Brilliant mind, troubled brain, conflicted man: Urban Meyer puts college football on the back burner

Mack Brown's cell rang at 6 a.m. When now-North Carolina's hall of fame coach saw who was calling, he smiled.

"The man is up," Brown said gleefully, recognizing his old friend Urban Meyer's phone number. "He's got the Rose Bowl. He must be recruiting."

Actually, Meyer called to say he was retiring, then immediately juxtaposed that shocker against Brown's return to coaching at North Carolina.

"Are you crazy or what?" Meyer said.

That comes from a guy qualified to ask the question. Brown is returning to coach at age 67 after five years out of the game. Meyer is out of the game -- seemingly for good -- at age 54.

There will be skeptics. For Meyer, this is the third time he has retired since 2009. Will it stick? Meyer immediately told Brown health issues related to the cyst on his brain are the "total reason" he is stepping away.

"He told me he couldn't be animated at the level he needed to energize his team and stay healthy," Brown said. "That's the problem."

We will take Meyer at his word for now. He deserves that. Ohio State football will endure because it always does. Offensive coordinator Ryan Day will take over a franchise that has been traditionally bigger than any of its coaches.

Meyer's last game will be the Rose Bowl against Washington. That will end a season in which it has been painful to watch Meyer, and not just because of the scandal that resulted in a three-game suspension.

It didn't take a veteran observer of one of the game's greatest coaches to see he was in distress -- certainly physically, possibly mentally. It is a pity that a brilliant football coach has stepped away because of pressure on that brilliant brain.

Sympathy is the first reaction.

Scroll down Meyer's Wikipedia page, and his legacy stands out as conflicted. His .852 winning percentage was highest in the country among active coaches with more than two years' experience. That's better than Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Jim Harbaugh, Chip Kelly and Chris Petersen.

There were always those health issues -- that congenital arachnoid cyst was reportedly discovered 18 years ago when Meyer was a receivers coach at Notre Dame and the chest pains as a result of esophageal spasms that led to his first two retirements at Florida.

There was also a long history of player misconduct under Meyer's watch with the Gators. At least 30 players were in some kind of legal trouble while he was at Florida.

Then there's last summer's scandal that may have been the final straw for Meyer and the Ohio State administration. He was accused, through a series of stories, of enabling his wide receivers coach Zach Smith, an alleged domestic abuser, by failing to report that alleged conduct to his bosses.

Meyer was eventually suspended three games, but if body language could talk when the penalty came down, he was clearly not pleased with the Buckeyes' brass.

The story never seemed to go away. The investigation itself came into question. It was never fully answered whether Meyer indeed wiped text messages from his phone that could have clarified his involvement -- or lack thereof -- in the Smith situation.

There seemingly have always been layers, issues. One of the greatest coaches of his generation never gave up the game because of the game. After stepping down for the first time the day after Christmas in 2009, Meyer had a change of heart, took a leave of absence returned for one more season. It was inglorious 8-5 finish, his worst at Florida despite taking over the program in 2005 from Ron Zook.

Like we said, conflicted.

Meyer won more national championships in his first nine years as a college head coach (two) than Saban.

He is an innovator and an offensive genius who perfected the much-copied spread offense.

Dwayne Haskins set the Big Ten single-season passing record and became a Heisman Trophy finalist in Meyer's final, troubled season. Tim Tebow became Florida's third Heisman winner as well as a national and SEC record-setter under Meyer from 2006-09, contributing to the Gators' second national title and leading them to their third. Meyer developed Alex Smith into a No. 1 overall NFL draft choice out of Utah after leading the Utes to to a 22-2 record in two seasons and an undefeated 12-0 campaign in 2004.

The man could recruit like a demon. His players seemed devoted to him.

He is gone again, three days after Ohio State won another Big Ten title, two days after it clinched a Rose Bowl berth and on the same day this year's College Football Hall of Fame inductees will be honored in New York.

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Urban Meyer walks off after winning his latest Big Ten title. CBS Sports graphic

In his place is Day, who was hired at Ohio State only last year. Day's career arc shot up when he lent a steadying hand to the program as acting coach during Meyer's suspension.

"Is there an A++ in the grade book?" Haskins said of Day after a September win over TCU.

That marked the last game for Day as acting coach; Meyer returned the next week. With the program steadied and 3-0, defensive lineman Robert Landers was asked how things could get better with the return of Meyer.

"I don't have a great answer for that question," Landers said.

The ultimate irony may have been Meyer retiring on college football's high holy day. The National Football Foundation dinner in New York Tuesday is the annual gathering place to honor the game's best and brightest.

Brown was among those being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, an honor Meyer almost certainly will get someday. Meyer was not in attendance Tuesday in New York. Suddenly, he's not even in the game anymore.

"I love Urban," Brown said. "Urban and I are very, very close."

Meyer's coaching influence is without doubt. He can be credited with the modern rise of the SEC. Florida's national championship in 2006 started a run of seven straight for the conference. That run hasn't ended with the SEC winning nine of the last 12 titles.

His excellence also continued a trend that made athletic directors nervous all over the country. When Bob Stoops won a national championship in his second year at Oklahoma in 2000, everybody wanted a Stoops.

Following in quick order, Jim Tressel (Ohio State, 2002) and Meyer (Florida, 2006) won national championships in their second season at their schools. Eventually, Gene Chizik (Auburn, 2010) did, too.

The great coach essentially helped resurrect two conferences. Slightly more than three years after joining Ohio State, Meyer watched Jim Harbaugh join Michigan.

At that point, Meyer had led the Buckeyes to an undefeated season marred by a bowl ban (2012) and won a national championship (2014). Harbaugh hasn't measured up, losing four straight to Meyer, who ended his run with the Buckeyes 7-0 against the Wolverines.

Raised in a stern, Midwestern home in Ashtabula, Ohio, Meyer was meticulous in everything he did on the field. But off-field news -- if not controversy -- followed him.

When Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff in 2014, it started a conversation. Suddenly, Meyer was in Saban's air space having won three titles at two different schools. Meyer also had 13 years on Saban. It suddenly became apparent that Meyer, 54, had time on his side to becoming maybe the best coach ever. At one point, his future seemed limitless.

After an unbeaten season at Ohio State in 2012, Meyer had a banner commissioned to salute that team in the same way as a national champion. It couldn't go to a bowl because of NCAA sanctions suffered under Tressel.

Two years later, he won Ohio State's seventh national championship.

Whether this retirement is truly the end, we can only take the man at his word. Meyer is still in his prime. After his second retirement at Florida 2010, he seemingly had his medical issues under control.

Those flared up at least during the season when cameras found him on the sideline against Maryland doubled over in pain. That was the latest off-field distraction.

Meyer seemingly left the door wide open regarding his future early in the press conference announcing his retirement.

"Is this truly it for your football career?" he was asked.

"That's a complicated question," Meyer said. 

That's not a yes. Twitter sort of exploded with hope from USC fans (and others) crossing their fingers hoping there is a Meyer version 3.0. 

But once again, it became complicated. Asked a second time by a different member, Meyer said, "I believe I will not coach again."

When asked if that suspension played a role in his decision, Meyer replied, "I'm sure it will."

During the Courtney Smith scandal, an Ohio State investigation found that Meyer didn't "intentionally lie" while making misstatements during the Big Ten media days.

The report concluded that Meyer had "significant memory issues." Meyer later denied those issues affected him on the field.

On Tuesday, that brilliant mind, troubled brain and conflicted man finally took a break. But for how long?

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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