Urban Meyer manically built a football machine at Ohio State, then meticulously planned his exit

The Washington Post

One of the most resounding coaching careers in American college football reached the end of another decorated chapter on Tuesday, when Urban Meyer announced his retirement at age 54 after a seven-season, 82-9 run at Ohio State, the fourth university to hire him and then win frequently.

Discussing his decision at a news conference in Columbus, Ohio, the native of Ashtabula, Ohio, on Lake Erie, said, "It's not healthy, but I came to work every day with the fear of letting people like Archie Griffin and Buckeye Nation down," a reference to the 1974-75 Heisman Trophy winner who still graces the place. Such drive was worrisome when combined with the headaches Meyer has suffered intermittently for two decades, caused by an arachnoid cyst in his brain.

"The style of coaching that I've done for 33 years is a very intense, very demanding," he said, before veering to another sentence. "I tried to delegate more and be CEO-ish more, and the product started to fail. … The challenge was, Can I continue to do that in that style?"

When he decided he could not, he said he combined that with other factors, including "the fact we have an elite coach on our staff." That coach, who sat to Meyer's left at the dais Tuesday, is Ryan Day, the 39-year-old offensive coordinator who played quarterback at New Hampshire under Chip Kelly and has coached for New Hampshire, Boston College, Florida, Temple, Boston College again, Temple again, Boston College again, the Philadelphia Eagles, the San Francisco 49ers and Ohio State, for the last two seasons.

"It didn't take long to learn what the expectations were," Day said. "Number one, win the rivalry game [against Michigan], and number two, win every game after that."

Meyer said he hired Day thinking him "a very good coach," but "found out he's far past those thoughts; he's elite."

When Day said, "We continued to force defenses to cover the entire field this year," he rather echoed what Meyer said at age 36 in his introduction at Bowling Green in December 2000: "We want to force the opposition to defend the entire field using spread formations."

Oppositions did suffer as Meyer maniacally built the third-best winning percentage (.853) in the major-college game's 149-year history, behind only the Notre Dame stalwarts Knute Rockne (.881) and Frank Leahy (.864), just ahead of Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne. The .853 came about during Meyer's two seasons at Bowling Green (17-6), two seasons at Utah (22-2), six seasons at Florida (65-15) and seven seasons at Ohio State (82-9, with one national championship, one other College Football Playoff appearance and three Big Ten championships).

Images also suffered at times. Meyer's programs at Florida and Ohio State knew their share of taint, the former much more so than the latter, with at least 31 player arrests according to a Boston Globe investigative series about the life of Florida and New England Patriots tight end, Aaron Hernandez, who died of suicide in prison in April 2017 after a murder conviction.

Meyer will coach Ohio State (12-1) in his first Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 against Pacific-12 Washington (10-3).

"I believe I will not coach again," said Meyer, who stepped away from Florida in December 2009, citing health issues born of stress. He recanted that decision by Jan. 1, 2010, to coach another season, which at 8-5 became the worst of his 17 as a head coach. In December 2010, Meyer stepped down again, taking a year away before becoming the coach at the flagship program of his native state on Nov. 28, 2011.

He said he timed the decision ahead of the early signing period in recruiting, which comes this month, so as to refrain from misleading prospects. He said he had grappled with the issue of the headaches since 2014, when he had surgery to alleviate some of the pressure, and that 2015 had been "relatively good," with 2016 "OK," and 2017 "a tough one." He referred to an episode around Ohio State's 39-38 comeback win over Penn State on Oct. 28, 2017, when the headaches "hit real hard."

"As they said," he said of Ohio State's medical staff, "it's not your elbow or your foot."

The ensuing week, Ohio State lost 55-24 at Iowa, a happening widely presumed to have cost the Buckeyes a College Football Playoff berth.

While citing health and the presence of an "elite" coach on staff, he also fielded a question about whether the list of factors could include the troubled summer of 2018, when Meyer took coast-to-coast censure and a three-game suspension after an investigation of his handling of the employment and firing of assistant coach Zach Smith, a subject of domestic violence allegations stretching back to 2009.

"Sure," Meyer said.

He expects to remain around Ohio State in some capacity, and Athletic Director Gene Smith said he hopes Meyer's wife, Shelley, will remain an adjunct professor in the university's School of Nursing. Meyer and Smith spoke repeatedly of their bond, with Smith saying, "What Urban has brought to Buckeye Nation by far exceeded expectations," calling him "an elite coach" and "a brilliant leader of men" with "a command of football strategy second to none."

"His presence has elevated Big Ten football," Smith said.

"You rock it, brother," Smith also said.

Smith said, "A hallmark of great leadership is to leave a program better than you found it," and Meyer found it shortly after an upheaval early this decade that led to Jim Tressel's departure as head coach and a 6-7 finish in 2011 under interim coach Luke Fickell. Meyer followed upon the 6-7 with a 12-0 in 2012, even while ineligible for the Big Ten title and for a bowl game after an NCAA investigation that caused the upheaval. From there, he went 12-2, 14-1, 12-1, 11-2, 12-2 and 9-1 this season after Day began it 3-0 as interim.

"This would be a tough day if we were a mess," Meyer said. "This would be a really, really tough day." He said the thought of discontinuing had crossed his mind as he exited the stadium on Nov. 24 after Ohio State's startling 62-39 romp through Michigan, the nation's No. 1 defense at the time. The presence of Day "made this decision not as difficult as I thought," Meyer said, "because I know the infrastructure is going to be secure with Coach Marotti and the rest of the staff."

That referenced Mickey Marotti, the revered strength coach who also worked with Meyer at Florida. "It's rare," Smith said, "that you have the opportunity to create a succession plan where you have the right guy in place." He said he and Meyer "recognized the talent that Ryan Day had, early," as Day joined the line that includes past coaches Paul Brown, Woody Hayes, Earle Bruce, John Cooper, Tressel and Meyer.

Day, born and raised in Manchester, New Hampshire, recalled watching Ohio State-Michigan games from his "grandfather's couch." He had turned down the head-coaching job at Mississippi last January, an inkling that Ohio State might have been prepping him for something larger and louder. While Day becomes the first coach since 1946 to make Ohio State his first head-coaching job, Meyer said, "I wasn't knee-deep in it [already], like he was," when Meyer took over at Bowling Green at age 36 in December 2000.

On Sept. 1, 2001, Meyer began with a game at Missouri, where the Bowling Green University president addressed the team, thanked it for representing the school and said that mattered more than the scoreboard. The president departed the room, whereupon Meyer emphasized that the scoreboard did matter.

Bowling Green upset Missouri, 20-13.

First published by The Washington Post

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