Bittersweet farewell

“I’m going to miss building teams, but the players — without question, that is what I’m going to miss.” — Urban Meyer

Tim May
[Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

PASADENA, Calif. — These last four weeks with Urban Meyer as Ohio State’s football coach have been an interesting mix of the past blending with the future.

Meyer announced his retirement on Dec. 4, and offensive coordinator Ryan Day was named to succeed him the same day. Then Day welcomed the early-signing members of the 2019 recruiting class on Dec. 19. But through it all, there was no doubt that Meyer was still in charge through the Rose Bowl against Washington on Tuesday.

“He’s still the head coach, that’s not going to change” until the Rose is done, quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. said.

Meyer grinding all the way to the finish comes as no surprise to those who have followed his career. From his first head coaching stop at Bowling Green in 2001, to the next at Utah in 2003, on to Florida in 2005 and — after a season off to recharge — to Ohio State in 2012, he immediately elevated the results and expectations. He won three national championships along the way, at Florida in 2006 and 2008 and at Ohio State in 2014.

>>Video: Urban Meyer final pre-game presser as Rose Bowl looms

He will step down as the third-winningest major college coach by percentage, behind Notre Dame legends Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy. That 186-32 record is the most impressive part as far as his Rose Bowl adversary, Washington coach Chris Petersen, is concerned.

“It’s just his consistency over time, wherever he’s been, you know he’s gonna win,” said Petersen, who has relied on Meyer often for advice. “I don’t think it’s about any one game or one season. You’ve got to have a body of work, and if you look at his, it’s as consistent as anybody out there in terms of winning at an elite level.”

That’s a major part of his legacy, which Meyer considers to be a funny word, since of late he’s been asked a lot about how he sees his own. To this point in his coaching life, it’s been more about what he’s doing today and planning for tomorrow and down the road than what he has done.

“I’m going to miss building teams, but the players — without question, that is what I’m going to miss,” Meyer said.

It’s why he established several off-field programs for his players such as the “Real Life Wednesdays” to help them prepare for life after football, and the annual job fair he created that’s now athletic department-wide, the eventual goal being to ensure each player a job offer, not just an interview, once they leave school.

And there have been the myriad community outreach programs, hospital trips and appearances in support of charities, including his own Urban and Shelley Meyer Fund for Cancer Research.

But he knows what happened this past summer will stick with folks, too. He was censured by university president Michael Drake for his handling of former assistant coach Zach Smith, whose wife had accused him of domestic violence though no charges or arrests were ever made, and for tolerating some acts of malfeasance by Smith on the job. Meyer was put on leave for all of preseason camp, suspended the first three games and forfeited more than $500,000 from his $7.6 million annual compensation.

Whether Meyer was treated unfairly always will be up to conjecture, but suffice to say he thought he was. Then along came another bout of severe headaches and general discomfort caused the enlarged arachnoid cyst in his skull, first diagnosed in 1998, and the 2018 season took a psychological and physical toll that had him pondering his retirement.

“That was a very difficult time, very difficult time,” Meyer said of the suspension. “But this has been — I’ve had to deal with the headaches for many years, and it came to a head in 2014 and again last year and this year as well. As difficult a time as that (suspension) was, that didn’t have an impact as much as the headaches. But it did have an impact.”

On the day of Meyer’s retirement announcement, Drake released a statement that only sang the praises of the coach.

“Coach Meyer has built the best program in collegiate athletics, taking Ohio State’s time-honored tradition of excellence and elevating it to new levels,” Drake said. “Year after year, he forges close bonds with our student-athletes and helps them develop into leaders on the field and in our communities. His investment is total. He leaves an incredible record of success and an indelible legacy as Ohio State’s head coach.”

As he prepares to step away, Meyer’s impact on the game is obvious, according to Glen Mason, a former OSU assistant under Woody Hayes and Earle Bruce, a former head coach at three schools and current analyst for the Big Ten Network. He said Meyer had forged a hall-of-fame career before showing up at OSU.

“Then all he did was build on that resume at Ohio State, winning 90 percent of his games, and winning his third national championship, and never losing to Michigan, something that’s never been done by an Ohio State coach, and winning three Big Ten titles,” Mason said. “That seventh win over Michigan, his team put 62 points on ’em. No one else can say that.”

Coaches have succeeded in following coaches at Ohio State despite the standards set by their predecessors, Mason said, “but no one will have had to take the job on in a tougher situation than Ryan Day. Why? Because of the success of Urban Meyer. Let’s face it, Ohio State fans are the greatest fans in the world, but they’re spoiled. And they’ve been even spoiled more under Urban Meyer.”

Meyer thinks he’s been spoiled by getting to coach top athletes, which again is what the former psychology major said he will miss the most, shepherding all of that talent into a winning stampede.

“I understand and appreciate the human spirit more than I do a play,” Meyer said. “I see people spend so much time on plays, but what about the guys doing the play? I guess that’s why my passion has been about the player, not the play.

“I always tell people, the minute you get trust you can move mountains. If you don’t have trust, you have a hard time crossing the street.”