How Urban Meyer found his balance

DALLAS -- Did you catch it? Did you grasp the larger meaning?

No one will blame you if you missed it. It seemed, after all, little more than a joke and a smile. Besides a few highlight packages, it barely registered. But for the people who know Urban Meyer best and love him dearly, it was a beautiful moment.

Here's what happened: Meyer was chatting with the media after Ohio State's surprising victory over Alabama in the College Football Playoff when a reporter casually mentioned, in the middle of a question, that Oregon had beaten Florida State by nearly 40 points in the other semifinal. Meyer -- who had not yet heard the score of the Ducks-Seminoles game -- looked incredulous, then awestruck.

"Oregon won by 40?" Meyer said. He seemed to wonder, briefly, if someone were playing a joke on him.

But then, after processing it, Meyer laughed. He leaned to his left, pretending to leave the press conference. "I got to go," he said. "We've got to get ready for that one."

"That moment was awesome," said Gigi Meyer Escoe, the coach's older sister. "It reminded me a lot of my dad, actually, the way his eyes got all wide and then he scrunched his face up. Urban has a good sense of humor. People miss that."

You can forgive people for missing it, though. There was a time, not long ago, when Meyer didn't make jokes -- at least not in public, and not much at home, either. He grimaced and growled his way through the day with the disposition of an ornery badger. When irritated, his stare felt like it could melt a hole in your forehead. He snarled at reporters, stressed himself into a ball of knots (even after victories), and he generally looked miserable. But he built winners everywhere he went, and his two national titles at Florida earned him a reputation as one of the best in his profession. Sacrificing his personal happiness, especially in the cutthroat world of coaching football, seemed like an understandable trade-off to many.

But that's not the version of Meyer who will take the field at 8:30 p.m. ET Monday inside AT&T Stadium, as the Buckeyes face the Oregon Ducks with the national championship at on the line. Instead, you'll see a man more at peace with his worries, more capable of finding balance with his life. He's enjoying the ride more, not obsessing over the outcome, and he believes his team is a reflection of that philosophy. In fact, what Meyer's done this season at Ohio State might be the best coaching performance of his career, and that's not a coincidence. Who, after all, gets to the national title game with their third-string quarterback? A coach who doesn't wallow when faced with repeated adversity, that's who.

"When Braxton Miller was injured, I called him and asked him how he was dealing with it," said Erica Meyer Judd, Meyer's younger sister. "He said, 'I've learned to accept the things I cannot change.' I'm sure every day he says the prayer about 'Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the strength to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.'"

It's understandable if you're skeptical. After all, changing your behavior, your core philosophy, is easy to talk about and easy to fake when you're winning. But it's much harder to live if you're losing. Wasn't it a year ago when we saw him sitting on a golf cart, in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium, eating pizza by himself after his team was upset by Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game and looking like the most miserable man in the world?

"Let's be honest: He's still crazy competitive, he still gets stressed out, but he's doing it with a much better perspective. Every Wednesday night, he's taking Nicki to dinner. He's going to Nate's baseball and football games. He's taking Shelley out for dates. He's able to communicate with his friends more often." Tim Tebow, on former coach Urban Meyer

All that's true, Meyer's close friends and family say. He's still as competitive as anyone alive. That was him, after all, throwing his headset in anger just last week against Alabama. But the way he's able to leave those disappointments behind is what's so different, they believe.

"I think that if he loses on Monday, he will be completely fine," Judd said. "He brought his team farther than he actually thought they'd go this year. I thought last year was a big bubble burst, when they went undefeated and then lost to Michigan State and then Clemson. The old Urban -- that would have just destroyed him. But honestly, he was fine. He just said, 'Tomorrow is a new day, and we'll move forward.' That's when we all realized, wow, this man is a different man than the man he was. He's just really gained peace."

It's not just that he made promises to his family that if he got back into coaching again, he wouldn't let it consume him. Anyone can make a promise. It's that three years later, he's still striving every day to keep those promises to his family: His wife Shelley, his daughters Nicole and Gisela, and his son Nate.

"I really believe he is more at peace now," said Tim Tebow, who played quarterback for Meyer at Florida and remains close to his former coach. "It's not about staying in the office for three days in a row without getting sleep. When he left Florida, he knew it was for the right reasons, that he needed to look at his priorities and get right. Let's be honest: He's still crazy competitive, he still gets stressed out, but he's doing it with a much better perspective. Every Wednesday night, he's taking Nicki to dinner. He's going to Nate's baseball and football games. He's taking Shelley out for dates. He's able to communicate with his friends more often. Not only is that making him a better coach, it's making him less stressed so he can deal with more things. I'm really proud of him."

How Meyer got here is impossible to understand without first looking back at the meteoric rise he made to the top of the coaching profession. Meyer, who grew up in the small Ohio town of Ashtabula, played defensive back for the University of Cincinnati, but from a very young age, he seemed destined to get into coaching. His father, a chemical engineer and strict Catholic, had a portrait of legendary Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes hanging on the wall of their home as a reminder of the kind of men he admired. Urban soaked up those rigid principles daily.

"My father was an incredibly ethical man," Judd said. "He was tough, he was hard, but he taught us he could never do anything wrong just because his stomach simply couldn't handle it. I think my brother has those same ethical values. If he thinks he's doing something morally that's incorrect, it makes him physically ill."

Meyer soared through the coaching ranks, starting as a graduate assistant at Ohio State, then making stops at Illinois State and Colorado State before ending up at Notre Dame in 1996 as a wide receivers coach under Bob Davie. Davie says he knew, even then, Meyer was going to be a future star as a head coach.

"Whether the word is relentless, obsessive or maniacal, that's Urban," Davie said. "He's the guy who is laying there at 3 o'clock in the morning with a legal pad, thinking about plays all night. He's going to squeeze every ounce out of everybody in every little thing."

It wasn't just Meyer's preparation, however, that made him a great head coach when he finally got his chance at Bowling Green, then Utah, then Florida. It was his innate ability to adapt his system based on his personnel.

"We weren't afraid to break the norm and try new things," said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who worked under Meyer as an offensive coordinator at Utah and Florida. "His ability to see what type of team we had and what we needed really set him apart. In 2004, at Utah, we had an unbelievable football team, maybe the best team I've ever been a part of. He could have very easily coached us into a loss by overanalyzing us. But he did a great job of letting the talent perform. The first national championship at Florida was different. We had a lot of talent, but he really had to find ways to get that team ready to play at a high level."

No detail was too small for Meyer. He fussed over uniforms, workout regimens, roommate assignments, class schedules. He'd go an entire day without sitting down for a meal simply because he forgot to eat.

"He used to take so many things so personally," said Jerry Batt, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Dawson Companies, a Columbus insurance agency, who has been one of Meyer's closest friends for the past 15 years. "He would have a loss, and he just could not let it go. He would just dwell on what he could have done differently."

Chasing perfection year after year nearly broke Meyer. He was so consumed by work, he barely spoke to his kids, and when his daughter confronted him about how he hadn't been there for her in years, he admitted it was like "a knife to his heart." When he took a leave of absence from Florida in 2009 after checking into the hospital with chest pains, then ultimately resigned after Florida went 7-5 in the 2010 season, it surprised a lot of people but not some of his closest friends in coaching.

"The one question I always had with Urban is: What if it didn't go well?" Davie said. "What if he did lose some games? Is his greatest strength ultimately also going to be his greatest weakness?"

Meyer spent the better part of 2011 trying to figure out if he'd ever get back into coaching. His father's health was deteriorating, and that forced him to mull his own mortality. He worked part-time as an analyst for ESPN, but mentally and spiritually, he was lost. He might have stayed that way for a long time if a close friend, Todd Blackledge, a former NFL quarterback and current broadcast analyst, hadn't given him a book on leadership to read, in hopes he might see some of himself in the story.

The book, "Lead ... For God's Sake" by Todd Gongwer, had such a profound impact on Meyer, it might be the main reason he returned to coaching.

"Todd gave it to me when I was on a trip on my way to Stanford, and I couldn't put it down," Meyer said. "I was up at 4 a.m., walking through the campus with that book in my hand reading and re-reading it. When I saw the author's email on the back, I grabbed my phone and just hit him up at four in the morning."

In the email, Meyer expressed how much the book spoke to him and called it a "game-changer" in his life. Gongwer, who played small-college basketball at Bethel College in Indiana before joining the business world, was convinced one of his friends was playing a prank on him when he saw Meyer's email. But he wrote back and included his cell phone number at the bottom. Within minutes, Meyer called him on the phone and poured his heart out.

"He was hurting," Gongwer said. "He knew he had lost sight of what was most important in his life. But I remember, even in that first conversation, he said to me, 'This book has re-ignited a spark in me, and if and when I get back into coaching, I'm going to do it differently.'"

"Lead ... For God's Sake" is different than most leadership books, even those with religious undertones. It's a parable about a high school basketball coach, Steve Rocker, who is one of the most successful men in his profession. But over time, he becomes consumed by winning -- at the expense of his relationship with his wife and two kids -- and he's unable to understand why he can't get his players to obsessively pursue victory the way he does. Only through a series of trials and conversations with the high school's janitor, Joe -- a Christ-like figure throughout the narrative -- does the coach realize he can't be a leader if he doesn't connect with God by pouring his heart into his family first. He can't be a great coach if he's constantly screaming and punishing his players for their mistakes because it represents how far he has drifted from why he got into coaching in the first place: to be a mentor and role model. The book builds to a climactic scene in the high school state championship game, but when it ends, the message of the book is clear: If you're so focused on wins and losses that they are how you measure your self-worth, you've missed the point.

"Todd is a brilliant person, and that book is a must-read," Meyer said.

Meyer felt so strongly about the novel and recognized so much of himself in the pages that he asked his wife, kids and friends to read it. He gave the book to coaches he knew and even wrote the foreword for the second printing. Meyer invited Gongwer to visit him in Ohio, and the two formed a bond that's still there nearly four years later.

"There are times when I will text him as though I'm speaking in the voice of one of the characters in the book," Gongwer said. "I did it again just this week. His response is always the same: 'Thank you for this. Stay on me. This is really important.' He is a lot different today then he was five years go at Florida -- there is no doubt."

Meyer said this week that Gongwer's texts -- in which he's typically pretending to be Joe, the high school janitor in the book -- are always the first thing he reads when he wakes up in the morning. It's the ideal way to remind himself: Why are you doing this?

"It's the same 'why' I had back in 1986, when I first started coaching," Meyer said.

There are a lot of reasons Ohio State was the ideal place for Meyer to start over, to give himself a second chance at coaching with a purpose greater than going undefeated. When he looks up from his practice field, he can see the hospital room where his mother, Gigi, spent the majority of her final months after a lengthy battle with cancer. It's one reason Meyer and his wife, Shelley, set up a cancer research fund at Ohio State's James Cancer Hospital and paid for a visiting room for families that is named after Meyer's parents. Every Wednesday, he brings in leaders from the community, often business CEOs, to talk to the team about real-world lessons and how they need to think about life beyond football. Hehas told friends that every time he's out recruiting and enters a gym in Ohio, he'll see someone who knew his father, Bud, or someone will remember him from when he was a kid, and that too offers a reminder of who he's trying to be.

"He's obviously someone who has become very successful, but I don't think he views himself that way," Batt said. "He thinks of himself as a kid who grew up in Ashtabula -- not the rock star celebrity that he really is. I think he really has achieved balance and inner peace now."

A few friends worry he'll won't truly be tested until he hits a rough patch again. "It's amazing how much happier you are in life when you win," Mullen said. "I think it's easier to evaluate yourself when you're away from it, but eventually you've got to do what makes you happy. When coaching is who you are, I think that's what helps you find balance."

Meyer, though, believes the change of perspective is real. For two years, he's had his players and staff wearing wristbands with a simple equation on them: E + R = O. The Outcome of something is always determined by your Reaction to an Event. All Meyer or anyone can control is the Reaction part of the equation.

"I want to make sure our players enjoy the journey," Meyer said. "These kids have been on a heck of a run the last three years, and I'm more cautious about making sure it's not just an absolute grind. Someone asked a question one time: When does the joy of winning disappear and the fear of losing or the agony of losing overtake that? When it does that, it's not good for anyone. I make sure we enjoy the wins the best we can."