GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With his wife and two of his three children sitting a few feet away, Urban Meyer didn’t have to look far to be reminded why he is leaving one of the premier jobs in college football.
It’s all about family.
Meyer, 64-15 in six seasons at Florida, resigned as the Gators’ coach 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 the Gators to two national titles (2006, 2008) in his first four seasons at Florida but 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 is 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 Jan. 31.
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 plans to be involved in the search, which could make Whittingham and Mullen front-runners. Whittingham was Meyer’s defensive coordinator in Utah, and Mullen held the same position under Meyer for four years 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 planned 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.”
Fellow coaches were quick to praise Meyer’s 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 he said it will not happen in the “immediacy.”
He plans to attend his daughters’ volleyball matches -- his oldest is a sophomore at Georgia Tech and the other will attend Florida Gulf Coast next year -- 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.
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 -- the most losses in Meyer’s 10-year coaching career.
“I just think Florida deserves the best, and I’m not sure we gave them my best this year,” he said.
Florida hired away Meyer from Utah 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 program topped the final AP Top 25 under Meyer.
A bid for another national championship fell short in 2009. The day after Christmas, Meyer surprisingly announced that he was giving up the job. Less than 24 hours later, however, 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 and several other stars who had gone on to the NFL, and the Gators struggled mightily.
Florida lost five regular-season games 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 will 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.”