A Nebraska coaching carousel that too often spun off its post is a perfect way to address Urban Meyer’s legacy at Ohio State.
Think about it, in hiring Nebraska alum Scott Frost, the Cornhuskers think they finally have the right coach to restore the program to prominence (although at this point simply becoming respectable would be quite the achievement.)
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Since Tom Osborne retired after the 1997 season, the Huskers have hired five coaches, not counting Barney Cotton, who coached one game in 2014 after Bo Pelini was fired. We’ll spare you the details of what happened to Frank Solich, Bill Callahan, Pelini and Mike Riley, other than to say Nebraska resembled a grocery shopper thumping watermelons without finding a ripe one. Maybe because they actually were thumping mangos, but that’s another story.
The point is that hiring coaches is tricky stuff. Frost appears to be an upgrade from Riley, but who knows?
Ohio State, which plays host to Nebraska on Saturday, had its own seminal moment late in 2011, when athletic director Gene Smith hired Meyer away from ESPN. Meyer had impeccable credentials: two national championships at Florida, an undefeated season at Utah and a masterful job of turning around the program at Bowling Green.
Still, there was the issue of Meyer’s sudden resignation from Florida in 2009 due to a medical scare, followed by a one-season return before resigning for good in 2010 because of too much stress and wanting to spend more time with his family.
Eight years removed from Florida, Meyer’s coaching future again is in doubt. Intense headaches caused by an arachnoid cyst in his brain have him pondering his future. He insists that he wants to keep coaching the Buckeyes and plans to return next season, but the possibility remains that health issues scuttle those plans.
Ohio State will survive without Meyer, whenever he leaves, but as with any coaching change the culture inside the program will shift. We’re not digging the man’s grave yet, so no need to speculate on who might replace the coach with the highest winning percentage (.850) in school history.
Instead, we thought it would be interesting to rewrite history as if Meyer had never joined the Buckeyes. It could have happened, after all. If Jim Tressel had told the truth during Tattoogate, he certainly would have coached a few more seasons, which probably would have precluded Meyer from coming to Columbus.
But even if Tressel’s forced resignation in 2011 played out the same way, Smith could have deemed Meyer too much of an uncertainty, based on how things ended at Florida.
Meyer may have been the leading candidate, but Smith had other options. Imagine how Ohio State history might have changed one of the following had taken the reins.
• Luke Fickell. Elevated from defensive coordinator, the former Ohio State defensive lineman likely controlled his destiny as coach in 2011. He got the Buckeyes off to a 3-1 start before they dropped back-to-back games against Michigan State and Nebraska.
Fickell’s prospects of returning seemed thin until the unranked Buckeyes ran off three straight wins, including over No. 12 Wisconsin. Alas, things crumbled again where they often do for the scarlet and gray, at Purdue, where the Boilermakers were the first of four consecutive losses.
What if Ohio State had finished 11-2 with a win over Michigan and bowl victory instead of 6-7? Smith may have been hard-pressed to pass over Fickell for anyone else, including Meyer.
How would Fickell have fared going forward with the Buckeyes? Best guess: Ohio State would not have gone 12-0 in 2012 and would not have finished 14-1 with a national championship in 2014. Fick has things going in the right direction at Cincinnati, but I’m not sure he would have gotten up to speed fast enough to save his job at Ohio State, which would have led to another coaching hire, which could have started OSU down the path of becoming Nebraska.
• Bo Pelini. The former Ohio State defensive back from Youngstown was 39-16 at Nebraska through 2011 (the Huskers fired him with one game left in the 2014 season). He fit the Buckeyes’ bloodline but would have been a bad fit. Pelini, who eventually landed at Youngstown State, owned a short fuse, and his record did not sparkle enough to make him an incredibly attractive choice.
• Mark Dantonio. Dino mostly had turned things around at Michigan State by the end of 2011, when the Spartans finished 11-3. He would seem a nice fit at Ohio State, but there maybe was too much connection to a tarnished Tressel, for whom he worked at OSU? We’ll never know.
What we do know is that Meyer was the perfect fit at the time. The Buckeyes absolutely got it right. Nebraska can only hope to follow suit.