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  • After a tumultuous season on and off the field, Urban Meyer is getting the ending he wanted after turning the Buckeyes into an annual juggernaut.
By Andy Staples
December 04, 2018

Urban Meyer looked like a different person. This couldn’t be the same guy who, nine days earlier, bent over, locked his hands to his knees and stared at the ground while his team huddled a few feet away during a tight game at Maryland. This couldn’t be the guy who looked so uncomfortable as he started the season on a three-game suspension and then tried for two months to decipher why his defense gave up so many big plays and why the Buckeyes couldn’t get their run game to dominate opposing defenses.

As Meyer sat in his office last Monday and swapped stories about days gone by, he smiled easily. He seemed loose. It seemed as if none of the stuff described above had ever happened. Sure, a 62–39 beatdown of Michigan as an underdog—such as the one Meyer engineered two days earlier—would make any Ohio State coach happy, but the sheer lightness of the mood during the week of a conference championship game felt as unusual for Meyer as his sideline behavior the previous few weeks had felt.

Maybe it was because he knew. If the Buckeyes beat Northwestern, they might make the College Football Playoff, but at worst, he’d get to enjoy his first Rose Bowl as a head coach and then he could ride off as the sun set over the San Gabriel mountains. As endings go, finishing in Pasadena would be ideal for a guy from Ashtabula, Ohio, who grew up to become the head coach of his state’s favorite team.

Meyer will announce his retirement during a press conference Tuesday at 2 p.m. He’ll coach in the Rose Bowl against Washington, and then he’ll turn over the program to offensive coordinator Ryan Day, who proved his readiness in August and September while Meyer was on administrative leave and then later suspended for his handling of multiple situations involving fired Buckeyes receivers coach Zach Smith. Meyer will retire at 54 with a career record of 186–32 across tenures at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State. He won national titles at Florida in 2006 and ’08 and at Ohio State in ’14. At Ohio State, Meyer had one of the most dominant runs any coach has ever had, going 82–9 and 54–4 in Big Ten play with three Big Ten titles.

The Smith affair will complicate Meyer’s legacy at Ohio State just as the arrest records of some of Meyer’s players have complicated his legacy at Florida. Smith is the grandson of former Buckeyes coach—and Meyer mentor—Earle Bruce. Meyer fired Smith in July when domestic violence allegations made by Smith’s ex-wife Courtney from 2009 and ’15 became public. Later, an investigative report commissioned by Ohio State found that Smith—who was arrested but not charged on domestic violence allegations in Gainesville, Fla., in 2009 and neither charged nor arrested following the 2015 allegations in Ohio—had been a horrible employee whose job had been protected by Meyer at nearly every turn.

Meyer was suspended after answering a question at Big Ten media days in a way that implied there had been no such allegations. After a two-week investigation, Ohio State’s board of trustees decided to suspend Meyer for three games. He returned to the sideline Sept. 22 for Ohio State’s 49–6 win against Tulane.

All season, retirement rumors swirled around Meyer. They started when he was suspended but grew more serious as it became clear Meyer was dealing with a health issue. Meyer told Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports that headaches caused by an arachnoid cyst in his brain were bothering him just as they were in 2009 at Florida. He resigned at Florida after that season only to change his mind and coach the Gators in 2010. That decision may have been a mistake. The Gators went 8–5 and discontent with Meyer grew in Gainesville. He resigned again after 2010.

After a year spent working at ESPN, Meyer took over at Ohio State. The Buckeyes had forced out Jim Tressel in May 2011 because impending NCAA sanctions were going to make it difficult to continue employing Tressel, and Meyer inherited a team that had gone 6–7 under interim coach Luke Fickell. Meyer promptly went 12–0 in 2012, but NCAA sanctions kept the Buckeyes from playing in either the Big Ten championship or a bowl game. Meyer won the Big Ten for the first time in ’14 and then won the first College Football Playoff even though the Buckeyes were on their third quarterback of the season (Cardale Jones) because of injuries to original starter Braxton Miller and replacement J.T. Barrett.

Among college coaches working in 2018, only Alabama’s Nick Saban has accomplished more than Meyer. His first national title came against his current employer. Meyer’s Gators were heavy underdogs to Ohio State in the BCS title game following the 2006 season, but Meyer and his staff used that narrative to motivate their players to a 41–14 demolition of the Buckeyes. Though the leadup to that game was longer, the circumstances weren’t all that different from the Michigan game this season. Meyer loved that the Buckeyes were given no chance. He had the superior group of athletes, and he knew it. And when the teams met in Ohio Stadium, it became clear Meyer and his staff also had the far superior game plan.

That staff is a big reason why one of the three best jobs in college football is going to an assistant who hasn’t been a head coach before. Day, who played quarterback for Chip Kelly at New Hampshire and grew up in coaching under the former Oregon and current UCLA coach, already was viewed as a future big-time head coach before his graceful and successful handling of Meyer’s suspension. Day may make some changes, but expect many of the core pieces of Meyer’s staff to remain in place.

As the rumors swirled about Meyer’s future in the past month, staffs across the country began wondering if they might be able to poach certain members of Meyer’s staff. The two biggest names were strength coach Mickey Marotti and player personnel director Mark Pantoni. Marotti’s is considered one of the nation’s top strength coaches. Pantoni’s name isn’t widely known outside of football circles, but he’s a rock star in the business. In the past 14 years between Florida and Ohio State, he helped invent many of the recruiting pitches your favorite school now uses to try to sign the best players.

Recruiting also played a role in the timing of this announcement. The December signing period, which debuted last year, has accelerated the timeline for coaches considering leaving their jobs. With players signing two weeks from Wednesday, Ohio State had to let recruits know what to expect in the future. For two months, those recruits have been peppered with messages from staffers at other schools telling them Meyer would step down. Now, they know that’s true.

They also know that other than the all-time great coach who was in charge of the program, the staff Ohio State sold them will remain largely intact. And their new head coach is already 3–0 in charge of the Buckeyes.

Maybe Meyer knew all that last Monday as he sat in his office and basked in the glow of the Michigan win. The weight had been lifted. The future was secure. And if it had to end, the possibility of ending it in Pasadena seemed like a dream come true.

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