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.’”
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 MEYER
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.”
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."
— SHELLEY MEYER
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.