Urban Meyer: A great coach, a complex legacy

Ray Stein The Columbus Dispatch
Urban Meyer exits the field as Ohio State football coach for the last time on Jan. 1, 2019, a 28-23 win over Washington in the Rose Bowl. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

Football coaches at all levels — from the smallest high schools all the way to the NFL — are hired and fired for one principal reason: their ability to win games.

A coach can churn out model citizens by the dozens and generate untold charm and enthusiasm on the offseason rubber-chicken circuit, but if his teams don’t get it done between the lines in the fall, he’ll find himself in the unemployment line come winter.

By those measures, at least, Urban Meyer is one of the most successful coaches in college football to ever drape a whistle around his neck.

After Tuesday’s win over Washington in the Rose Bowl, Meyer retired from Ohio State with a record of 187-32, an .854 winning percentage that ranks third all-time among college coaches with at least 10 years of experience.

Urban Meyer: A look back at his career and seven seasons as Ohio State coach

Meyer’s winning percentage of .902 (83-9) in seven seasons at Ohio State is the best among OSU’s 24 coaches, a group that counts six members of the College Football Hall of Fame, including Meyer’s four most recent predecessors — Jim Tressel, John Cooper, his mentor Earle Bruce and Woody Hayes.

Like all of those coaches, Meyer’s Buckeyes won way more games than they lost (as did his teams at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, where he coached for a combined 10 seasons before accepting the OSU job in 2011).

But also like those former Ohio State legends, Meyer’s lasting legacy cannot be neatly explained by wins and losses alone. There are many other factors — on the field and off — that shape how Meyer will be considered now that his career is over.

It’s complicated.

For starters, there’s the notion that he is done coaching. Is he? Meyer, 54, said he was at the Dec. 4 news conference in which the school announced his departure and the elevation of Ryan Day as his replacement, and last month Meyer accepted a position as an assistant athletic director under AD Gene Smith.

So why are there Las Vegas gambling sites accepting bets on where Meyer will be coaching in 2020? (USC is the favorite, by the way.) Yes, it’s true that you can place a bet on absolutely anything, but it’s also true that Meyer has a reputation for being, shall we say, a man whose word is not exactly gospel.

He resigned from Florida late in the 2009 season after suffering chest pains following a conference-championship game loss to Alabama, only to change his mind and return to the Gators a day later.

The next year he quit for good, saying he needed to spend more time with his family. By September, though, he was traveling the country each weekend as a game analyst for ESPN and by late November he had agreed to become OSU’s coach.

Meyer’s Florida teams won two national titles, in 2006 and ’08, and produced 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, but Gators fans remain rankled about how his exit unfolded, as well as the state of the UF program upon his departure.

At Ohio State, Meyer largely avoided integrity questions until the summer of 2018, when allegations of domestic abuse by assistant coach Zach Smith surfaced and then spun out of control in part because Meyer told reporters at the Big Ten media gathering that he had no knowledge of a 2015 incident involving Smith and his now ex-wife, Courtney.

Zach Smith had never been charged with a crime, yet Meyer fired him the night before the Big Ten meeting for Smith’s failure to inform Meyer of a civil protection order against him. Meyer eventually was suspended for the first three games this season by university president Michael V. Drake.

Meyer has acknowledged that the events of this summer played a role in his retirement — he also cited severe headaches caused by an arachnoid cyst on his brain — and there is no denying that Ohio State and Meyer were stained by the ordeal.

Among his OSU predecessors, Tressel wears a similar scarlet letter for lying to NCAA investigators about his players’ roles in trading memorabilia for tattoos, and Hayes had his own set of character transgressions, not the least of which was his punching an opposing player at the 1978 Gator Bowl, which triggered his ouster.

Meyer shares other traits with the men who served as Ohio State coaches in the six decades before his arrival. Like Hayes and Tressel, he won a national championship, and that alone will cement a winning legacy in Ohio among Buckeyes fans.

But Meyer also has shown a propensity to lose shots at other championships, often in spectacular fashion. In some respects, it’s almost shocking that a coach who wins 90 percent of his games over seven seasons has played for only one national title (and won it, in 2014).

The Buckeyes have one playoff semifinal loss, a humiliating defeat to Clemson in 2016, and would have been swinging with the likes of the Tigers and Alabama in other years if not for embarrassing conference losses to Iowa in 2017 and Purdue this season.

Are such unexpected drubbings painful to Buckeye Nation? You betcha, especially in this era when there is so much emphasis on the College Football Playoff, and also considering that Ohio State was favored in each of Meyer’s nine losses.

But do they taint Meyer’s legacy at Ohio State? Hardly.

After all, he won all seven of his matchups against Michigan — no OSU coach can make that claim — and he maintained a revolving door of top-notch recruits and top-flight assistant coaches. He also instituted life-lesson programs that work to prepare his players for life after football.

Besides, he is not alone among OSU coaches in failing to deliver college football’s ultimate prize to a rabid fan base. Hayes practically made a habit of it in the 1970s, and Bruce, Cooper and Tressel all felt the sting of coming up short. It’s the nature of the game, especially in Columbus.

In the days leading up to his final game, Meyer showed little interest in exploring such issues, saying it was “inappropriate to spend time thinking about that,” because he had asked his players to eliminate all distractions, so he should, too.

But in his final pregame meeting with reporters, he seemed to acknowledge the relevant aspects of his legacy. Neither he nor his team were always perfect, but no one could accuse Meyer of taking the easy way to make sure his team was prepared for life on the field and off it.

“It has not been perfect, but … you can’t tap us on the shoulder and say, ‘Boy, you just need to work a little bit harder,’ ” Meyer said. “There’s been some great success. I’m very pleased.”

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