When The Going Gets Tough, Urban Meyer Gets Going

Urban Meyer has led two programs to national championships and left both due to “health issues”. Joe Nicely takes a look at his career and future

When the news broke last week that Urban Meyer would be retiring from his position as the head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes due to “health issues”, I wasn’t very surprised. As a lifelong fan of the University of Tennessee, I was familiar with Meyer from his time at the University of Florida. The arc of Meyer’s tenure and exit from Columbus, seemed eerily similar to his time at Florida and his first “retirement” from football seven years ago.

Meyer’s ability is undeniable and he is without question one of the greatest college football coaches of his generation. He has won three national championships, two at Florida and one at Ohio St. His offensive concepts have helped to revolutionize the game and his tenacity on the recruiting trail is legendary. However, longevity has never been Meyer’s strong suit. While he is excellent at building programs and winning championships, Meyer’s drive to win has often caused problems that he doesn’t bother hanging around to deal with.

Bowling Green

After working his way up the college football ranks as an assistant, Meyer landed his first head coaching job at Bowling Green in 2001. He was immediately successful. Meyer turned around a Bowling Green squad that had gone 2-9 in 2000, finishing his first season at 8-3. Bowling Green played well in Meyer’s second season, going 9-3 in 2002. It should be noted that Meyer had a walk-on player named Zach Smith at Bowling Green, the grandson of his mentor, former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce. This is also when the groundwork was laid for what would become Meyer’s offensive attack. His use of an athletic QB named Josh Harris was the precursor to how he would utilize QBs in the future. Which takes us to Meyer’s next stop…

Utah

After his successful, but brief, stay at Bowling Green, Meyer bolted for the University of Utah in 2003. It was here that Meyer would find the player to make his innovative offensive scheme take flight, Alex Smith. Smith’s unique blend of athleticism and traditional throwing ability made him the perfect fit for Meyer’s shotgun-based version of the West Coast offense colliding with the option. Meyer and Smith hit the ground running, leading Utah to a conference championship and a 10-2 record. Things really started humming in 2004, Meyer’s second season in Salt Lake City. Led by the play of Smith, Meyer’s Utes went a perfect 11-0 and earned a BCS bid into the Fiesta Bowl, where they defeated Pittsburgh to finish 12-0. This season was pivotal to Meyer’s career for a couple of reasons. Utah’s ability to breakthrough the BCS “glass ceiling” that had been in place against mid-major programs for years gained the team and Meyer national exposure. The success of Meyer’s offense with Smith at QB signaled a seismic shift in the way the college game was played. With Smith heading off to become the number one pick in the upcoming NFL draft, Meyer once again decided to leave for greener pastures after just a two-year stop at Utah. It would mark the last time he left a program on a high note.

Florida

Rather than face the upcoming season without Smith, Meyer decided to take his talents to Gainesville. This was the game changer. Meyer’s decision to accept Florida’s offer of $14 million for seven years in 2005, kick started the trend of mid-major coaches jumping to traditional powerhouse programs for huge money, a trend that still exists in today’s world of college football. This is also a good point to stop and appreciate just how meteoric Meyer’s rise was. He went from coaching wide receivers at Notre Dame in 2000 to accepting a $14 million head coaching offer from an SEC powerhouse in 2005, while never spending more than two years at the same school along the way. (Meyer was also offered the head coaching job at Notre Dame after Utah’s perfect season, but chose Florida). One noteworthy hire that Meyer made after accepting the Florida job in 2005, was a young graduate assistant by the name of Zach Smith, his former player from Bowling Green. Concerns about Meyer’s offense working in the SEC were quickly laid to rest, as the Gators went 9-3 in his first season.

Meyer’s second season with the Gators in 2006 was remarkable for two reasons; he won his first national championship with a 13-1 record and it was Tim Tebow’s freshman year at Florida. Though the Gators were primarily quarterbacked by Chris Leak throughout the season, Tebow became a national phenomenon. Just has he had upgraded from Josh Harris at Bowling Green to Alex Smith at Utah, Meyer found what would be the final step of the QB evolution in Tebow at Florida.

On the heels of his national championship win, Meyer was able to recruit at an elite level. He had access to athletes the caliber of which he had never seen at Bowling Green and Utah. Two such athletes that Meyer had doggedly recruited as part of the incoming 2007 freshman class were Cam Newton and Aaron Hernandez. Meyer believed he had found his next quarterback prodigy in Newton and his pursuit of Hernandez was fervent. After convincing Hernandez to abandon his hometown choice of the University of Connecticut, Meyer flew to Bristol to personally persuade Hernandez’s high school principal to let him graduate a semester early in order to enroll early at Florida. Both Newton and Hernandez will play key roles in Meyer’s successes and failures at Florida.

The Gators offense continued to roll in 2007, well enough for Tim Tebow to win the Heisman Trophy. However, Florida struggled on the defensive side of the ball and finished with a 9-4 record after a bowl game loss to Michigan.

Meyer’s fourth season with Florida in 2008 was a harbinger of what was to come in his career…excellence on the field, with chaos off it. With Tebow taking a physical pounding in 2007, Meyer announced prior to the upcoming season that sophomore Cam Newton would share time at QB in order to help lessen the toll on Tebow. The Gators 2008 season opener against Hawaii would serve as an interesting microcosm for the upcoming years ahead. Newton came into the game, only to quickly suffer an ankle injury that would sideline him indefinitely, while Hernandez (along with stars Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes) watched from the Florida bench as “secret punishment” for failed drug tests. As the Gators chomped-up opponents on Saturdays, they were dealt a major blow off the field when the injured Newton was arrested in November on felony charges for stealing a laptop from a fellow student. Meyer suspended the already-injured Newton and the charges were eventually dropped after Newton completed a pre-trial diversion program. Hernandez made his way back onto the field after the one-game suspension, starting 11 of 13 games and playing a key role in Florida’s run to a second national championship under Meyer. Days before they defeated Oklahoma for the national championship, Cam Newton announced that he would be transferring out of the program. News later surfaced that Newton faced expulsion from the University of Florida due to academic dishonesty, though there had been no form of discipline handed down by Meyer for any issues.

The 2009 season would mark the beginning of the end to Meyer’s career at Florida. With graduate assistant Zach Smith arrested for aggravated battery on a pregnant woman in June of 2009 (which Meyer later admitted to knowing about), Hernandez repeatedly failing drug tests, and Tebow entering his senior season with his heir apparent Newton now gone…things were reaching a boiling point for Meyer’s program off the field. The team played well, going 12-0 in the regular season. However, the Gators were defeated by an up-and-coming Alabama program in the SEC Championship. The loss would prove to be a true changing of the guard in the conference. Just hours after the 32-13 drubbing at the hands of the Crimson Tide, Meyer was admitted into a Gainesville hospital due to chest pains and dehydration. Due to the health scare, Meyer announced his resignation from the University of Florida on December 26, 2010. However, in a preview of the public flip-flops that would happen later in his career, Meyer reversed his position just a day later and announced that he would take an indefinite leave of absence rather than resigning. He would coach the team to a Sugar Bowl victory before taking some time off.

Meyer resumed full-time coaching duties in March of 2010 in preparation for what would be his final season in Gainesville. With the public (the handling of the Newton issue and his resignation/leave of absence) and private (Zach Smith’s arrest and Hernandez’s behavior and drug problems) issues of the previous year still looming around the program, the Gators struggled. Tebow’s graduation and Hernandez’s forced departure to the NFL draft left huge holes for the team. Florida’s talent level seemed sub-par and it’s offensive scheme looked stale. The Gators finished the season 7-5, Meyer’s worst record as a head coach. With the program seemingly headed downhill, Meyer again resigned his position in December of 2010, this time for real, and again cited health issues. Meyer’s stint at Florida was undoubtedly successful on the field and troubling off it. He won two national championships, but had 31 of his players arrested during his time at Florida. Meyer’s disciplinary style during his time at Florida could be described as “kinder and gentler” toward star players. His handling, or lack thereof, of both Hernandez’s and Smith’s off the field behavior issues are disturbing and would impact several lives down the road.

Ohio State

Less than a year after his resignation from the University of Florida, Meyer was suddenly cured of any health issues when he accepted the head coaching position and a contract worth over $25 million at Ohio State University in November 2011. While the roster he left behind at Florida was full of undisciplined players with mediocre talent (Florida failed to have an All-SEC player in its first season after Meyer left), the Buckeyes’ cupboard was fully stocked, thanks to former coach Jim Tressel. Though Meyer inherited a postseason ban in his first year, the Ohio State program was full of NFL-caliber players and, perhaps most importantly, played in a conference that didn’t have an Alabama juggernaut to contend with. Despite having a clean slate in Columbus, one of Meyer’s decisions upon receiving the job, was to bring in his old player and GA Zach Smith to coach wide receivers. Meyer knew about Smith’s arrest for assaulting his then-pregnant wife in 2009, why he would bring aboard Smith and all of his baggage is anyone’s guess, but it would prove to be a mistake of epic proportions. You also have to wonder who at Ohio State was vetting Meyer and his staff. It didn’t take a licensed private eye to find out some of the things that had been going on at Florida on Meyer’s watch and Smith’s history alone should have thrown up a red flag. It shows that, despite coming off an embarrassing scandal under coach Jim Tressel, Ohio State was focused solely on winning football games. As is often the case, it takes two to tango.

Just has he had at every stop of his career, Meyer hit the ground running. Coaching Jim Tressel’s players, Meyer led the Buckeys to a 12-0 record in 2012. While the program was still on a postseason ban, one thing was clear: Urban Meyer was back.

After going 12-2 in 2013, Meyer would win his third national championship in the 2014 season. Powered by future NFL stars like Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa, the Buckeyes defeated Oregon in the national championship game to finish at 14-1. It solidified Meyer’s greatness in the college game and earned him “living legend” status.

Following the 2014 championship season, Meyer and the Buckeyes would continue to dominate the Big Ten conference and arch-rival Michigan. Meyer had seemed to learn at least one lesson from his time at Florida and managed to keep his players out of trouble in Columbus, but 2015 would bring up some familiar issues from one of his assistant coaches. In late October of 2015, wide receivers coach Zach Smith was involved in domestic violence and felonious assault charges with his wife Courtney. Less than a month later in November of 2015, Courtney Smith filed charges of stalking against Zach with police. In both instances, no charges were filed and Smith faced no disciplinary action from neither Meyer nor Ohio State for the incidents.

With Meyer continuing to win big and Smith still on the staff, everything seemed hunky-dory in Columbus. The Buckeyes captured another Big Ten championship in 2017 and were primed to be a national championship contender in the upcoming 2018 season. Then, Big Ten media days happened…

In an attempt to cut off a pending news story that Zach Smith had been arrested for domestic violence-related charges in 2009 and 2015 at the pass, Meyer fired Smith on July 23 2018, one day before appearing at the Big Ten media days in Chicago on July 24. News of the firing broke before Meyer’s press conference and it only raised more difficult questions for the coach to address. Things did not go well. Meyer admitted to having knowledge of the 2009 incident involving Smith while they were at Florida, but denied any knowledge of the 2015 incident. This is where things went off the rails for the coach who had perfected the art of turning a blind eye to problems within his program.

Brett McMurphy led the charge on this story and his reporting throughout this period was absolutely top-notch. Shortly after Meyer denied knowing of the 2015 incident at his press conference, McMurphy reported that the actual 2015 police report had been altered by the Powell Police Department and that both Urban Meyer’s wife Shelley and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith had knowledge of the 2015 Smith incident. How did McMurphy know this? He had “the receipts”, in the form of a series of text messages between Courtney Smith and Shelley Meyer. Not to mention, Zach Smith himself admitting that AD Smith had pulled him off a 2015 recruiting trip after learning of the matter.

Ohio State placed Meyer on paid administrative leave on August 1 in order to “investigate” the matter. The ensuing investigation and its findings proved to be a joke of epic proportions, with Meyer using the old faithful “health issues” as an excuse for all his errors big and small. The powers that be at Ohio State, either due to blatant ignorance or in a poorly disguised attempt to protect their beloved football program (Hint: It’s the latter), decided to issue a three-game suspension to Meyer and a slap on the wrist to AD Smith on August 22 of 2018.

After going 3-0 under interim coach Ryan Day, Ohio State welcomed Meyer back and went on to a 12-1 season. Following a victory in the Big Ten championship game, but after being denied a bid into the College Football Playoff, the 54-year-old Meyer announced his retirement from coaching on December 4, citing, you guessed it, his old pal health issues as the reason and essentially bailing on a university that risked its credibility to keep him as their football coach.

Looking Back & Moving Forward

Urban Meyer is a talented football coach, I’m not here to argue that point, but he his definitely a coach with flaws. You can’t blame Meyer for quickly climbing the career ladder. Leaving Bowling Green and Utah for bigger, higher-paying jobs isn’t something to find fault in, but it is interesting that Meyer never really had to deal with the long-term complications of running a program during his two-year stays at each school. His ability to do that would be tested at the University of Florida and it was a test that he failed miserably. Meyer’s “look the other way” attitude when it came to Florida’s star players created core problems and inhibited his ability to sustain long-term success for the program, not to mention the impact it had on the lives of his players and staff. When Meyer saw the Gators’ ship going down, both on and off the field, he quickly jumped off and left the university to clean up the mess.

Meyer’s move to Ohio State after being out of coaching for less than a year, confirmed that his “health issues” were bogus. His decision to bring Zach Smith into the fold in Columbus was both in-character for Meyer and reckless for Ohio State. While he seemed to learn from some of his mistakes at Florida, and kept his Buckeye players out of trouble for the most part, Meyer’s drive to win and his ego proved to be his ultimate downfall. When enough folks refer to you as a living legend, you start believing it and Meyer began to feel that he could do whatever he wanted with “his guys”, like Zach Smith. The sad part of the story, is that Meyer was actually right…he could do whatever he wanted, as Ohio State’s sham of an investigation and decision to only suspend him proved.

So why leave now? With his suspension already served, why did Meyer bail on an Ohio State program that risked its very credibility to keep him? The answer is as complicated as Urban Meyer’s personality, but it boils down to his inability to deal with the consequences of his actions. Will he coach again? I have no doubt that he will. Brian Kelly better continue to win…and sleep with one eye open.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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