GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — With his wife and two of his three children sitting a few feet away, Urban Meyer didn’t have to look very far to be reminded why he’s leaving one of the premier jobs in college football.
It’s all about family.
Meyer resigned from Florida on Wednesday, stepping down for the second time in less than a year. His first attempt, which lasted just a day, was for health reasons. This time it’s to be a better husband and father.
“At the end of the day, I’m very convinced that you’re going to be judged on how you are as a husband and as a father and not on how many bowl games we won,” Meyer said at a campus news conference.
“I’ve not seen my two girls play high school sports. They’re both very talented Division I-A volleyball players, so I missed those four years. I missed two already with one away at college. I can’t get that time back.”
The 46-year-old coach led Florida to two national titles but briefly resigned last December, citing health concerns. He had been hospitalized with chest pains after the Gators lost to Alabama in last season’s Southeastern Conference championship game.
“Last year was a knee-jerk reaction,” Meyer said. “This year was just completely different.”
Meyer called Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley on Saturday to tell him he was contemplating retirement. They met Tuesday to finalize his intentions.
Meyer signed a six-year, $24 million extension in 2009, meaning he’s walking away from about $20 million in guaranteed salary. But Foley did agree to pay Meyer a $1 million retention bonus the coach would have received had he been employed on Jan. 31, 2011.
This time, Foley doesn’t anticipate another change of heart.
“He’s worked his tail off,” Foley said. “You think of what he’s rebuilt. He built one at Bowling Green, he built one at Utah, he built one here. It’s not just sacrifices here the last six years. That’s 10 years of their lives, not to mention what he did before that as an assistant coach. It’s his time to step back and spend time with his family. You’re not getting it back. I admire him for that.”
Foley said the coaching search will begin immediately and hopes to have a new coach before Christmas. Although Foley declined to offer names, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino are likely on the list.
Meyer said he planned to be involved in the search, which could make Whittingham and Mullen front-runners. Whittingham was Meyer’s defensive coordinator in Utah, and Mullen served as the offensive coordinator at Florida. Petrino was Foley’s second choice behind Meyer in 2004.
“I don’t see why it should take that long,” Foley said, adding that he has not contacted anyone.
Meyer’s announcement caught players, fans and the rest of college football by surprise.
He called assistant coaches, many of whom were on the road recruiting, earlier this week to relay the news. Quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler told the AP he was “stunned” and that no one saw this coming.
“We’ll be fine,” said Loeffler, adding that Meyer was planning to meet with his staff Wednesday night. “It happens in this profession. We’re just happy for him. He’s doing it the right way.”
AOL FanHouse first reported the resignation, and fellow coaches were quick to praise his efforts at Florida.
“The world of college football will miss Urban,” said former USC coach Pete Carroll, who left his job for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. “He did a great job coaching at Florida. He had major personal issues and health issues a year ago, and I’m sure that he did everything he could to fight it off. Now he’s making decisions that are probably exactly what he needs to be doing.”
Added former Florida coach and current South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier: “I believe he will coach again some day, but if he doesn’t, he will go down as one of the best coaches in college football history.”
Meyer left open the possibility of returning to the sideline, but said it was not going to happen in the “immediacy.”
He plans to catch his daughters’ volleyball matches — his oldest is a sophomore at Georgia Tech and the other will attend Florida Gulf Coast next fall — and catch more of his son’s athletic events.
“There’s not a perfect time, however, this is probably about as good a time you can have,” Meyer said.
Former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow applauded Meyer’s decision.
“I respect that Coach Meyer had the courage to make the decision that was right for himself and his family,” the Denver Broncos quarterback said in a statement. “He will be blessed and better off for it. I am truly glad that he’s happy and no matter what, we both will be Gators for the rest of our lives.”
The decision to walk away was even tougher because of Florida’s struggles this season. The Gators were near the bottom the SEC in every offensive category, got blown out in games against Alabama, South Carolina and Florida State, and finished 7-5.
It was the most losses in Meyer’s 10-year coaching career.
Several freshmen transferred, others threatened to leave and there seemed to be a huge divide between the team’s underachieving seniors and Meyer’s highly touted newcomers. Players refused to point fingers all season, but there were outcries for personnel and assistant coaching changes. There also was another arrest, the 30th involving 27 players during Meyer’s tenure.
“I just think Florida deserves the best, and I’m not sure we gave them my best this year,” he said.
Meyer seemingly didn’t give his family his best, either.
“He’s always been the No. 1 advocate for preaching about family and making sure you take care of your family and everything,” punter Chas Henry said at the College Football Awards show in Orlando. “He’s one man I have unbelievable respect for about making sure you take care of your family. I understand this is a family decision. I have complete understanding, complete respect for it. You’ve got to take care of yourself and your family, and that’s what he’s doing. He’s always going to be a legend and loved at the University of Florida.”
Meyer was hired away from Utah by Florida after he led the Utes to an undefeated season. In his second season in Gainesville, he led the Gators’ to a national championship. Two seasons later he won another, the third time overall the school topped the final AP Top 25.
A bid for another national championship fell short in 2009, and the day after Christmas, Meyer surprisingly announced that he was giving up the job. Less than 24 hours later, he changed his mind and decided to instead take a leave of absence.
Meyer scaled back in January — he didn’t go on the road recruiting — but still worked steadily through national signing day. He returned for spring practice in March, but managed to take significant time off before and after.
But this season he had to replace Tim Tebow, several other stars who moved on to the NFL and four assistant coaches, and the Gators struggled mightily.
Florida lost five regular-season for the first time since 1988. The season ended with an embarrassing 31-7 victory to Florida State, Meyer’s first loss to the rival Seminoles.
After that game, Meyer vowed to fix the Gators’ problems.
Now, he’ll help find the person to do it.
“It has to be fixed,” he said. “It’s broke a little bit right now. But the way you fix it is hard work. When I say broke it’s broke because of a constant attrition of coaches who, God bless them, have gone on to be great head coaches. … You lose five juniors to the NFL draft and you have a little bit of a void in there right now. But it’s Florida. We’ll be back strong, stronger than ever.”
College football writer Ralph Russo in New York, and Sports Writers Fred Goodall in Orlando, Fla., Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., and Janie McCauley in San Francisco contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Mullen’s role at Florida to offensive coordinator. )