‘I’m Not the Lone Wolf’

Chasing Ambien with beer to sleep. Forty-pound weight loss. Chest pains. To stay in football, Urban Meyer had to address his mental health. Now, to help America tackle the issue, Ohio State's head coach opens up in a B/R Mag exclusive.

By Brandon Sneed

September 13, 2016

Bleacher Report

It’s 11:30 the morning of August 4. Urban Meyer just got out of a two-hour meeting with his staff. He’s wearing white running shoes, red Ohio State athletic shorts and a white long-sleeved OSU Dri-FIT shirt.

In two days, the team arrives and fall camp begins. He’s had the busiest month of his life getting ready for the season; his football team is talented but young. There’s a lot to figure out. And he has to get a workout in at some point today.

Yet he’s sitting on a leather couch in his office, talking about things he didn’t think he wanted to talk about, more than an hour into an interview he planned to have last only 30 minutes. He’s talking about how, from 2005-2010, his Florida teams won two national championships and he was as successful in every American way a man could imagine. But he was miserable.

It made no sense. The Gators won their first championship under Meyer in 2006, then another in 2008. But they didn’t win every game, and even the games they did win barely seemed to register. Meyer would come home and sit in his recliner and brood. He wasn’t taking care of himself. He forgot to eat. He stopped working out. By 2009, he had lost 40 pounds, his pants baggy on his 170-pound frame. And he couldn’t sleep.

His wife, Shelley, a psychiatric nurse, tried to tell him, “You’ve got to have an outlet. You’ve got to do something. You’ve got to stay healthy.”

“I don’t have time,” he would say. Over and over, like a mantra. I don’t have time.

“What’s 30 minutes less of film?” Shelley said. “You can’t take 30 minutes and go run on the treadmill?”

No. I don’t have time.  

Shelley says now, “It was just a big mountain of pressure, stress, lack of control and not accepting what he couldn’t control. He was not accepting that he couldn’t control everything. He’s a perfectionist. He wants to win every game. He wants to win every championship. And that’s just not even clear thinking. You can’t. You just can’t.

“When he was in the middle of it, that’s where you can’t think. In a black hole, you don’t see things the right way.”

Shelley tried to talk to him about it, to use her expertise. She had her diagnoses. But he wouldn’t listen. “He never quite bought into my profession,” Shelley says.

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In their early days together, he would tease her about some of the things she said she did at work, like going for a jog with an anxious patient, or playing pool with someone who was depressed. 

Wow, he would say. Jogging? Shooting pool? You had a really tough day.  

When it came to the mind, Urban was like many men, especially men in sports, especially back then. Shelley says, “He had an attitude of, well, you should be strong, and you should be able to handle things yourself. Like a lot of people. Millions and millions and millions of people think that way. And even as we went along, he had that attitude about what mental illness really is—or mental health, or counseling or psychiatric help.”

All true, Urban says: “I hate to admit that, but yeah, 15 years ago, maybe 10 years ago, I would’ve been like, C’mon, man, toughen up. What the hell’s wrong with you?

And yet, for all the tricks Urban's mind played on him—making him unable to sleep, making him obsess over the work he had to do, and scaring him with all the ways not doing that work would ruin everything—maybe the most dangerous trick of all was that his mind made all of this feel normal.

Shelley says, “Anxiety and depression are very disabling. I could see the solutions. He couldn’t, when he was in the middle of it. When you can’t think, it doesn’t matter what somebody else is telling you. It was hard for him to admit any ‘weakness’—which, we know, that’s not what it is. But that’s what he saw it as.”

The only help Urban took was Ambien for his sleep. One a night at first, and then two, washing them down with beer. “Every night,” Shelley says. “And it’s highly addictive. He couldn’t sleep without it.”

Even with it, he didn’t sleep much—maybe four hours a night—and it was a feverish, desperate sort of sleep, his mind incapable of stopping its search for problems to worry over and try to solve. He often woke up to find that, sometime in the night, he had filled dozens of pages with football plays and motivational speeches. He remembered writing none of it.

“And,” Urban says, “I used to look at Shelley and say, ‘What are you talking about? I am fine.’”

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Now, football season is bearing down on him once again. “I’ve got so much going on,” Urban says when he first sits down. He never does interviews like this at this time of year.

He’s making an exception for one reason: “To help that man or woman who’s going through some s--t right now, and struggling,” he says. He rattles off one profession after another that isn’t College Football Coach but is demanding all the same—teachers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, parents, soldiers and more. “These people that are in consuming jobs—you forget to do one thing,” Urban says. “And that’s to take care of yourself.”

Urban has shared all of this, more or less in detail, with many like him—famous coaches and athletes whose names most people in America would probably recognize, who have won championships and gold medals and who have even beaten him before. He says, "I've found out I'm not the lone wolf."

What he means is that sometimes, when people feel overwhelmed, they think—or perhaps already know—that they have anxiety or depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or some other mental illness, but they don't get help. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 43.6 million American adults (ages 18 or older) experienced mental illness in 2014.

"I hate to admit that, but yeah, 15 years ago, maybe 10 years ago, I would’ve been like, C’mon, man, toughen up. What the hell’s wrong with you?"


Urban felt like a lone wolf for a long time because, like so many people do, he thought needing help with mental health meant he was weak. Now, however, he’s not only not scared of mental illness, but he thinks that, sometimes, even the term “illness” distorts what the thing actually is. He says, “I don’t like the term illness, because it’s a gift.”

A gift?

“The compulsive, obsessive, high-end, achieving people, those are the ones that keep pushing harder. I’ll name you the greatest players I ever coached, and every one of them have that same trait. So I don’t think it’s an illness. I think you have to be aware…that you have that trait, and how to manage it. But look at it not as an illness, but as a blessing that you somehow have to keep ahold of.”

It sure didn’t feel like a gift when he lost his grip on it. After his Florida team lost its conference championship game in 2009, Urban woke up about 4 a.m., his chest on fire, and then collapsed, convinced he was dying, before getting rushed to the hospital.

Even after that, he couldn’t quit. He tried to, saying he would retire, then he un-retired to coach one more season, only to realize he was putting his life and his family’s peace in serious jeopardy. So he retired once more after the 2010 season, took a job as an ESPN analyst and tried to become a healthy human being again.

Within a year of that second retirement, however—approximately four years and eight months ago—the Ohio State job came open, and Urban wanted it. He had a long meeting with his family, who said that before he signed his contract with the Buckeyes, they wanted him to sign one with them.

Shelley, daughters Nicki and Gigi and son Nate all had their terms, such as: My family will always come first. I will take care of myself and maintain good health. I will not go more than nine hours a day at the office. I will trust God’s plan and not be overanxious. I will eat three meals a day.

Nicki wrote it up on a now-famous page of pink notebook paper, and Urban signed.

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Photo courtesy of Shelley Meyer

This was the culmination of a year-and-a-half of soul-searching, of finding what had broken him and piecing himself back together. That pink contract was a dividing line. On one side, the bad days that forced him to find and fix the parts of him that had broken. On the other, the test of whether he could return to the job he loved and keep it from breaking him again.

It seems he has succeeded. Ohio State is 52-4 since then, including a 77-10 season opener against Bowling Green this year. The Buckeyes won the 2014 national championship. He’s healthy. His family is happy.

Urban says he’ll talk about why that is, but not why what was, was. He doesn’t want to look back.

He’s careful about where he looks these days. For Meyer, keeping ahold of his gift means looking to the right things for answers, and he’s surrounded himself with them. Every workday morning, he’s in the big, black leather chair behind his desk—a conspicuous red Ohio “O” stitched into the headrest—by 6:10 a.m. “My get-right place,” he calls it.

On the shelf behind him are pictures of his family, his Bible, a notebook, a couple of quotes in frames and a framed paragraph titled, “Ultimate Mission.” Also back there is a stack a dozen deep of sticky notes with a few Bible verses each scribbled on them. Above the shelf, high up on the wall, above everything else, there’s the pink contract. These things encircle him, like talismans to ward off evil spirits.

He gets a text every morning from a friend, a scripture, which is the verse he uses to begin his daily Bible reading. “If I don’t get that every morning,” he says, “I’m a mess.”

All of this is just to get the day started. He holds out his hands, parallel to one another, and swerves them back and forth.

“Today, you’re going to do this,” he says. “You start to drift. Whether it be pride, whether it be anger, whether it be frustration, whether it be all those human parts of a human being. How do you get back? Today, I’ve already done it 50 times.”

He talks with people constantly, and Shelley in particular, sometimes calling her a dozen times a day. “Constantly making sure,” he says. “I self-check. I have Shelley self-check. We talk a lot.”

Urban is aware of the irony. Back before he fell apart, Shelley tried to help him; he didn’t listen.

He wants to explain all of that, because it will help, but Urban realizes that means looking back across that old dividing line after all. So he does, even as he says, “I gotta be careful looking backwards.”

Part 2

Shelley likes to tease Urban for how he comes off in public at press conferences and the like. “Urban’s always been very guarded, and even more so as a head coach, because he doesn’t know who to trust,” she says. “He comes off as arrogant, or rude, or too serious or not having enough fun, but that’s not him at all.”

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She laughs, memories pouring in. “We would have never met in college if he was the way a lot of people think he is.”

One of the first things he did was make her laugh. She was a freshman at Cincinnati and went with some of her sorority sisters to a philanthropy event at the Sigma Chi fraternity house. Urban, a sophomore, was upstairs in his room when he looked out the window and saw her down there, so he went to talk to her.

At one point in the conversation, Urban said he played football, and Shelley said something to the effect of, Oh, really? Like she didn’t believe him. So to prove it, Urban yanked up his pants legs and showed off his ankles. They were freshly shaved.

Between breaths for air as she laughs about it even now, Shelley says, “So I’m like, Oh, I guess you really do play, because I don’t know why else you would shave your ankles!”

"He comes off as arrogant, or rude, or too serious or not having enough fun, but that’s not him at all."


Soon after they were married in 1989—some two years after Urban graduated from college—Shelley started getting to know a few college coaches, and what she saw worried her. “I liked him the way he was,” she says. “I didn’t want him to be more serious, or more stressed, or more mean because he was stressed, or some of the other things I’d seen.”

When Urban was an assistant coach at Illinois State, Shelley told him: “If becoming a head coach changes you, I don’t want you to be a head coach.”

It wasn’t being a head coach that changed him, but rather losing control of what he calls his gifts.

They really did feel like gifts for a long time, in their way. He’s always been wound a little tighter than most people. There’s a famous story about Urban as a kid, in high school, striking out to end a game and then running all the way home, about five miles or so, in full uniform, where he then hit balls off a tee for another hour.

Somehow, over the years, that story has been twisted into an indictment of his father, Bud, who died in 2011. And yes, Bud Meyer was an intense and demanding father. “Bud was very hard on him,” Shelley says. “And had high expectations, so he grew up that way, and had high expectations of himself because of that. And that has never gone away.”

But no, Bud Meyer did not make Urban run home that day. “That was all me,” Urban says. “No one made me do that.”

He laughs now, remembering that and teasing himself as he says, “Legendary.”

Urban has more stories. “Many more like that,” he laughs. “I’m not gonna share those.”

From the time they started dating, Shelley says, “He was always fiery and competitive, and dedicated.” He was lifting weights at the Sigma Chi house all the time.

When he became a coach, he was the same way. His strength and conditioning coach at Ohio State, Mick Marotti, has been a friend of the Meyers for years and was coaching with Urban at Notre Dame in the late-1990s. He couldn’t believe how hard Urban, who coached the wide receivers, was on the guys. “I mean, tough and hard,” Marotti says. “I was like, Oh, my God. Tough, tough, tough love.”

The yin to that yang was just as strong, though. When Marotti would take his kids over to the Meyers’ to play with their kids, who were about the same age, there would be a bunch of players at the house. “Every night,” Marotti says. “It was kind of ridiculous.”

Sometimes Urban wasn’t even there. “Shelley?” Marotti would say. “Where’s Urban?”

“Oh, he had to go speak somewhere.”

“Why are all these players here?”

“Oh, they just came over.”

✦ ✦ ✦

Through Urban's first head coaching job at Bowling Green from 2001-2002, where his teams went 17-6, and then at Utah from 2003-2004, where they went 22-2, things were good. He poured himself into his players. He loved tutoring them in math.

But Urban was a football coach through and through: He obsessed over film, pushed his players to their physical limits, brooded over losses.

“He always took losses really hard,” Shelley says. “He was always just gonna go sit in a room and stare, pretty much. There was no interaction. And I kinda just knew, OK, just gotta let him, just gotta let him be. Just let him be that way. He’ll go back in the office tomorrow at 5 a.m. and start watching film and figure out what went wrong. That was the pattern.”

Urban always snapped out of it back then. He kept making Shelley laugh. But at Florida, he became what she asked him not to become.

He was named Florida's head coach in December 2004. He won his first national championship in 2006. Urban’s chest pains started, best he remembers, sometime after he lost a friend, Randy Walker, the head coach at Northwestern, to a heart attack in 2006. Eventually, Urban thought he was going to have a heart attack himself. He went to doctors who strapped sensors to his body and made him run on treadmills and all manner of other tests, and nobody could find anything wrong.

The second national championship came in 2008. The hospital trip, in late 2009, after Florida fell to Alabama, 32-13, in the SEC Championship Game, its first—and only—loss of the season. He went home and took his two Ambien and drank his beer and tried to get some sleep, and then he woke up at 4 a.m. feeling like he was dying.

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Shelley called 911, took his pulse, checked his breathing. She could tell it wasn’t a heart attack, which the doctors confirmed, but she didn’t know what was going on, and she couldn’t get him to respond. He wouldn’t look at her.

He hadn’t been looking at her for a long time by then. As much as that moment was everything crashing down on Urban, so it was for her. When men become men their wives don’t recognize, something is always wrong.

“But I found myself in a situation with him,” Shelley says, “where I felt like I couldn’t help him. And that was hard, just to not be able to do something. I couldn’t fix it.”

When the doctors diagnosed the problem in his chest—esophageal spasms caused by bad acid reflux—they prescribed him a pill, Nexium, that took care of the pain. “That made him feel physically better,” Shelley says.

At that point, once he knew he wasn’t dying, Shelley says Urban finally realized, “OK, something’s causing all of this.”

After that night, Urban finally began to listen. He and Shelley talked about how those spasms are also a lesser-known symptom of clinical anxiety, which can be exacerbated by OCD. And he only wanted to keep learning from there. “He got more willing to delve into what the heck is going on,” Shelley says.

Part 3

The bad days began because he was looking for answers in the wrong places. That was the simplest, most profound thing he learned. “If you start looking, and you go to the wrong place for answers, that’s a problem,” he says. “And that’s when you start seeing deterioration. And that’s when you see people make very poor decisions.”

The only thing Urban was looking for back then, the only thing he could see, was a zero in the loss column. He says, “Tim Tebow and I would talk all the time about how the only thing Florida’s never done is go undefeated. And so what do you think we talked about? CONSTANTLY.”

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He laughs at himself, at how absurd he was to make that his goal in the SEC, arguably the most powerful conference in college football.

“But,” he goes on, “when you become obsessed with something...”

His obsession, even though he might not have seen it clearly at the time, was a warped notion that he had to prove certain people wrong. “The media,” he says. “And people, and their opinions. It was the first time that I was exposed to that kind of criticism.”

He could not get it out of his head—and he had a combative streak, not to mention a serious need for control. “I would want to confront it,” he says. “When a guy would write some scathing article about me, that used to really bother me. I didn’t get it. I’m like, What IS that? You don’t KNOW me. … That ate me up.”

So then he looked at football even more. He wanted to see every possible way to win, because if Florida could go undefeated—if he could go undefeated—then surely the same had to apply to what people said about him, too. People couldn’t say anything bad about him if he was perfect. Or at least, if they did, it wouldn’t matter. Who are you? You have what to say? Oh yeah? Well look at this. Look what I did. Forget you.

“When you’re a human being, how can you be expected to be stone-cold against what people are saying about you?” Shelley says. “It gets to you. It doesn’t really matter what anybody says in the media, in the big scheme of life. But I mean, we’re people. We like to be liked.”

Some turn to therapists. Urban’s therapy was other people. Shelley, certainly, but also lots of other people. He fast became a believer in the power of listening to what others had to say and what the world had to show him. He began looking outward again.

He spoke to coaches around the country, such as Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and Mack Brown, then at Texas, and Rich Ellerson, formerly at Army. He read books, and none struck him as profoundly as one his ESPN colleague Todd Blackledge gave him.

Titled LEAD...for God’s Sake!, it was a leadership book told in the form of a modern-day parable about a coach who becomes fixated on winning and, with the mentoring of a humble janitor, remembers that he began coaching because he first loved helping young men get good at a game. Urban read it on the plane during a trip to Stanford.

The next morning, unable to sleep, Urban went for a run. He kept thinking about the book. He pulled out his phone, Googled the author—Todd Gongwer—and, at 4:30 a.m., sent him an email. This thing hit me right between the eyes, he wrote. This is how I once coached. If I ever coach again, I want to coach this way.

"When a guy would write some scathing article about me, that used to really bother me."


“And he just went on and on,” Gongwer says, “about how painful his time had been. He felt like he had lost sight of what mattered most in so many ways.”

Gongwer wrote back, saying he was glad the book helped, and he appreciated Urban taking the time to let him know.

Ten minutes later, Gongwer’s cellphone rang. “Todd. This is Urban Meyer.”

Gongwer’s cell number had been in his email signature. They talked for half an hour. How did you write this thing? Urban wanted to know. How did you know my life?

“He was a guy going, ‘Look, man, this is what I was battling,’” Gongwer says.

I was scared for my health, Urban told him. I was scared for my family.

He went on a two-week road trip with Nate. He took his daughters, Nicki and Gigi, to Rome and Jerusalem. He went to all of Nate’s football and baseball games, helped coach his teams and went to all of his daughters’ volleyball games.

He weaned himself off the Ambien. That took a full six months. From two pills a night to one, then from one to a half of one, until, finally, he stopped needing them.

He slept in. When Shelley got up to work out at 7:30, he was still in bed.

“And,” Shelley says, “he just healed. He was getting himself emotionally and spiritually right by reading the Bible and talking to the people that had helped him, and reflecting. And he got some rest. And then he got back to being himself again.”

Wrestling with Nate. Making Shelley laugh again. Sending the family random text messages full of nonsense emojis. Calling his wife on the phone when she was at home and thought he was at work, only for him to appear in a window, “a big gotcha grin on his face.” Letting that kid Shelley fell in love with come alive again.

Urban realized he didn't just love building good football teams. He loved helping boys become men, and the game was one of the best ways he saw to do that.

He loved the crowd. Florida got rough, but before it did, in the middle of games when they were invincible, he would pull off his headset and listen to the people roar and feel the earth tremble underneath his feet. He heard, over and over, how Ellerson told him to remember the beauty of the game, and how good it is for men to have something to contribute to the world.

When the Ohio State job opened up in late 2011, Urban told Shelley he didn’t feel like he was contributing anything to the world. “That’s the first thing he said to me when he said he needed to get back into coaching,” Shelley says. “He didn’t feel like he was contributing anything. Like, in life. But when he was with players, he felt like he was doing what he was supposed to do.”

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Part 4

For two hours on the Thursday morning before the team arrives for fall camp in August, Urban and his Ohio State coaching staff sit in a conference room, and they discuss a two-page handout. The title: “Pattern Interrupt.” Subtitle: “The Mind Controls Everything.”

It’s all about how the mind gets stuck in negative thought patterns, and how to break them. At the top of the handout, Urban has scribbled a note: Scientifically true.

“I am an extremist,” Urban says. “For the last three, four years now, we’ve taken this to the nth degree.” He’s not exaggerating. Take the man leading the workshop, Tim Kight, a thick-chested, broad-shouldered man with a goatee who might be one of the biggest keys to all of his growth the last few years. That workshop? It’s all based on one thing: “This is how the brain works,” Meyer says.

Urban met Kight about four years ago, at a party, and got to talking about Kight’s work. He’s spent 30 years studying emotional states, mental processes and how they drive performance. Urban was instantly hooked, and they talked for hours.

Kight says, “Getting your mind right is a constant, never-ending discipline. It’s a battle. A fight. And there is a lack of training in general in our country on how to manage mental state in order to live, work, perform at a good level, let alone an elite level. That’s true every place. Not just college football.”

By the end of their first conversation, Urban told Kight that he believed in all of those things now, and he and his staff did their best to teach it, but they didn’t have a system. Kight said, “I got a system.”

E + R = O

Event plus Response equals Outcome. Kight calls this the “R Factor.” The idea is simple: The only thing anyone can control in any situation is the R Factor. You can’t control what happens to you and you can’t control what happens next, but you can control your response. “Which,” Kight says with a smile, “is Mental Health 101, by the way.”

Kight has led around 100 such workshops at Ohio State in the last four years, each of them lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours. “No head coach takes that kind of time away from quote-unquote football,” Kight says.

As much as Urban needs this sort of help with his mind now, he says these kids in college, and athletes of all ages, really, need the same help if not more. “We have all this available to them now because I learned a lesson, and it’s real,” Urban says. “It’s no different to me than, say, a hamstring injury. You don’t just ignore a hamstring injury. And you have to address it.”

He says the world of sports, maybe even the world on the whole, needs to be more proactive, honest and open about mental health. “There’s no doubt. The world is so much different now than 10 years ago. Ten years ago, if you had an issue, it was a private matter. Now, it’s not a private matter, and I see kids bottom out. There are so many outside pressures on these players now, pressures that didn’t exist when I was playing—pressures that didn’t exist 15 years ago.”

Kight says he’s never seen anyone approach the mental side of preparation the way Urban does. Kight consults with other teams, including some in the NFL, and he says, “No one does it like this. No one. Not even close.”

On December 7, 2013, in Indianapolis, Urban was tested. It was the Big Ten Championship Game, Ohio State vs. Michigan State. If the Buckeyes win, they go to the national championship game. But they were down a field goal, driving for the go-ahead touchdown in the waning minutes of the game. They had a 4th-and-2 from the Spartans’ 39-yard line with 5:41 remaining, and they went for it. Sweep to the right. Braxton Miller got dragged down one yard shy.


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Urban began to tense up, his old rage rising as he knew that was likely their last chance—but then, an instant later, an unusual calm came over him. 

They lost the game 34-24, and in the locker room after, everyone was heartbroken, the players were crying and Urban was as crushed as any of them. But he stood up, and he gave one of the best speeches of his career. We’re gonna learn. We’re gonna get better. Full of compassion, of empathy. Full of vision.

Later, as they were preparing to leave, he went to Kight and told him: “I pressed pause. I got my mind right. And I stepped up. I never had that tool before. Thank you.”

✦ ✦ ✦

Urban forces himself to eat, even when he doesn’t feel hungry. He consults with a nutritionist. He snacks on bananas and Chobani Greek yogurt. He avoids pizza.

Urban gets his workouts in around midday. Forty-five minutes of cardio, about 15 lifting weights.

When he checks in with Shelley, she can always tell, sometimes just by the sound of his voice, if he’s doing OK. And if he’s not, she tells him. And now, he listens to her.

Back in the bad days, when Urban went home he always talked about the team. Not that Shelley minded. She liked hearing about the guys. But now, when he comes home, he barely talks about football. “It’s always about our children, and really, more about our lives away from football,” Urban says. “And I like that much better.”

He talks a lot with the kids, too, now that they’re older.

He ignores the media, or at least does his best to. “Just because something gets your attention doesn’t mean it deserves your attention,” Kight likes to say.

Now Urban just calls it “the noise.”

Once a week or so, instead of running intervals on the treadmill, Urban goes for a long walk. He leaves the office and heads south, toward the bridge on Lane Avenue that crosses over the Olentangy River. He’ll walk down the steps on the eastern side, where a path runs under the bridge and along the river. He’ll follow the path until he passes Ohio Stadium.

There’s a lot of highway noise, and it seems like the stadium is always, somehow, in his view. The Horseshoe looms so big, and when you’re on the inside, it consumes the sky. In there, that feels like the whole world.

Sometimes, either going or coming or both, Urban will stop for a moment just under the bridge. There’s this one spot, a stretch of maybe 10 yards. Standing there, the way the trees and bushes grow, the stadium disappears behind them, and the thick bridge above mutes the traffic, and he feels hidden, and the world is quiet.

He tells himself, “Audience of one.”

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It’s maybe his most powerful mental tool, which comes from something Kight likes to say. When Urban’s old thoughts start to take hold again, his mind running wild with worry, with winning, with pleasing all the people that fill that stadium and the millions beyond it who will be judging him, Kight says, “Do you think, when you come before God, he’s going to ask you about your win-loss record?”

That always makes Urban laugh and calms him down.

To help with his sleep, Urban uses melatonin, an over-the-counter supplement that promotes the creation of more melatonin in the body; it is a hormone that helps our bodies know when it’s time to sleep. He gets seven hours a night now. Good sleep, too.

“You want to build your bank,” Urban says, echoing performance psychologist Jim Loehr. “So when the storm hits, the bank is full. How do you build your bank? I’m working out. Eating right. Training right. But also, when it’s time off, and family time, putting more into your bank. You gotta keep filling the bank.

“And how do you do that? Make deposits. Because you’re going to have to withdraw. On July 5, you’re not. You’re sitting on a beach somewhere. You’re not withdrawing. On October 17, or December 1, you better have a full bank, to pull withdrawals out. And back then, I was trying to withdraw something that wasn’t there. That’s when bad stuff happened.”

That’s what he’s obsessed with now. Loehr’s book The Only Way to Win explains that some people have fewer dopamine receptors in the brain, which makes them more prone to addiction, and which is how we get addicted to not just food or alcohol or drugs, but also to thoughts and behaviors. One way to handle this, Urban has learned, is to not fight one’s addictiveness and obsessiveness, but rather to aim them at things that are good.

To that end, Urban is obsessed not with being perfect, but with preparing himself for the fact that he never can be.

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A sad sort of awe strikes Urban when he remembers how little he enjoyed winning back in the bad days.

When he won his first national championship with Florida in 2006, and took the crystal football trophy in his hands, he looked at it almost how he looked at his and Shelley’s children when they were born. Oh, my God, I won it.

But then, within moments, the joy faded—Wait a minute. All that work, and that’s it?—and then he felt panic. He had to do it again, to prove this one wasn’t a fluke.

Only two seasons later, he won his second championship. That night, during the celebration, he locked himself in his office and began calling and texting recruits. “Man, we gotta go. Man, where’s the next one?

“In my mind, someone was gonna get the edge on us,” he says. “What I really thought—it’s kind of a funny thing—is other coaches were out, allowed to be out recruiting, and we couldn’t, because we were in the championship game. That’s how my mind was working at the time.”

He was thinking like an addict, caring about one thing and one thing only. “It’s the hit,’’ he says, turning over his arm like he was showing his veins to a nurse, and using an invisible syringe to inject an invisible drug.

The championship in 2014 at Ohio State was different, though. He smiles, remembering taking the trophy and handing it to his guys. They were underdogs that year. “That was to see the joy in everyone’s faces, that they did what everyone said was illogical to do. And that was one of the greatest feelings I ever had in my life. Just to see these kids hold the trophy…” Urban grins, looking down at the ground. “I’ll never forget that, as long as I live.”

Then he gets quiet, and the grin fades, one memory crashing into another. He’s back at that first championship again, remembering that first trophy. His hands shift, as though holding an invisible crystal football. He’s living there for a moment, back across the dividing line, staring at an empty space where he should be holding something. He says, “I can’t remember the faces from back in ’06.”

"Just to see these kids hold the trophy, I’ll never forget that, as long as I live."


A couple weeks after the interview, now deep into fall camp, he and Shelley are on the phone. Urban is in the car, on the way from the Ohio State football office to the hotel where the team is staying for camp. Shelley is sitting in bed, on her laptop, preparing for another night as a football widow. A week before, Shelley had tweeted about evenings just like this, half-jokes about spending nights watching movies like Grease and Dirty Dancing.

Urban has been in a great mood lately. The other day he swung by the house, and he and Nate started wrestling. Nate’s getting big, and Urban wants to make sure he can still take him.

Football looms large, however. Soon, he and his team will be tested anew. They will run into the stadium, where the stands will not only rise into the sky but become it, and they will be filled with the crowd, 100,000 strong, making so much noise.

But right now, it is quiet, just Urban and Shelley talking to each other on the phone. Or so it seems to her.

There’s an echo as the phone acts weird. Shelley hears her own voice. She looks up and shrieks, startled, and then she laughs. Wearing a red Ohio State golf shirt, khaki shorts and white sneakers, Urban, much like the guy she fell in love with before he became a coach, is standing in the bedroom doorway, looking at her with a big gotcha grin.

Brandon Sneed is a contributing writer for B/R Mag, and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes (Dey Street, March 2017). His writing has also appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform, and more, and has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is brandonsneed.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.

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