For a fleeting moment, Urban Meyer thought about leaving Ohio State before he ever coached a game.
Before he went on a seven-year run of almost unprecedented success as the Buckeyes’ football coach, Meyer wondered on that December day in 2011 what he’d gotten himself into.
Here he was, as Ohioan as one could be. Toledo-born from parents who met in Cincinnati. Raised in Ashtabula, in the northeastern corner of the state. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati and Ohio State. A head football coach for the first time at Bowling Green.
When he began his coaching career, becoming an assistant coach at Ohio State was his dream.
“That was the ultimate goal,” Meyer said. “I never thought about the head coach piece of it. My focus was if I could ever become an assistant coach back at Ohio State.”
Urban Meyer: A timeline of the college football coach's career
Meyer won two national championships at Florida before his own relentless nature became a weakness instead of a strength. Worn down by pressure, mostly self-imposed, he stepped away from the Gators and spent 2011 as an ESPN analyst.
Urban Meyer comes back to Columbus
It was fortuitous timing. Jim Tressel’s highly successful run at Ohio State ended with the tattoo-and-memorabilia scandal that prompted his forced resignation on Memorial Day in 2011, leaving his defensive assistant Luke Fickell to coach the Buckeyes on an interim basis.
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Meyer’s wife, Shelley, knew what that meant. She was skeptical about her husband returning to coaching.
“Shelley cried,” Meyer said. “I remember she teared up and she goes, ‘You know what this means?’ ”
When the 2011 Buckeyes, decimated by the suspensions of several star players, limped down the stretch of the season, athletic director Gene Smith decided not to retain Fickell and to pursue Meyer.
Independently, Meyer and Smith had done research on the NCAA’s upcoming decision about further penalties for OSU. They had talked to experts who assured them it would be unprecedented for Ohio State to be hit with a postseason ban or scholarship reductions.
But three weeks after Meyer was hired, that’s what the NCAA imposed. When Smith told Meyer of the sanctions, both were dumbfounded and angry.
“I recovered quickly, but I had to sit down and be like, ‘What do I do?’ ” Meyer said. “I had thoughts of, ‘Do I have anything in my contract that says I don’t have to do this?’ ”
Ohio State needed an update
Meyer said that lasted only a moment. This was his dream job, after all. But he believed the NCAA sanctions were a severe body blow. He thought the effects could last five or six years, perhaps even a decade, because the NCAA would allow OSU seniors to transfer without having to sit out a season.
“If you start losing players, we’re in trouble,” Meyer said.
Meyer arranged a meeting with some of the team leaders — Zach Boren, Etienne Sabino and John Simon. He could tell they were beaten down.
“When I walked out of there, it’s not like we solved the problem,” Meyer said. “I thought, ‘This is not going away.’ ”
Already, he had not gotten great vibes at the start of his tenure. When Smith introduced Meyer at an OSU basketball game, fans booed the athletic director.
“I mean, it was loud boos,” Meyer said, incredulously.
To Meyer, the Woody Hayes Athletic Center looked outdated, badly in need of a facelift.
His first look at his team also was discouraging. Fickell finished out the season as coach with a perfunctory loss to Florida in the Gator Bowl.
When it 'hit the fan' for Urban Meyer in 2012
Meyer scheduled his first full team meeting for the next morning in Columbus. A handful of players were no-shows. Meyer chewed out the team, then scheduled another meeting for 6 a.m. the next day. Several offensive linemen showed up late.
“They were bad-looking linemen, too,” he said. “Fat. Not what I’m used to. They come walking through those doors — terrible-looking linemen who just got their butt beat by Florida walking in late with no urgency like, ‘What’s the problem?’ That’s when it hit the fan.”
Meyer had strength coach Mickey Marotti, his right-hand man, start grueling workouts at dawn outside in the winter cold. Slowly, the team started to turn around. Shared misery helped the team bond.
When the 2012 season started, Meyer knew he had a budding star in quarterback Braxton Miller, but he had no inkling the team would go undefeated.
Ohio State's perfect 2012 season
But that’s what the Buckeyes did, flawed as they were. After a shaky performance in nonconference games, their resolve and confidence grew after edging Michigan State 17-16 in East Lansing. A victory over Michigan without the injured Simon, who had emerged as the defensive leader, clinched a 12-0 season.
That the Buckeyes weren’t eligible to play in the postseason only adds to Meyer’s reverence for that team. The 2012 team is as special to him as his national championship ones because it stuck together with nothing to play for but pride and each other.
“I think everybody’s accountable for their own actions,” Meyer said. “But when you’re held accountable for other people’s actions, I have a problem with that. I just think that’s wrong. You’re responsible for yourself.
“I still don’t understand those penalties. Why do that to players that had nothing to do with that? That turned out to be the most selfless group of people I’ve ever been around.”
Ohio State wasn't ready for Alabama in 2012
If Ohio State had won the Big Ten title game, which was likely, the Buckeyes almost certainly would have played the only other undefeated team, Notre Dame, for the Bowl Championship Series title.
Instead, Notre Dame played Alabama, which routed the Fighting Irish 42-14. For Meyer, that was jarring. As much as he loved his team, he saw firsthand the talent gap between the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide.
In certain ways, Ohio State’s 12-0 record was a mirage, Meyer believed. He had come from the Southeastern Conference. The Big Ten of 2012 wasn’t close to that level.
“We would not have competed well against Alabama,” Meyer said.
The chase to reach the Crimson Tide’s level became his rallying cry. Right after the game, he started texting players: “The Chase is on. The Chase is real.” Signs proclaiming The Chase were plastered around the facility.
It would take two years, but that Chase would be completed.
More on The Dispatch's Urban Meyer series
Editor’s note: Urban Meyer is now in Florida to begin the next chapter of his life as coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. As he settles into his new job, he agreed to speak with The Dispatch’s Bill Rabinowitz about his seven years as Ohio State’s coach. With Meyer on the sideline, the Buckeyes went 83-9, including an undefeated 2012 season, a 2014 College Football Playoff championship and a 7-0 record against Michigan. There were low moments as well, and Meyer candidly discusses them in this three-part series.