It’s impossible to ever totally quantify the impact a head football coach has on his program because there’s much more to it than the accumulation of championships and the matriculation of players to the NFL.
Look at what happened Tuesday in Ohio State’s locker room, moments after winning the Rose Bowl. Urban Meyer took the whistle from around his neck and symbolically looped it over the head of Ryan Day, who will officially became the 25th coach program history on Wednesday. Some of the players were crying.
Many of the players in that room will play professionally, some as soon as next season, such as quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who may trade what remains of his eligibility for a shot at being a 2019 first-round pick.
But most will not. They will not carry what Meyer thought of them onto an NFL field. They will take the lessons into life, implementing them into the formation of careers, the raising of families.
“What Urban has brought to Buckeye Nation by far exceeded expectations,” said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith on the day Meyer announced he would retire. “He’s a brilliant leader of men.”
It’s the marks these young men make in life where Meyer’s mentorship will best be measured. Of course, some of his former players, particularly at Florida, have already said their peace and it was not pretty.
Meyer’s players at Florida, including the late Aaron Hernandez, were constantly in trouble with law enforcement right up until he left in 2010. More than two dozen were arrested at one point of another.
And what of Meyer’s won comportment? He was suspended for the first three games in 2018 because of the way he bungled the case of Zach Smith, his former assistant coach.
Smith’s wife, Courtney, claimed many Meyer associates were aware of a 2015 allegation of domestic violence against her by her husband and did nothing about it.
Meyer was placed on administrative leave after the university determined he and Gene Smith, failed to properly respond to the problem.
No matter how complimentary historians may try to bury these issues, they will likely be mentioned in the top 10 paragraphs of the obituary The New York Times will someday write about him.
So as much as Meyer won, and as sad the circumstances of his departure are, let’s not think his run was not without its complications.
Moments after the win over Washington, Meyer, 54, hold ESPN he would never coach another game. This was it. One last bowl title after 33 years enveloped by a lifestyle that demands investment without the promise of an adequate return.
“I know this is relatively young, but I started young,” said Meyer. “And just very fortunate, and I do believe I’m done.”
It bears repeating: Meyer is leaving coaching at 54. Hayes was 65. Bear Bryant was 69. Bobby Bowden was 80. Joe Paterno was 82.
But the specifics were different for Meyer, who won three national championships at Florida (two) and Ohio State. It was not fatigue or boredom or pressure from trustees or alumni that forced him to retire. He was not Hayes, Earle Bruce, John Cooper and Jim Tressel. And he certainly was not Luke Fickell, whose contribution to the program’s legacy was a 6-7 record in his one-and-done 2011 season.
It was illness, the frequency and severity of headaches caused by an arachnoid cyst on his brain, that brought the idea of this end to his consciousness. Meyer has been dealing with it since 1998 and reportedly had a procedure to deal with it four years ago.
“I would be ecstatic if he didn’t [coach again],” Meyer’s wife Shelly told ESPN. “I’m done. I want him to be done. He’s too intense.”
From here, Meyer moves into athletic administration and teaching at Ohio State. His class in the university’s business school will be “Leadership and Character.” It’s also widely assumed he will resume his role as a football analyst, one he did quite well during the gap year he took between leaving Florida and arriving in Columbus.
Meyer was 83-9 in his seven seasons at Ohio State. In all, he won 187 games leading Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and the Buckeyes. Can you image how the record would have been enhanced had road losses at Iowa (2017) and Purdue (2018) not sunk his College Football Playoff aspirations?
At the end of the last one, his first-ever at the Rose Bowl, he was escorted by two of his players to midfield where a one last lime Gatorade shower, administered by Parris Campbell, was waiting.
And one might think that finally extinguished the flame. But who really knows. Florida heard the same thing from him and it didn’t stick.
“Honestly, I think he’ll get back into coaching,” said Chase Young, a sophomore defensive end. “He just loves the game of football so much – it’s just what he does. I don’t think he can just sit home.”
It was also a special day for sentimental reasons. Like he always does, Meyer took a moment between the third and fourth quarters to wander down to where the Ohio State band was to hear it play “Hang On Sloopy,” first sung by The McCoys in 1964 when Woody Hayes was in charge of the team.
If this is it, Meyer can say it ended humming, in more than one way. He took the Buckeyes to six straight New Year’s Six bowl games. He won four of them, capped off by the 2014 National Championship.
Pressure comes in all forms, you know. And for Urban Meyer, enough had finally become enough.