My social media timeline has been overwhelmed by the breaking news of Urban Meyer’s impending retirement from the Head Coach position at Ohio State. As an OSU alum and a former Ohio resident for 25 years, I really can’t escape it, thanks to all of my friends and colleagues who care deeply about the football program. (Spoiler alert—I don’t care at all.) Meyer has had serious health issues during this past season, including the Indiana game (pictured above) when he did his best Hillary Clinton impersonation, falling to a knee on the sideline.
The numbers are impossible to ignore—three national championships (2 at Florida, 1 at OSU), seven conference championships, countless players drafted by the NFL. For Ohio State fans, the most important number was his spotless record against the University of Michigan—7-0, the only Buckeye coach to never lose in the Big Game.
Of course, that’s the just tip of the iceberg when it comes to Meyer and his story.
On November 23rd, 2011, when OSU hired Meyer, I posted the following to my Facebook page:
“Ohio State just fired a coach for failing to control his players and subsequently lying about it. Now they want to hire a coach who had 31 players arrested in 5 years at Florida. Great idea!”
Of course, I was referring to former OSU coach Jim Tressel’s termination for lying about Terrelle Pryor’s sale of his uniform pieces and other trinkets, a serious violation of NCCA rules, as well as their hiring of Meyer, who had a questionable record at Florida, to say the least.
This is a guy who has been accused of looking the other way when talented players broke the law, most notably with Aaron Hernandez, who was involved in several incidents (including a double shooting) during Meyer’s tenure at the University of Florida. Hernandez was later found guilty of murdering Odin Lloyd after he left Florida.
He was also accused of looking the other way when one of his assistants, Zach Smith, was accused of abusing his wife. Smith’s wife claimed that Meyer was aware of the abuse. Her lawyer shared texts that Courtney Smith had sent to Meyer’s wife, Shelley, detailing her husband’s abuse of her, including photos. Meyer first said that he knew nothing of the allegations, and then later said that he “misspoke.” Meyer was ultimately suspended for the first three games of the 2018 season.
But college football is a funny game. The players aren’t really the stars—they only play on Saturdays for a couple of years before they move on. The coaches, whether it’s Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, or Brian Kelly, are ultimately the stars of the game. They become of faces of massive institutions. And when they win, they become icons, maybe even gods. While Columbus, Ohio is a much bigger city than Tuscaloosa, Alabama or South Bend, Indiana, it’s still a college town at its heart, and Urban Meyer was the biggest name in that college town because if there’s one thing Meyer knows how to do, it’s win. In that way, Urban Meyer has been, for all intents and purposes, the Ohio State University for the seven years.
It’s also notable that Meyer chose to retire after his team was left out of the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive season, despite a 12-1 record and a Big Ten Championship. If Ohio State had been selected over Oklahoma for the final playoff spot, I don’t think that there’s any way that Meyer announces his retirement today. But they’re a big favorite in the Rose Bowl against a mediocre Washington team, and Meyer will likely get to ride off into the sunset as a winner in a game that he has never coached in, a game that he has always said was a “bucket list” game for him.
I’m neither a college football fanatic nor a “woke” SJW, but I do know the game of football inside and out, so perhaps I’m in a unique position to judge the Meyer Era at Ohio State. He won a national title, and he never lost to Michigan. Despite what the east coast media wants to say about his “legacy,” it’s safe to say that he’ll never pay for a meal again in Franklin County. But outside of Central Ohio, I think it gets a little bit more complicated. He was suspended in his final season, a victim of his own bad decisions in the #MeToo era. Much like Woody Hayes and The Punch and Jim Tressel and The Tattoos, whenever Urban Meyer’s name is mentioned in the future, The Texts will be mentioned.
This is the second time that Meyer has “retired” from coaching, the first being in 2009. That retirement lasted but a year before Meyer accepted the job at Ohio State. Pundits on ESPN have spent much of the morning wondering if this retirement will be similarly short, or if this is the real deal. He’s only 54 years old—Nick Saban is 67. Meyer could go to another school, say, Notre Dame, where he also has ties, and have another entire 10-15 year run there. All accounts of Meyer say that he’s obsessed with his legacy, his place in the history of college football. If it ends here and now, he won’t have a chance to clear his name. My money would be on his return to college football, maybe in a year or two, to a high-profile program. He claims that the stress is killing him, but most men like Meyer would rather die on the sidelines than retire comfortably to the rest home.
So no, I can’t definitively say that Meyer will be remembered as either a hero or a villain. Neither can he. And I think that’s what will ultimately drive him back into coaching. He’ll want to be the good guy. Don’t we all?