Rob Oller: Urban Meyer, Paul Brown shared similar beginnings and endings at Ohio State

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Paul Brown, right, was a highly successful pro football coach because of his organization skills, according to the late Otto Graham, his star quarterback on early Cleveland Browns teams. In this 1954 photo, Graham and Brown celebrate the Browns' NFL championship victory over Detroit with Graham's father, Otto Sr.

Both men arrived with a bang and left with a headache. In between, Urban Meyer and Paul Brown each won national championships for the Ohio State football team before falling out with university bosses.

In a case of history repeating itself, Meyer, like Brown, was a ballyhooed hire with Ohio ties. Meyer grew up in Ashtabula, Brown in Massillon, and both arrived in Columbus with multiple national titles in tow. Meyer collected two Bowl Championship Series championships at Florida; Brown won four mythical state poll titles at Massillon. Two can’t-miss coaches who delivered on their promise of success.

In Brown’s case, too much success. PB took over an OSU team in 1941 that had gone 4-4 a year earlier, and within two seasons guided the Buckeyes to a 9-1 record and 1942 national title. One season later he was gone. The official reason for his departure is that after the 1943 season Brown enlisted in the Navy, where he was a lieutenant and appointed athletic director and head coach at Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago.

Paul Brown's power struggle with Lynn St. John

Unofficially, Brown and Ohio State athletic director Lynn St. John never warmed to one another. As Ohio State football historian Jack Park explained it, their relationship was chilly from the moment St. John hired the 32-year-old high school coach.

“St. John had somewhat of an ego,” Park said. “He was a pioneer of a lot of things, and served as athletic director from 1912 up to 1947 and was looked upon as one of the real leaders in the Big Ten. But he also liked to be the big guy in charge.”

As did Brown. Adding to the power struggle, St. John felt pressured into hiring Brown. As Park put it, “When Brown got the job in 1941 there was a sense it was forced down St. John’s throat.”

St. John received more than 500 letters from Ohio high school football coaches endorsing Brown for the job, of which more than a few read like beg letters.

“A lot of people thought (coaches) wanted him out of Massillon because they couldn’t beat him,” Park said.

If Brown and St. John got off on the wrong foot, the relationship soured further when Brown reportedly agreed to return to Ohio State after his two-year stint at Great Lakes, only to back out in February 1945 when offered the job coaching the Cleveland Browns of the new All-America Football Conference. The Browns joined the NFL when the AAFC folded, in 1949.

Forced to deal with Brown’s about-face, St. John removed the interim tag from Carroll Widdoes, who had coached the Buckeyes to a 9-0 record in 1944. Ohio State finished 7-2 in 1945, after which Widdoes demanded he return to his previous position as an assistant.

In a stunning move, St. John moved Widdoes to assistant and promoted Paul Bixler to head coach. The coaching swap ended with Bixler blaming pressure of the job for leaving after one season.

From Brown’s perspective, St. John never fully appreciated his coaching success, which created tension that came to a head in 1944 after the Buckeyes under Widdoes finished No. 2 in the polls. The AD offered Brown his job back, but made one thing clear.

“St. John told Brown, ‘You can come back if you want. The job is yours, but keep in mind that Carroll Widdoes has done a tremendously good job.’ That rubbed Brown the wrong way,” Park said. Indeed, in his autobiography, published in 1979, Brown revealed that he felt unwanted by Ohio State.

Urban Meyer faced similar discomfort at Ohio State

A different uncomfortable rub arrived nearly 75 years later when Meyer stood before the media massaging his left temple during his weekly news conferences. Job stress was exacerbating the discomfort caused by the arachnoid cyst in his brain, a health issue Meyer would point to in resigning after seven seasons at Ohio State, where like Brown he inherited a program coming off a disappointing season (6-7) and immediately turned it into a 12-0 winner.

More:Rob Oller | Health, off-field issues end Urban Meyer era at Ohio State

Unofficially, loosely paralleling the circumstances of Brown’s relationship with St. John, Meyer was emotionally hurt by Ohio State President Michael V. Drake, who before the 2018 season insisted the coach be suspended for his handling of domestic violence accusations made against former assistant coach Zach Smith.

Not unlike other championship football coaches at Ohio State, a burning intensity drives Urban Meyer, who left the school after the 2018 season and will coach the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars next year.

Meyer ended up receiving a three-game suspension, without pay, to start the 2018 season, and while publicly he remained supportive of Drake, the suspension left a wound that would not heal. As one media wag put it, Meyer could not get over his "heaDrake."

Unlike Brown, who jumped straight from Great Lakes to the Browns, Meyer spent two years as an analyst for Fox before taking the Jacksonville Jaguars job on Jan. 14. He and Brown are the only one-time Ohio State head coaches to become NFL head coaches after leaving the university.

Brown’s professional football path led to spectacular success: seven titles with the Browns (four in the AAFC and three in the NFL). Where will Meyer’s path lead? Certainly, he shares similar traits with Brown, who like Meyer was incredibly organized. 

“Other coaches knew as much about football but they were never as organized as the Browns were,” former Cleveland quarterback Otto Graham told The Dispatch in 2000.

Interesting that Meyer gets compared to Woody Hayes, one of his boyhood idols, when perhaps more accurately he resembles a modern-day Brown. They are two highly successful trendsetters linked by national titles and a shared sense of disrespect.

roller@dispatch.com

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