We are all about to suffer for AARP’s error. I’m in Shelley Meyer’s spinning class, and she pedals furiously while explaining the cause for her current distress between labored breaths.
“I got my AARP card…in the mail today…that made me mad…since when is 50 old? Well, we…will see…who’s old…”
As the rest of the class embarks on a brutal climb, I fantasize about slowly, literally, backpedaling into the parking lot and calling it a day.
But how can you bow out when you’re being coached by the woman who motivates one of the best motivators in America? Nope, stopping is not an option. For me or for Shelley and Urban Meyer.
Recruiting and nursing classes and practices and book clubs and press conferences and film sessions and spinning and commercials and sports…they do it all as a team—a true “family program,” as Shelley refers to it.
The first lady of football, as I characterize her, is not unlike the country’s first lady: a Type A personality that rivals her husband’s, a competitive streak, a passion for physical and mental betterment, an approachable charm—and she still resists the urge to shrink from a scrutinizing public. Her repartee with the @FakeUrbanMeyer Twitter user is enough to prove she’s different than your average coach’s wife.
“A huge part of Urban’s job, and one of his goals, is to mentor these young men to be the best dad, the best husband, the best member of society they can be—I love being part of that. ”
Which is why my list of questions soon becomes a backup plan, a loose construct for a free-flowing conversation that touches on everything from player conduct to the media to whether or not football has gotten dangerously big. But it starts where they began, their first meeting, when she got him to smile during a Sigma Chi fraternity event by showing him a centerfold in Playboy magazine and asking, “Does this look like me?” They’ve been together ever since.
On their early days: He was really good-looking—I was shocked that he was interested in me because I came from a farm—I was very plain, I was very simple. I went away to the big city to college and that helped me grow a lot. He had seen a lot of things, and I had done nothing…His family didn’t have much money—they had more money than my family. My family had no money. Then, when he got into coaching, he still didn’t have any money. He didn’t have any money at all to his name.
On money and privilege: (Urban’s salary is around $4.6 million)
I actually had the first money of either of us because I got a real job in a hospital working as a nurse, and I had to support him for two years when he was at Illinois State because he made like $7,000 a year for two years…It’s a little better now because [graduate assistants] get a salary and get school paid for, but there’s more money to go around now. So I had to support him for two years, and then even still at his first job at Colorado State, [which] was his first real-time job getting paid, was still $28,000 a year.
When you start to make money, it does change you because you have more things—you can do more things. We’ve traveled a lot. We love to travel. We’re Christians, we’re tied very much to our church. We’ve grown in that in the past couple of years and really leaned on that because there’s hard times…[money], in many ways, makes things harder because you try and stay grounded still. We’ve tried not to make our kids really spoiled so that they don’t think they’re just going to get handed everything. My daughter Nicki, she works 11-hour days. She works. And she’s a grinder just like her dad.
On family and football: I love college kids. I love being around young people. A huge part of Urban’s job, and one of his goals, is to mentor these young men to be the best dad, the best husband, the best member of society they can be—I love being part of that. I think [the players] need to see their coach and his wife and their kids because they see their coach all the time yelling on the field and grinding them all the time…Urban kissed me on the sidelines after a practice and the players are going, “Oooooooooooo, Coach! Coach is a softie!” It’s good for them to see that when we bring our kids around, and they see that [it’s] a family program.
On being social: Urban’s not a real social guy. He knows that he has to be because that’s part of his job, and we do a lot of things and he’s great, but that’s not his favorite thing. But one thing that he loves to do when we have time is get together with our neighbors. We have awesome, awesome neighbors.
I’ve always been an extrovert. You’re not going to change that. This is who I am. I have fun. I think Twitter is hilarious. I think people on Twitter are hilarious. I love people. I’m a psychiatric nurse, for God’s sake. All I do is help people problem-solve, help them with their social issues, their personal tragic situations, real life stuff. I will be a miserable person if I have to just hole up in my house and just hide, and I can’t be out interacting with people—we’re not meant to be that way. We’re meant to be social creatures. And I love people, and for the most part people are great to me. Not one person who knows me has been one of the people who’s slammed me. Never. And Urban, too. We’ve never lost a friend because he said horrible things online about Urban. No, it’s not the people who know us at all…
On the hardest part of being a coach’s wife: The radio shows, the newspaper articles, the writers who hate you for some reason, and they can just print whatever they want, and everybody takes it like it’s the Bible, like it’s true. And you’re sitting there reading this thing and you’re going, “That absolutely is not true, and I’m the one who’s living this.” And this is some writer down in Orlando writing things he has no idea about, and it’s his own opinion, and they take his own opinion for truth. And then that person who writes that awful, horrible slander about you has no accountability. He never has to come back and say, “I printed something a month ago and it wasn’t true, and it was really kind of mean about Urban Meyer.” They never have to come back and say that, ever…I hate the personal attacks—I hate when Urban’s personal character is getting attacked when I know what kind of guy he is. I hate he’s called a liar when I know he’s not a liar. I hate when people say he faked his health problems at Florida when I know he did not fake it. How can you say that when you’ve never met him? You don’t know him, you’ve never met him, and you’re saying these awful things…We’re humans. You hate to have awful things written about your family or husband.
On the dangers of football: Ohio high school football isn’t what it used to be. Urban’s been talking about that a lot in recruiting. People get mad because he doesn’t recruit more Ohio kids. Well, it’s not what it used to be. There aren’t the players that [there] used to be because there are so many kids who are playing lacrosse now or something that’s not as hard on their bodies. I keep wishing that [her son Nate] would come to us and say, “You know what, I just want to play baseball.” I’m wishing for him to say that. I love football and I have fun watching him, but I’m so scared that he’s going to get an injury that’s going to have deficits…I hate it that he loves it, but he absolutely loves it. He loves playing. And Urban keeps telling me, “Sorry, you don’t win this one, he’s all in.”
Urban feels the same way, actually. He admits it. If Nate didn’t want to play football, he would be fine with it. He loves it that he’s playing, but if he said he didn’t want to, he would be fine because he worries about head injuries and major injuries, too. He’s seen it.
And everybody’s trying hard to decrease the danger of [football], but I don’t know how much you can. I mean, even look at Kosta [Karageorge, an OSU player with a history of concussions who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound last month]. Some of our players said that he had concussions that he didn’t tell staff about. What do you do about that? You can’t know. You have 105 kids out there, or 60 running around—if he bounces up and goes right back in, you don’t know…we’ve got to get players to be able to admit that they’ve been dinged. They’ve got to understand that that doesn’t mean they’re weak. That means their brain needs to be saved…
On program discipline: When players get in trouble, it just crushes you. [Especially] because those coaches feel like they do a really good job with those kids—it’s not like they’re not getting educated about how to not be arrested. And I always ask this question: how hard is it not to get arrested? I’ve never been arrested. Am I really good because I haven’t been arrested? [laughs] So are we supposed to have players at our house every night so we can watch them 24/7, keep them out of bars, keep them away from girls—what’re we suppose to do?
On whether college football has gotten too big: In the end, it’s a game. It’s entertainment. Urban’s an entertainer—it’s why coaches are getting paid so much. I’ve had very awkward moments a couple of times when I specifically remember a teacher got on a soapbox about how poorly paid she is and teachers are so important. And they are. I totally agree—teachers are so important. Probably more important than a football coach coaching football. A doctor is more important that a football coach coaching football. A doctor saves people’s lives—you can’t even [compare the two]. But I’m like, “I’m sorry—I can’t help it.” People are buying the tickets. There’s a demand. People love college football. We just won the attendance record this year. What do you want me to do about it? I agree with you, but I can’t do anything—stop buying the tickets and then we’ll get this thing calmed down. It’s not happening.
On Urban’s first retirement and the future: I know next time he’ll be ready to step down. Next time it’s over, it’s over because he’s seen what it’s like not to coach…I know he has some things he still wants to accomplish, and he still wants to affect kids’ lives. That was a big part of it. He missed the players. He missed mentoring. When he finally makes that decision, I know that he’s going to have a plan for what he’s going to do. The last time when he took that year off, it happened so fast that I was like, “What is he going to do all day?” Because I know he can’t lay around, ever. Even on vacations…there wasn’t really any time to make a plan because it wasn’t really the way he wanted it all to happen. He didn’t want to have to stop coaching, but he felt like he had to. And he did need to. He had to press pause. And unfortunately, the only way to do it was the way he did it. Now looking back, he wishes it wouldn’t have gone that way, but there were issues and he had to fix them…I think it was great. It was humbling. The whole reason why he got into that situation was because of his control—his issue of controlling everything. He can’t control everything, everybody, every situation. So he learned a lot about that. And he also learned to have downtime. He learned how you can have downtime. It was great.
On coming home: The best thing is we grew up here, and it’s especially great for Urban. He has loved the program since he knew what Ohio State football was. It was a dream that he never thought would be reality, that he thought he would coach here. Ever. And we just never thought this job would be open…I didn’t only gulp [when Tressel was fired]. I was like, “Oh no, please no”…I knew he was going to get the call, and I really deep down knew he couldn’t say no, even though I didn’t want him to go back to coaching. But I love Columbus. It feels like a real city. And you can’t ask for better support for a football team either. We had great support with the Gators, of course—those fans just love their team too…[but] the Buckeyes are the biggest program in the state. And that’s really pretty cool. Everywhere you go, everyone you know knows about the Ohio State Buckeyes.
On perspective in sports: I look at fans who let it ruin their week when their team loses a game and I don’t understand that. I go to Children’s Hospital and I’m on the terminally ill floor, and I see kids who are so sick, and all I can think about is, “OK, tell me your life is ruined for a week because your team lost a football game and you want my husband fired.” And then you have these poor parents who have a child who is going to die from a brain tumor. That’s real life. Football is football, and when I finally grasped that about four years ago, I quit letting it ruin my day because I got so sick of being so upset and mad when we’d lose. We’ve never been fired for losing games yet, so we’re OK. I went to the food bank last night and helped homeless people shop for free food. Those things should maybe interfere with your good time you’re having during the day because then you see people who are really struggling. So I’ve found perspective, and that’s the thing that’s helped me deal with the bigness of this profession and this game and how important it is to people. There’s so many other things that are so much more important.
Shelley Meyer teaches spinning at Premier at Sawmill Athletic Club.