Urban Meyer is about to coach in yet another national championship game, but is this the same guy who coached the Florida Gators to two titles?
The Ohio State Buckeyes, led by head coach Urban Meyer, are about to meet the Oregon Ducks in a game to decide the college football champion of the nation. Both Meyer and the Buckeyes have been in this situation before, but something has changed for both the coach and his team.
Scarlet and Game
Meyer is a coach who many (myself included) think of as a mercenary, hopping from job to job, waiting for that better opportunity or bigger paycheck to be dangled so that he can move on. His longest stop in any one coaching position has been six years, and he’s been on staff or head coach at seven different universities and one high school in the span of just 30 years.
But something changed when Urban Meyer stepped away from coaching and left his post at the University of Florida in 2011.
After six successful seasons and two national championships, Meyer walked way, citing health concerns and the desire to spend time with his family. Less than a year later, he was chosen for and accepted the position of head coach at Ohio State.
The public and media backlash was swift, and seemingly justified. Some speculated that Meyer knew the mess that was being created at Florida, and wanted to bow out before any investigations took place. Others just simply called him disloyal, only hunting for the bigger payoff.
I count myself among those who doubted Meyer’s story – that was until recently when I had a chance to speak with the person who helped bring about a change in his life, Todd Gongwer.
It was Gongwer’s book, “Lead…For God’s Sake”, that became a revelation to Meyer, and brought him to a place where he felt able to step back onto the sidelines.
By the accounts of Gongwer and his conversations with Urban Meyer at the time he left Florida, the coach was despondent. A physically and mentally exhausted man, who could no longer bear the weight of win at all costs, and the bending of his personal ethics to get the job done.
“What I heard in [Meyer’s] voice in that very first phone call, was that was tearing him up inside” Gongwer told me. “It was really eating him up inside. He didn’t want to be that way.
“I will say that speculation at the time obviously was, and still is for a large section of the public, ‘Yeah, why did he really leave Florida? Is he really dealing with health stuff?’, and I can tell you from the first five minutes of my first conversation with him that he was driven to be the best wherever he was, but he was scared to death for his health issues.”
“He was really wanting and trying to do things the right way,” Gongwer continued. “And it nearly killed him. So I got a genuine vulnerability in his voice.”
So how did Meyer come across Gongwer’s book, and how did these two men become acquainted and form the relationship and mentoring bond that has existed for over four years now?
Meyer has former ESPN colleague Todd Blackledge to thank for that.
Blackledge had read the book, and decided that it was something that Meyer needed to read as well.
“Todd had sat down for a meal with Urban,” Gongwer said. “He told [Meyer] that he needed to read this book, and that it could really impact and change his life.
“[Meyer] did that out on a flight to Stanford, doing some work for ESPN, and he finished the book the next morning and just really felt compelled to reach out to me and to tell me how much it had impacted him.”
Gongwer told me that the book became a parable to Meyer, and opened his eyes to finding a new and more focused purpose in his life and in his coaching.
To most of us, the purpose of a college football coach is winning. You win games, you win conference titles, and you win national championships. That’s what the game is about, and why you take the job to begin with. But Gongwer’s book reveals something more.
“The message in the book is a message about purpose,” the author told me. “The underlying theme is about why you do what you do. [Meyer] references the book when people ask him about his journey, and he refers to it has his tipping point.
“The book is a very emotional journey, and from his own words, it’s an experience and is about his own life….he had been pursuing these things that he felt were the way to define success in his life, and less about the things he knew mattered most to him – relationships with his family, and the relationships with his players, coaches and other people around him.”
I asked Gongwer how the book had brought about a change in Meyer, and how he was different now than when coaching the Gators and having so much perceived success at that time.
“Make no mistake, you and I both know that Urban Meyer is driven to win” he said. “He is a competitor, and that’s a huge part of who he is. But there’s no doubt in my mind, because I’ve seen it, there’s a change.
“When the purpose is just to win games and championships, I will tell you, that’s our biggest problem…when that’s our endgame it’s never enough. When a win is the ultimate why, it’s never enough. The story in the book shifted his thinking. The perspective is, Urban is driven to win. The difference is he now feels he’s there to really make a difference for those kids. He’s there to impact their lives in a significant way that will affect their marriages, their families and their careers.”
According to Gongwer, the focus that Meyer now has is on his relationships, and doing what he does out of love, but setting limits to the time spent on achieving success in his job. He now takes more seriously the time spent with his wife and family, and how he interacts with his players.
And Urban is making sure his players are influenced in the right way.
“There’s a unique dynamic to every culture,” Gongwer said. “Character influences character, and influences culture. And whoever you have in your system, they’re building their influence in your culture. However intentionally you choose to be with individual characters is how it’s going to play out in your culture.
“That doesn’t mean you aren’t going to have to make tough decisions at some point, and say ‘You’ve crossed this line’, it’s how you deal with it. I believe that these coaches need to spend more time in a classroom dealing with the dynamics of cultural development, and understanding how they influence each other and how their actions influence those around them. That’s what Urban is becoming so much better at doing.”
Since striking their friendship in 2011, Meyer and Gongwer have stayed in touch, with Gongwer giving the Ohio State head coach what he calls “check ups” from time to time, gauging the head coach’s emotions and seeing if he’s remaining true to his heart of hearts.
Developing leadership, circling his team with heart and love, and and becoming more of a family man both at home and with his players…this doesn’t sound like the picture of the Urban Meyer we’ve all seen painted.
For those of us who have seen Meyer as the ultimate win-at-all-costs coach, and who feel like he was simply a calculating field general, all of this is eye-opening. And it only goes to show how the portrayal of a man through the camera lens and the hearts and mouths of others can be a complete 180-degree shift from the truth.
For Ohio State, the upcoming game with Oregon is the pinnacle of a season, culminating with either the ultimate joy of a championship, or the gut-wrenching feeling that comes with losing such a chance.
For Urban Meyer, it would appear that it has become a mere secondary goal in what is now a greater overall purpose in his coaching and his leadership to his team.
You can watch an early interview between Meyer and Gongwer here.