Rob Oller: Urban Meyer rode second chances through highs and lows
For a guy who loves to be first, Urban Meyer sure is big on second chances. One could even say the former Ohio State football coach can be caricatured by his propensity to allow do-overs, both to his credit and detriment.
Reading Bill Rabinowitz’s excellent three-part series on Meyer, it struck me that even as the coach took Ohio State to a higher level of success, he also caused much of his own undoing. The best and worst of the man constantly squared off in competitive conflict.
As previously profiled in this space, Meyer’s career arc of reaching the highs (12-0 his first season and a College Football Playoff national championship in his third) before hitting the lows (three-game suspension amid accusations of overlooking the alleged domestic abuse of an assistant coach) is not exclusive to his tenure.
Jim Tressel won a BCS national championship in his second season with the Buckeyes and coached in two more title games before being forced to resign over NCAA infractions. Woody Hayes won three poll titles but exited in disgrace, fired after punching a Clemson player during the 1978 Gator Bowl.
Collectively, they are three legendary Ohio State coaches who poured into people constructively but in the end also displayed self-destructive behavior.
Maybe it’s a power and control thing with coaches? Without doubt it involves the thirst to stay on top. To succeed. To win. But I like to think Meyer’s motivations also include kindness and the faith realization that “there but for the grace of God go I.”
Whatever the main reason, Meyer made a conscious effort to reach out to those who needed a second chance.
Sometimes the helping hand proved successful. Kevin Wilson was a coach without a team after Indiana fired him following the 2016 season. Wilson, let go over allegations that he treated player injuries too lightly — an accusation he refutes — was marked as damaged goods. But Meyer saw a coach with talent for designing and calling a high-octane offense and decided to hire Wilson after the Buckeyes had been blanked by Clemson 31-0 in a 2016 playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl.
But often it seemed Meyer’s invitation to “start over” ended in disappointment and dysfunction. Especially at Florida, less so at Ohio State, the prodigals punched him in the gut.
For perspective, I reached out to people from all walks of life — including pastors, insurance salesmen, CEOs and bakers — on why the fallen deserve second chances. Some answered pragmatically, pointing out that those receiving second chances usually have been humbled enough to realize they better get things right the next time, which leads them to work harder to prove worthy of their reprieve.
Sports is full of stories in which athletes and coaches stumble, only to rise again and make the most of their second chance. One example: Tennis star Andre Agassi hit rock bottom in 1997, falling to 141th in the world as his drug abuse got the best of him. Two years later, clean and sober, he returned to the top 10 and won the French Open.
The best explanation of second chances, meanwhile, came from a factory manager who correctly pointed out that too often we equate second chances with forgiveness.
“Boundaries exist, and especially in positions of leadership there is a higher bar,” the manager said. “In those situations there is forgiveness, but there also has to be a consequence.”
In other words, forgiving someone does not necessarily mean offering them the same opportunity. That is where Meyer erred, specifically in keeping former Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith on staff too long after allegations of domestic violence surfaced.
Meyer told Rabinowitz during a two-hour phone interview that he regrets not having fired Smith for job performance issues before he did, on the eve of Big Ten media days in Chicago in 2018. Meyer had thought it better to get Smith into marriage counseling than to kick him to the curb.
No matter whether Meyer had the best interest of Smith in mind, or simply wanted to keep an excellent recruiter on his staff, it appears the Buckeyes coach confused mercy with forgiveness by offering a second chance instead of realizing that some boundaries cannot be crossed. Or when crossed do not deserve to be treated as a simple mistake.
Has Meyer learned? Hard to say. As the new coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, he offered former Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle the job of director of sports performance, despite Doyle's having left the Hawkeyes last summer under controversy, including allegations of racism and bullying.
Meyer insisted there would be no issues with Doyle going forward, but quickly changed his tune — or had it changed for him in an NFL where the coach is not king — and rescinded the offer. Essentially, Meyer got a chance to get it right.
How will Meyer be remembered at Ohio State? His legacy mostly will be tied to his 83-9 record that included the 2014 national title and a 7-0 mark against Michigan. The ending, while blemished, still saw him go out with a Rose Bowl win against Washington.
Yet there remains the feeling his seven seasons could have gone even better. If only Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue offered second chances.