either confirms some deeply held belief or offers a road map to one he'd like to hold. For instance, there's a book he loves, written for business executives, called "Change or Die," which shaped his ideas about altering the behavior of athletes. He has talked about the book in speeches, invited the author to Gainesville, handed out copies, and never, not once, did he realize the book almost perfectly described him.

"I know," Shelley says, laughing. "He didn't have any self-awareness at all."

In the car on the way to Cleveland, he is read a paragraph from page 150:

"Why do people persist in their self-destructive behavior, ignoring the blatant fact that what they've been doing for many years hasn't solved their problems? They think that they need to do it even more fervently or frequently, as if they were doing the right thing but simply had to try even harder."

Meyer's voice changes, grows firmer, louder. "Blatant fact," he says.

He pauses. A fragmented idea orders itself in his mind. "Wow," he says.

He asks to hear it again. "Blatant fact," he says. "It should have my picture. I need to read that to my wife. I'm gonna reread that now. Self-destructive behavior?"

The car is quiet. Those close to 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.

"Wow," he says. "This is profound stuff. Profound. Now as I sit here talking about it, I know exactly what happened."


PART TWO

H

e lost things one at a time.

He lost 15 pounds during every season as the head coach at Bowling Green and at Utah, unable to eat or shave, rethinking things as fundamental as the punt. Purging the weak, he locked teams inside a gym with nothing but bleating whistles and trash cans for their puke, forcing the unworthy to quit. The survivors, and their coaches, were underdogs, united. His children often asked why they kept moving. Shelley always said, "Daddy's climbing a mountain."

[+] EnlargeMeyer
Jamie Sabau for ESPN The MagazineMeyer isn't convinced the Buckeyes have everything they need this year.

His desire to mentor battled with the rage that often consumed him, a byproduct of his need for success and his constantly narrowing definition of it. He threw a remote control through a television. Players whispered about Black Wednesday, about Full Metal Jacket Friday, about a drill named Vietnam. His own body rebelled against the intensity: During his time as an assistant, a cyst on his brain often sent crushing waves of pain through his head when he was stressed. He kept coaching, moving up, each rung of success pulling him further away from his young wife and kids. A voice of warning whispered even then. "I was always fearful I would become That Guy," he says. "The guy who had regret. 'Yeah, we won a couple of championships, but I never saw my kids grow up. Yeah, we beat Georgia a couple of times, but I ruined my marriage.'"

At Bowling Green, at Utah and finally at Florida, the teams celebrated with something he called Victory Meal. They'd gather after a win, eating steak and shrimp, watching a replay of the game. They'd hang out, enjoying the accomplishment. Players and coaches loved Victory Meal, and Meyer often sat at the front of the room, glowing inside.

Then he won the 2006 national title.

Bud Meyer joined him in the locker room. They hugged, cried, and before Urban left, he took his nameplate from his locker as a souvenir. Back at the office, he gave his secretary his credit card and told her to buy everything she could find from the game. She spent around $5,000 on blown-up photographs. Urban essentially scrapbooked, collecting mementos of the success he couldn't really enjoy. There was something melancholy about it. Truth is, he loved reflecting -- his favorite song, Jimmy Buffett's "One Particular Harbour," is about someone who imagines an escape, dreaming of being an old man able to look back -- but he'd learned that reflection is weakness, so he didn't indulge beyond the pictures on the wall and those moments in the locker room with his dad.

He lost even that.

Success didn't bring relief. It only magnified his obsession, made the margins thinner, left him with chest pains. After the 2007 season, he confided to a friend that anxiety was taking over his life and he wanted to walk away.

Two years after he cried with his father, Urban Meyer stood on the field with his second national championship team, the 2008 Gators, singing the fight song. After the last line, he rushed into the tunnel and locked himself in the coaches' locker room. He began calling recruits as his assistants pounded on the door, asking if everything was okay. Back in Gainesville, his chronic chest pain got worse, and he did test after test, treadmills and heart scans, sure he was dying. Doctors found nothing, and the pain became another thing to ignore. "Building takes passion and energy," Meyer says. "Maintenance is awful. It's nothing but fatigue. Once you reach the top, maintaining that beast is awful."

A few months later, during the 2009 SEC media days, a reporter asked what it felt like knowing anything but perfection would be a failure. Meyer tried to laugh it off, but he walked away from the podium knowing the undeniable truth of the question.

Success meant perfection.

The drive for it changed something inside him. For the first time, Meyer needed an alarm clock. Shelley called his secretary to ask whether he was eating. Unopened boxes of food sat on his desk. He lost even when they won, raging at his coaches and players for mistakes, demanding emergency staff meetings in the middle of the night. He stopped smiling. Days ended later and later. He texted recruits in church. He ignored his children, his fears realized: He'd become That Guy.

The tighter he gripped, the more things slipped away. The blatant fact. The Gators beat Georgia, another step closer to perfection. He'd been skipping Victory Meal, heading straight to his office to watch film, but after that win he stopped in. The room was almost empty.

"Where the hell is everybody?" he asked.

His strength coach and friend Mickey Marotti didn't want to answer.

"Where the hell is everybody?" he repeated.

"Coach," Mickey said, "they don't come."

The unbeaten streak reached 22 games.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
James Lang/US PresswireUrban Meyer won national titles in the 2006 and 2008 seasons while at Florida.

Four days before the SEC title game against Alabama, Meyer got an early-morning phone call: Star defensive end Carlos Dunlap had been arrested and charged with drunken driving, threatening the perfection, triggering the rage, which had always been connected for Meyer. He wanted order, and this desire had turned him in a circle, or, more accurately, a spiral: Losing filled him with loathing, for himself and everyone connected to the loss, and over time his personality came to define losing as anything short of perfection. His rage was the exhaust of whatever hidden motor turned inside him. After the campus police officer delivered the news about Dunlap, Meyer went to the office, overcome, driving in the dark. That week, everything came apart.

He popped Ambien but couldn't sleep.

The morning of the game, early in a quiet hotel, Meyer waited to do an interview, and when his public relations guy, Steve McClain, saw Meyer gaunt in the television lights, he felt panic. Meyer's pants sagged off thin hips. McClain called Shelley Meyer and asked her to come down: They needed to talk. An intervention loomed. That afternoon, Florida lost to Alabama, and afterward, the cheers from the Crimson Tide echoed in the concrete halls of the Georgia Dome. Meyer limped to the bus, ghost white, settling next to Shelley in the front right seat. His head slumped. An unopened box of chicken sat on his lap.

He'd lost 35 pounds that season.

Six or seven hours later in Gainesville, around 4 a.m., Meyer said his chest hurt, and he fell on the floor. Shelley dialed 911. She tried to sound calm, but a few shaky words gave her away.

"My husband's having chest pains," she said. "He's on the floor."

"Is he awake?" the operator asked.

"Urban, Urban," Shelley pleaded, "talk to me, Urb. Urban, talk to me, please."

Meyer lay on his stomach, on the floor of his mansion, his eyes closed, unable to speak. Soon he'd resign, come back for a year and resign again, but the journey that began with hope in Columbus in 1986 ended with that 911 call and the back of an ambulance.

Urban Meyer won 104 games but lost himself.


M

eyer didn't just give up a job. He admitted that the world he'd constructed had been fatally flawed, which called into question more than a football career. Follow the dots, from quitting to asking why he'd lost control to trying to understand himself. Who am I? Why am I that way? When the facade fell down, the foundation crumbled too, so he needed more than a relaxing break. If he came back and allowed the rage to consume him again, his quitting would have been meaningless. He didn't need a piña colada. He needed to rebuild himself. His dad sneered at the weakness when he quit, leveling his stark opinion: "You can't change your essence."


F

ive months after retiring, Meyer woke up early in a hotel near Stanford University, there for his new job as an ESPN analyst. His chest didn't hurt; a doctor finally thought to suggest Nexium. Turns out esophageal spasms mimic the symptoms of a heart attack. That morning, he went for a run, on a whim grabbing a book he'd started the night before: LEAD … for God's Sake!

He ran with the book in his hand, stopping on campus to sit and read. He ran an hour, read an hour, back and forth. The sun climbed, and he couldn't turn the pages fast enough. He finished that day and emailed the author from his phone, saying, "That is the most profound book I've ever read."

The novel tells of the winningest high school basketball coach in Kentucky, a man consumed by success. When players make a mistake, he punishes their weakness, destroys watercoolers, but he doesn't understand why his star breaks his hand punching a wall. They skipped Victory Meal because I did. Finally, his family fades away. The character's son begs him to shoot baskets, and the coach can't make time. When things collapse and his team can't win, the man is forced to ask, "Why do I coach?"

"That hit home," Meyer says. "That was in my backyard. Even closer, that was in my living room. It brought me back to 1986 and why I made a decision to get into coaching, as opposed to what was going on in 2009 -- chasing perfection. Never one time did I say, 'To go undefeated at Florida.' All of a sudden, every step, every time I had a cup of coffee, every time I woke up in the morning and shaved, it was all about somehow getting a team to go undefeated at Florida."

The coach in the book forms a relationship with the school janitor, a mystical Christ figure, who becomes a spiritual guide in his search for himself. Meyer left Stanford looking for his own guides. "Without anyone really knowing it," he says, "I went on a yearlong research project. How can you do both? How does Bob Stoops be a good dad and husband and still have success?"

Meyer traveled to Norman, Okla., and met with Stoops, who said, "Live your life. When you go home, go home."

He flew several times to Texas to sit with Mack Brown, who told him to remember when he loved the game. Before you wanted a perfect season, before million-dollar homes and recruiting wars, once upon a time you loved a game.

Meyer visited West Point, stayed with Nate in coach Red Blaik's old house. He sat with Army coach Rich Ellerson in the little café behind the cemetery, in the shadow of General Custer's grave. Holding hot cups of coffee, they talked about the essential truths often hidden by the contradictions, the things obscured by money and success. Ellerson told Urban that football itself helped nurture and protect its values. The snippets of life lived between the snap and the whistle could purify everything bad that people did to the game. "It clarifies," he said. Meyer, who'd seen the lines blurred in the SEC and within himself, said he wasn't sure. Ellerson offered his sermon on MacArthur and the Corps and the West Point mission: "To educate, train and inspire … " Urban stared at him. "Wait a minute," Meyer said, "you really believe this." They talked about why they loved a game, following the question: Why do I coach? At Bowling Green, he'd loved tutoring his players in math. Could he have that back again? The game was the problem, but maybe it could be the solution too.

West Point came in the middle of a 13-day road trip with Nate, maybe the best 13 days of Urban's life. The two helicoptered to Yankee Stadium, hung out for almost a week in Cooperstown, where they held Babe Ruth's bat. "I was 7 years old again," he says.

Back home, Urban slept in. Shelley couldn't believe it, getting up around 7:30 to work out, leaving Urban in bed. When he finally dressed, he'd walk a mile to a breakfast place he loved, lounge around and watch television with the owner, then walk a mile back.

"His mind shut off," Shelley says.

Shelley begged him to do this forever. She'd never seen Urban so happy. He coached Nate's baseball and football teams. He played paintball. The family went out for dinners, and Urban was present, cracking Seinfeld jokes and smiling.

But he still felt empty. He'd ask, "Is this it?" He missed the ability to make an impact; he'd gotten into coaching to be a teacher. A challenge grew from his trip to West Point: What if he could have the feeling of Bowling Green on the scale of Florida? What if he could answer the question posed in the novel: Why?

Yet beyond the intellectual journey, he missed football on an almost biological level, deep down in the place where his ambition -- where his love, and his rage -- hibernated. In early November, he stood on the sideline at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. The crowd roared. God, he loved the crowd. Sometimes, when it felt as if they'd never lose again at the Swamp, he'd slip his headset off just for a moment and let the noise cover him like a hot rain. In Tuscaloosa, with LSU and Alabama waiting to take the field, the stadium lights bright on the green grass, something awoke. The person standing next to him looked over to find the old Urban Meyer, eyes dark and squinted, arms crossed, muttering, "I miss this."

In late November, Meyer wanted to accept the Ohio State job. Shelley demanded a family meeting. They had all gathered around Thanksgiving in the Atlanta apartment of their oldest daughter, Nicki, who played volleyball at Georgia Tech. Shelley told the kids to ask anything. He heard the fear in their voices: How could he be sure he was ready to go back?

"We wanted him to make promises," Shelley says.


D

uring the fall that Urban spent searching, as the rumors circled about his return to the game, Bud Meyer was slipping away. Lung disease had left him frail and weak. Urban used his freedom to visit whenever he wanted. Around the LSU-Alabama game, Urban and Bud watched a television news report about the open Ohio State job. Urban's picture appeared on the screen.

"Hey, you gonna do that?" Bud asked.

"I don't know," Urban said. "What do you think?"

Bud turned to face him, gaunt in the light. An oxygen tube ran to his nose. Twenty seconds passed, the silence uncomfortable. Thirty seconds.

"Nah," Bud said. "I like this s--- the way it is. I don't care who wins or loses."

His response couldn't have been more out of character. Never before had Urban asked his dad for his opinion and not gotten direct, blunt advice: "I think you should … " In his father's answer, there was a measure of absolution -- maybe for both of them. Sometimes walking away isn't quitting. Sometimes, when the fire burns too hot, walking away is the bravest thing a man can do. Bud offered the best mea culpa he could, in his own way. Maybe he knew this would be one of their last conversations. Ambivalence was his final gift. Whatever Urban chose to do with his future, he could walk through the world knowing he had his father's blessing. They never discussed coaching again.

Two weeks later, Bud Meyer died in his son's arms.


T

hree days after his father's funeral, five days after his family demanded promises, Meyer accepted the Ohio State job. During his first news conference, he reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a contract written by Nicki, which he'd signed in exchange for his family's blessing. These rules were supposed to govern his attempt at a new life, as his father's example had governed his old one. So much was happening at once, and as he said goodbye to the man who molded him, he began undoing part of that molding.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andrew Hetherington for ESPN The MagazineMeyer signed two agreements when he was hired by Ohio State: one with the school that demands performance and another with his family, which demands much more.

He went to work.

Meyer unpacked his boxes, setting up little shrines on the blond wood shelves of his Ohio State office. To the right, positioned in his most common line of sight, he placed a blue rock with a word etched into it: balance. Behind the rock went a collage of photographs, the orange of a sunset from his lake house -- his particular harbor -- and of his old church in Gainesville. The shrine was a gift from his pastor in Florida, a prayer from people who love him that he won't lose himself again.

Framed above his desk hung the contract he signed with his kids, written on pink notebook paper.

1. My family will always come first.

2. I will take care of myself and maintain good health.

3. I will go on a trip once a year with Nicki -- MINIMUM.

4. I will not go more than nine hours a day at the office.

5. I will sleep with my cellphone on silent.

6. I will continue to communicate daily with my kids.

7. I will trust God's plan and not be overanxious.

8. I will keep the lake house.

9. I will find a way to watch Nicki and Gigi play volleyball.

10. I will eat three meals a day.


PART THREE

S

even months later, Meyer drives through the outskirts of Cleveland, 60 miles from Ashtabula, past the refineries and smokestacks, his son Nate in the backseat. They're almost at the Indians' stadium, where Urban is scheduled to throw out the first pitch in a few hours. Meyer's living his life, keeping the promises he made.

[+] EnlargeMeyer
Andrew Hetherington for ESPN The MagazineWhen Meyer wanted to accept the Ohio State job last November, Shelley demanded a family meeting. "We wanted him to make promises," she says.

"I've really been working on that," he says. "I'm gonna do that in the fall. I'm gonna go home. I'm not gonna bring my work home with me and not be able to sleep at night. I'm not …

"… that's easy to say now."

The season is still a few months away. He hasn't lost a game yet. That's what pushed him into the darkest corners of his own personality. He squeezes the steering wheel.

"Can I change?" he asks.

The question hangs in the air. In public he talks a good game, but he knows how hard the next year will be. Maybe, deep inside, he already knows the answer. The skies darken. Rain will soon land on the windshield with heavy thumps.

"TBD," he says. "To be determined."


F

ather and son play catch in the rain, standing in shallow left at Progressive Field, the bowl of seats empty around them. Urban smiles when Nate backhands a grounder, a schoolboy grin, the one that believed what the girls whispered in the hall back in the day. Meyer's enthusiasm is as powerful as his rage. Halfway is for other people. When he took his girls to Rome and Israel for nine days, they begged to sleep in just once. Nope. "We attacked Rome as hard as you possibly can," he says and then mimics his own stern voice: "'We are gonna have fun on this vacation!'"

Urban throws one high into the air, watching as Nate settles underneath it, the scoreboard right on top of them, thunder clapping in the air, the drizzle coming and going.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andrew Hetherington for ESPN The MagazineMeyer, in the Ohio State locker room with former Buckeyes player Brian Rolle, knows he could wind up back in 2009 -- but it's worth the chance.

"I can't believe they're letting us do this," he says.

These are the things he lost in Florida, and the things he's found in Ohio. He's missed only one or two of Nate's baseball games since taking the job, an astonishing change. Nicki is entering her final year at Georgia Tech, and her coach scheduled Senior Night on the Saturday of the Buckeyes' bye week. Urban will walk onto the court with Nicki, a walk he's made with other people's children but never with his own. He's eating, working out, sleeping well, waking early without an alarm clock. On the night before the 2012 Buckeyes gather for the first time, he's playing catch with his son in Cleveland.

"Bucket list," Urban says.

The Indians arrange for Nate to throw out the first pitch with Urban, and in the dugout, the team gives Nate a full uniform, No. 15, with MEYER on the back. Urban pulls out his phone and takes a picture, sending it to Shelley. He follows his son into the clubhouse, calling out in his best announcer voice, "Leading off for the Cleveland Indians, Nate Meyer."

Two hours fly past, and they're led back onto the field. Now the bleachers are full. The speakers echo their names. Urban loops it a bit, but Nate throws a bullet for a strike.

"What a night, Nate!" Urban says, turning to the Indians guy following them with a camera. "Get me those pictures. I'm gonna blow them up. My man brought it!"

They find their seats. Nate holds a slice of pizza. Urban pours a cold Labatt's and digs into a bowl of popcorn. The sun sets over the Cleveland skyline, and the lights shine on the grass. Urban's mind and body are in the same place. Urban and Nate recite favorite movie lines and list the ballparks they've visited. "I'm melting inside," Meyer says finally. "You can't get this back. Remember That Guy? I'm not That Guy right now."


T

he next morning begins back in Columbus with heavy metal music grinding out of the weight room. Shouts and whistles filter in from the practice field. No other place in the world sounds like a football facility, and the effect is seductive, pulling anyone who's ever loved it back in, like a whiff of an ex-girlfriend's perfume. Outside, hundreds of youth football campers run around like wild men. This week, Meyer's constant nervous pacing -- "I'm so ADD," he says -- includes laps around the camp, taking pictures with parents, urging moms to make their meanest faces for the camera. He spots Godfrey Lewis, one of his former running backs at Bowling Green, who's now a high school coach.

"What's up?" Meyer asks, beaming.

"You," Lewis says. "That's what's up, Coach."

"You look good," Meyer says. "You got kids?"

"My son is over there," Lewis says.

"Make sure I meet your son. Where's he at?"

"Alex!" Lewis yells.

A boy at the water station turns his head, finding his dad standing with Urban Meyer.

"Alex!" Meyer yells. "Hurry up. Let's go. Let's go."

Alex Lewis runs over.

"Your dad played for me," Meyer says. "He was a great player. Good father, good guy, right? How old are you?"

"Twelve."

"Can you run?"

"Yes," Alex says.

A cocky, curious kid comes over too, poking his head into the conversation, popping off about how he's faster than Alex. A look flashes across Meyer's face, his eyes bright. He cannot help himself.

"Right now!" he barks.

Meyer calls to Lewis. "Godfrey," he yells, "this guy says he's faster than your boy. We're gonna find out right now."

Godfrey is wired too.

"Right now!" he says.

"Right now!" Urban yells. "Right now! You ready?"

He calls go, and the kids break, Alex Lewis smoking the opposition. Urban and Godfrey stand together, elated, a messy world shrunk to a 10-yard race. Someone wins and someone loses, and there's no ambiguity, no gray. The heat makes the air smokehouse thick. The morning smells like sweat and rings with whistles and coach chatter, the game always the same no matter how much the men who love it change, a simplicity that waits day after day, beautiful and addictive.


M

eyer grimaces and wipes a streak of sweat off his face with his shirt. Lunchtime racquetball is war. The football ops guys know to ask Meyer any difficult questions before the game, because losses blacken his mood and rewire a day. It's a running joke: Did Coach win or lose? Today Meyer's playing Marotti, his friend and strength coach. Best of three, tied at one game apiece. Meyer works the angles, lofting brutal kill shots that just die off the wall. Marotti smacks the bejesus out of the ball. Muffled curses echo through the glass door. Meyer chases after a ball and doesn't get there. He cocks back his racket, about to smash it into the wall, but he pulls back. Be calm. The end is close, a few points away. Shoes squeak, and the ball pops off the strings, laid over the backbeat of Marotti bellowing, "F---!" Meyer loses another point, then another. About to lose the match, he grimaces, flexing his racket to slam the ball off the floor in disgust, then checks his rage. Be calm.


T

he football facility pulses with the rush of building, and through a series of decisions and coincidences, Meyer has somehow managed to go back in time. He feels like he felt in the beginning: unproven, energized by the challenge. Beneath the surface is the idea that maybe this time, with his father's absolution and the lessons he's learned about himself, he could return to 1986 and not make the mistakes that led him to 2009. There's joy in starting a climb, for a 48-year-old coach and for the newly arrived freshmen sitting in the team meeting room, waiting for Meyer to welcome them to Ohio State. The recruiting class, Meyer's first, is nervous, unsure what to expect. He senses their fear and stands at the podium relaxed and calm. All their dreams are right there, waiting to be grabbed.

"I've seen life-changing stuff happen," he tells them.

[+] EnlargeMeyer Family
Courtesy of The Ohio State University Athletic DepartmentWill there be balance? Time will tell.

He describes walking across a graduation stage, your family in the crowd crying, and when you reach out to shake the president's hand, there's a fist of diamonds: championship rings. Meyer bangs his fist on the podium, asking if they've ever heard how much noise five rings make when they hit something.

"I'll do it for you sometime," he says. "It's loud as s---. Some guys get to do that. I've seen it."

Eager faces stare back. He does not tell the story about his dad threatening to disown him for quitting. Reflect, he says. Look around this room.

"These guys will be in your wedding," he says.

They will come back to Columbus as grown men, bringing their sons and daughters to this building, walking the halls. They will point at old photographs, smile at out-of-style haircuts, telling stories about 2012.

But even in his new world, nostalgia must be earned. Contentment must be bought with work, with sacrifice and, since competition is still black and white, with wins.

"That team that goes 4-7, how many reunions do they have?" Meyer says. "How many times does that senior class come back? You never see 'em."

This is the difficult calculus of Meyer's future, of any Type A extremist who longs for balance. They want the old results, without paying the old costs, and while they'll feel guilty about not changing, they'll feel empty without the success. He wants peace and wins, which is a short walk from thinking they are the same.

"How about that 2002 national championship team?" Meyer says, his voice rising, the players leaning in. "All the time. When they hit their hands on the table, what happens? It makes a lot of noise. It makes a lot of noise. Let's go make some noise."


A

nother coach is on the phone, asking for advice about a player who got into trouble. Meyer gives his honest answer, a window into the murky, shifting world of big-time athletics, into how nobody emerges from the highest level of anything with every part of himself intact.

The first year at Bowling Green, Meyer tells him, he'd have cut his losses. His fifth year at Florida, when he needed to win every game, he'd have kept him on the team.

The caller asks about the Buckeyes. "I like it," Meyer says. "I don't know how good we're gonna be, but I like it. We've got one more week, and then we get on the ship to the beaches of Normandy."


O

n the northwest side of town, Shelley Meyer sits in their new house, praying, literally, that this time will be different.

He's made promises before.

She believed his first news conference at Florida in 2004 when he said his priorities were his children, his wife and football -- in that order. She believed in 2007 when she told a reporter, "Absolutely there's a change in him. There's definitely an exhale."

She wants to believe today. His willingness to admit the possibility of failure is oddly comforting. He knows he could end up back in 2009, which is worth the chance to reclaim 1986. "There's a risk," he says. "What's the reward? The reward is going back to the real reason I wanted to coach."

There's confidence in his voice. She's heard it, seen how calmly he handled the arrest of two players or his starting running back getting a freak cut on his foot.

"Man, I just feel great," he'll say.

"But you haven't played a game yet," she'll remind him.

Shelley moves to the bright sunroom overlooking the golf course, with pictures of the girls when they were little, grinning with Cam the Ram, the Colorado State mascot. There's a Gator on the table and Ohio State pictures on the walls. Another room contains a helmet from every school where Urban has coached and all the memories, good and bad, evoked by each. Once they sat in a gross apartment with a possum over the television, young and in love, wondering where their journey would lead. It's led here, to this dividing line. All the things they want are in front of them. So are all the things they fear.

"I've seen enough change already," Shelley says. "I'm convinced. We still have to play a game, though."

She bites her fingernail and sighs.

"The work he's done," she says, "the books he's read, people he's talked to. He's gonna be different."

She stops between sentences, little gulfs of anxiety.

"He's gonna be different. I totally believe it … "

"… I'll just kick his butt if he's not."

One more hopeful pause.

"But he will be."


T

he door shuts, and his last meeting of the day begins. For the first time, the freshmen and veterans gather, the 2012 Buckeyes in full. Meyer sits calmly at the front of the room, as composed as the crisp lines on his shirt. A quote on the wall is from Matthew, 16th chapter: "What good is a man that gains the world yet loses his soul?" Behind him in his office, there's a blue rock and a pink piece of paper. He's been at the facility almost 12 hours. Breaking No. 4 -- working no more than nine hours a day -- couldn't be helped. Meyer lived up to all but one of his promises today.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Nelson Chenault/US Presswire"He's gonna be different," Shelley says. "I totally believe it."

His calm lasts until a player giggles.

From the back of the room, it's not clear who laughed, or why exactly, only that the players were making fun of a teammate while an assistant coach gave a speech. Meyer listens, waiting for the coach to finish, stewing, simmering, slowly beginning to burn. If he were transparent, like one of those med school teaching dummies, maybe you could see exactly where his rage lives and how it spreads. In imagination, it's a tiny, burning dot, surrounded by his humor and love for teaching, by the warm memories of 1986, by his desire to grow old and gray with Shelley, and the dot spreads and spreads until there's nothing but fire.

Meyer rises and interrupts the flow of the meeting, looking out at his team. His voice holds steady, but he says he's struggling not to climb into the seats and find the offending giggler. The fire is growing. He paces, back and forth, back and forth, waving his finger toward the center of the room. The air feels tense. Nobody makes a sound. There is one voice.

"Giggle-f---s," he says.

He slips, his language rough and mean, giving himself over to his rage: f-bombs, a flurry of curses, pounding on the soft and the weak, the unworthy who'd rather giggle than chase something bigger than themselves.

In 43 days, he says, Marotti will hand him a piece of paper with a list of names. "Grown-ass men," he says. That's who belongs on his team. No "giggle-f---s," he promises, pointing toward the big pictures of Ohio Stadium to his right.

"We're talking about our season," he roars. "We're going to that place."

His mind is there already.

The players will gather in the tunnel, walking out in scarlet, sunlight blinking off their silver helmets. He'll raise his fist and call the first-team defense. He can see it, a personification of his hopes and fears, of his contradictions: first the grown-ass men moving as one, then the giggle-f---s who can destroy what he spent months building. The sun will shine on silver helmets. The crowd will roar. The band will play. Maybe he'll slip off his headset for a moment, feeling the hot rain. Nothing else will matter. The helmets will sparkle, and the Buckeyes will advance, an army of gray. Standing before his players in the meeting room, he can smell it, hear it -- feel it even, in places he doesn't understand and can't control. Nobody makes a sound. Meyer's shirt is wrinkled, untucked a bit. Thick veins rise on both sides of his neck. He squints out at the team, his eyes dark, hiding everything and nothing at all.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.