After coaching Ohio State to an improbable 2014 College Football Playoff championship, Urban Meyer looked poised to replicate the success he had at Florida in winning multiple national titles.
That didn’t happen. The Buckeyes made it back to the playoff only once in Meyer’s final four seasons.
In 2015, the team went from hunter to hunted. The Buckeyes tried to brace themselves for that by adopting “The Grind” as their motto. That season sure felt like one. Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett battled for the starting quarterback job, which Jones won before struggling enough that Barrett eventually took over.
Meyer said the season reinforced the difficulty of repeating in any sport.
“I remember talking to (then-Chicago Cubs manager) Joe Maddon after they won the 2016 World Series,” Meyer said. “Everybody changed. Coaches changed. I tried to remain the same. I’ve been guilty of that before, in 2009 (after Florida’s second national championship), to not enjoy it. But it was tough. It was a rugged year. We won every game, but nothing was good enough.”
The game that haunts Urban Meyer the most
The Buckeyes won every game, that is, until the next-to-last regular-season game, against Michigan State. Played in a downpour, that home loss — “horrific,” he said — still haunts Meyer the most of his defeats at Ohio State.
“We were the better team,” he said. “I think we could have coached better. That was a bad day.”
The Buckeyes regrouped to rout Michigan and then beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, but the 12-1 record felt a bit hollow.
“We won 30 straight conference games, but I can’t remember the 30 wins,” Meyer said. “But I remember the 31st when we lost to Michigan State in a rainstorm. That’s the devastating thing about high expectations. We won an NCAA-record 30 conference games, and it’s an awful season.”
A return to the CFP for OSU
The Buckeyes did make it back to the CFP in 2016 after winning an epic double-overtime game against Michigan following Barrett’s controversial fourth-down conversion. Not surprisingly, Meyer has a different opinion about that ruling than Jim Harbaugh.
“No doubt,” Meyer said, “he got the first down.”
But the season ended with a humbling 31-0 loss to Clemson in a playoff semifinal, the first shutout of Meyer’s head coaching career. That prompted Meyer to shuffle his coaching staff, with the arrival of Ryan Day being the most significant.
Lopsided losses to Oklahoma and Iowa doomed the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes in 2017. The 55-24 loss to Iowa, which followed a dramatic comeback victory over Penn State, was a particular stunner.
“We weren’t able to get their feet back on the ground after that win,” Meyer said of his team. “Iowa was a good team, it’s a tough environment, and we played awful.”
The Buckeyes rebounded to win the Big Ten title and beat Southern California in the Cotton Bowl to gain momentum for the 2018 season.
The Zach Smith story and the fallout
As training camp for that season was about to begin, however, the Zach Smith story exploded. The saga of the Buckeyes wide receivers coach remains a sensitive subject for Meyer, who regrets some of his actions while defending himself vigorously about others.
He concedes that he should have fired Smith for job performance issues before he did, on the eve of Big Ten media days in Chicago.
Some of his reticence, Meyer acknowledged, was because Smith is the grandson of Earle Bruce, his mentor. Meyer said he also was reluctant to terminate Smith because the assistant coach was going through a bitter divorce and child-custody battle with his then-wife Courtney. Meyer said he and athletic director Gene Smith preferred to have Zach Smith get intense counseling instead.
Urban Meyer: A great coach, a complex legacy
At no point, Meyer insists, did he or Gene Smith suspect that Zach Smith had committed domestic abuse, as Courtney alleged. Meyer said he and the AD believed the issues between Zach and Courtney were related strictly to their child custody battle.
In fact, Meyer said, a police investigation and periodic reports from law enforcement given to Meyer and Gene Smith confirmed that.
“This was not a case of domestic violence,” Meyer said. “That’s what we were told.”
Meyer said he fired Smith because the assistant did not keep Meyer informed of charges related to child custody protocols.
The night before Big Ten media gathering, Meyer received a text from a reporter asking about felony charges related to Zach Smith. Meyer had his staff make sure that no such charges existed and was told, correctly, that there were no felony charges.
Urban Meyer gets suspended
When Meyer was asked about the Smith allegations during his media session, he said he was thinking about the text asking about a felony when he replied, “There was nothing.” Days later, Meyer issued a statement acknowledging making “inaccurate and misleading” statements about his knowledge of the Smith allegations. Ohio State subsequently suspended Meyer.
Then came the surreal day at the Longaberger Alumni House in which the OSU Board of Trustees and then-president Michael V. Drake met to discuss further measures against Meyer.
“I really believed they were going to reinstate me after the reports came back that the investigation concluded there was no domestic violence, that there was no coverup … and that I was not lying to the media,” Meyer said.
Meyer and his attorneys, along with Gene Smith, were at the Longaberger, joined after a few hours by Meyer’s wife Shelley. But Meyer said they had little contact with Drake or board members.
“No conversation with the board,” Meyer said. “No questions from the board.
“I was kept in a (separate) room. I look back now and I wish I would have been able to clarify to the board of trustees what exactly took place, and I never had that opportunity.”
That evening, Drake and the trustees announced that Meyer’s suspension would continue until the fourth week of the season. Gene Smith also was suspended, for three weeks. While Day took over as acting head coach, Meyer waited at home.
“Excruciating,” he said. “The most important people on any team are the players, and I kept thinking I let these players down.”
But the Buckeyes won all three games under Day and kept rolling under Meyer until it was stunned 49-20 at Purdue. It seemed to be an almost inexplicable rout. Not to Meyer.
'Air in our balloon was let out': Nick Bosa's injury
The loss came days after star defensive end Nick Bosa announced he would not return to the team after sustaining a serious core-muscle injury in the third game, against TCU. The Buckeyes’ defense struggled badly that season, and Ohio State had pinned its hopes for improvement on Bosa’s return.
“He was not only the best player for us,” Meyer said. “He was the best player in college football, and he was our leader and our toughest player. I think our whole team couldn’t wait for him to come back.”
Meyer believed that would happen as early as after the off week following the Purdue game. Instead, Bosa left to prepare for the NFL draft, in which he was the No. 2 overall pick.
“It was like all the air in our balloon was let out,” Meyer said.
The Buckeyes’ performance against Purdue reflected it. It would be the only blemish on the season, but it was such a big one that the CFP selection committee couldn’t overlook it.
Meyer's health becomes an issue, again
Meanwhile, Meyer also was dealing with flareups of headaches from a congenital arachnoid cyst near the brain. They had plagued him early in his career and he had surgery in 2014 to alleviate the pain. In 2018, the discomfort returned. In the Indiana game in early October, the pain was bad enough that Meyer fell to his knees.
“It’s as painful a thing as I’ve ever experienced, and you lose your balance and your vision a little bit,” he said.
The headaches, along with resentment about the suspension, caused Meyer to consider stepping down as coach. He knew he didn’t want to do the job forever and was confident in Day as a successor.
“You find the right guy, which I did with Ryan Day, and you know the program is in healthy shape with recruiting and talent,” Meyer said. “And he has such an incredible support staff, I think the best staff infrastructure in college sports. I just thought with the pain I was feeling, I have the right guy (in Day), if we can somehow find a way to beat that team up north, maybe that’s it.”
Meyer's final OSU games
After being lucky to survive a 52-51 overtime scare against Maryland the week before, the Buckeyes were underdogs against Michigan. The Wolverines were rolling and had the country’s top-ranked defense. Finally, it looked like Harbaugh would get his first coaching win over Ohio State. But the Buckeyes dominated in a 62-39 rout to make Meyer 7-0 against OSU’s archrivals.
“That’s one of the great moments in our career and came at the right time,” Meyer said.
After a Big Ten championship game win over Northwestern, Meyer decided it was indeed time to back away from coaching. But Meyer vacillated until the morning of the Dec. 4 news conference announcing his resignation and Day’s ascension.
“Gene came in to see me and said we can cancel the press conference right now,” Meyer said. “I just got into prayer and thought it through and obviously talked to Shelley about it, and decided it was the right thing to do.”
Meyer had his sailing-off-to-the-sunset moment with a Rose Bowl win over Washington and then literally took his coaching whistle and put it around Day’s neck in the locker room.
“I was blessed to have seven great years and hand it off to a guy that I have so much confidence in,” he said.
Meyer's coaching itch returns
Meyer remained at Ohio State as an assistant athletic director the next two years, helping with fundraising and teaching leadership skills to coaches and team captains in all sports.
But the itch to coach again remained. He turned down college offers, including one at Texas, in part because he didn’t want to recruit against Ohio State.
Urban Meyer’s Pint House: Becoming a restaurateur
The NFL has intrigued him for longer than he has publicly revealed. He said several teams reached out to him about five years ago and then was contacted after he resigned at Ohio State. None felt like the right fit.
Meyer spent the past year researching why NFL organizations succeed or fail. He interviewed his former players and immersed himself in salary cap and roster management.
Meyer is rejuvenated by the challenge of coaching the Jacksonville Jaguars
Meyer believes he found an ideal situation with the Jacksonville Jaguars, even though the Jaguars were 1-15 in 2020. Meyer lost six fewer games than that in his seven years at Ohio State. He knows one of the biggest challenges will be coping with losses.
“I’m just training myself,” Meyer said. “The expectations are at Ohio State that you can’t lose one. Expectations are different (in the NFL). To say I’m going to enjoy it and accept it? No. I’m training myself because it will happen. We’re going to do all we can not to, but the reality is that will happen and probably more frequently than I’ve ever experienced.”
Meyer is rejuvenated by the challenge. He’s also grateful for his time at Ohio State.
He’s proud of the on-field success. Meyer is also deeply proud of the Real Life Wednesdays program that he initiated, which helps players prepare for a post-football career. He said he formed lifelong friendships in Columbus.
“If everybody could write their story, I imagine they would write a chapter like that,” he said. “You go back to your home state, your home school, you win a national title and never lose to your rivals and put a period at the end of it. That’s everybody’s dream.”
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.