Urban Meyer says he hurts for players, coaches after cancellation of Big Ten football season

Bill Rabinowitz
Former Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer.

Urban Meyer knows how he’d be coping with the cancellation of the fall football season if he were still the head coach at Ohio State.

“I wouldn’t handle it well,” Meyer told The Dispatch in an interview for the Buckeyextra.com podcast.

That doesn’t come as a surprise, because, well, nobody is particularly happy about not having Buckeyes football in 2020. Meyer’s natural intensity would make that particularly hard for him to swallow.

Meyer remains close to the program he coached for seven years. He aches for players, coaches and parents facing unwanted free time in the coming months.

“I just feel for those players,” he said. “I’m heartbroken. I’ve talked to so many of those players because I know their families so well.”

Meyer said that some college football observers don’t realize all the work that players put in preparing for a season, on top of their academic responsibilities.

“You’re talking six hours a day put into this thing, and then all of a sudden it’s gone,” he said.

Coaches put in even more hours. It’s an endless grind, especially factoring in recruiting, which never stops. Meyer said he talks daily to his successor, Ryan Day.

“He’s not doing well,” Meyer said.

That stems from Day’s close relationships with his players, Meyer said, and the heartache they’re all feeling. Meyer said that when he coached, the university president and athletic director might have been his bosses, but he always felt most accountable to his players.

“There's no other profession … where your employees, or the people you lead, you go into their homes when they’re 17 years old, hug their families and promise them you’re going to take care of their kids,” Meyer said. “In corporate America, you don’t do that. You just hire people. In athletic administration or even university administration, you don’t do that.

“So that’s why you see some strong emotion, raw emotion, when you start talking about student-athletes. And I know that’s what makes Ryan the great coach that he is. He cares so deeply for his players.”

Meyer is conflicted about the Big Ten’s decision not to play this fall. He understands the severity of the coronavirus and believes the conference should trust the experts. But he also questions if the decision was premature and believes transparency was belated.

“Could we have put this thing off for a little while, like the SEC, and just buy more time and let the players continue to train?” Meyer said.

He pointed out that Ohio State players were being tested twice a week and diligently following COVID-19 protocols.

Meyer gushed about the way OSU players have handled themselves during an excruciating time. He said the letter the players wrote supporting the way Ohio State has protected them during the pandemic “brought a tear to your eye,” especially with how it contrasted with critical letters written by others, particularly Pac-12 players.

“That must mean they don’t trust your doctors,” Meyer said. “They don’t trust coaches, that they don’t trust the commissioner. And they feel like they’re being exploited. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s awful to go to work every day and not trust who you’re working with.’ I just can't imagine that.”

Ohio State has been in alignment — from players to parents to athletic director Gene Smith to new president Kristina M. Johnson — about wanting to delay the season if necessary, not cancel. Meyer said that Johnson, who officially started Monday, reached out to him.

“I’ve talked to her on the phone a couple of times and met her one time, and I’m very impressed,” he said. “I’m glad she’s here.”

Johnson was named to the Big Ten task force formed to pursue a substitute season in early 2021. Day wants that to start in January. Meyer believes that’s the only option.

“Coach Day is working very hard, along with several people and Gene about a January/February (season),” Meyer said. “I think the further you move back, if you’re talking about a true spring season, there’s no chance that’ll happen.”

Meyer will again work for Fox this season after earning positive reviews for his analysis last year. Big Ten games have been a big part of the Fox package. The network will go heavy on Big 12 games this year.

If the Big 12, SEC and ACC play while the Big Ten and Pac-12 don’t, Meyer knows how devastating that would be to those inside and outside the Ohio State program.

“How’s it going to be if Ryan Day, Chris Olave, Kerry Coombs and Justin Fields are watching Alabama play Clemson on national television or seeing teams play all year long, and they’re sitting on their hands in Columbus, Ohio?” Meyer said. “I’m not sure what you say to the players.”

Factor in that the Browns and Bengals are proceeding with their seasons, as are the Cincinnati Bearcats in the American Athletic Conference — Meyer’s son, Nate, has joined the team as a walk-on — and even high schools.

Disappointment could turn into something more visceral, he predicted.

“I think there will be rage,” Meyer said. “It’ll be a tough go.”

The Big Ten usually has been a unified conference, or at least presented a public front of unity if conflict arose. The decision not to play in 2020 has opened clear fissures. Meyer believes it’s temporary.

“I think we’ll come back together,” he said. “There are some hard feelings out there. College football is a bigger concern. I think the Big Ten will be fine. I still believe it’s the greatest entity that’s out there.

“On one of the TV shows we did, someone said, ‘Hey, this is a chance to blow up football and have college football start all over again,’ and I kind of lost my mind. I’m so tired of everybody complaining and saying how bad everything is. In my mind, there is nothing greater than college athletics. Nothing.”

But the long term does nothing for players who worked for this year and now won’t play. He spoke of Jonathon Cooper, the senior defensive end from Gahanna who chose not to play in the postseason last year to preserve redshirt status that allowed him to play in 2020.

“The reality is that Jonathon Cooper is not going to play a senior year in college football, and that’s not right with me,” Meyer said. “It’s devastating.”