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Trying to grasp Urban Meyer’s legacy at Ohio State: While We’re Waiting

Urban Meyer
(AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

As a lifelong, die-hard, scarlet and gray bleeding Ohio State fan, and as an alum of The Ohio State University, this morning is a very bittersweet moment. Word has come out that Urban Meyer is retiring his post as head coach at Ohio State after the upcoming Rose Bowl matchup with Washington.

Some might find bittersweet to be an odd word to use. After all, Urban is one of the three best coaches in college football today. He will go down as an absolute titan of the sport, a coach who won three national titles, countless conference titles across all his stops as head coach, a sparkling 186-32 record overall including 11-3 in bowl games (with one more left to coach), and an undefeated 7-0 run against Michigan. Make no mistake, Ohio State is extremely unlikely to maintain their current run of success.

So why bittersweet? Why not just bitter? There are a couple of reasons. One, much like when Ohio State and Thad Matta parted ways there was a part of me happy that Coach Matta could focus on his health, I also think if all reports about Urban Meyer’s health are true, then him being able to focus on his health is a good thing for him. Secondly, you also have to consider the complicated legacy of Urban Meyer.

I don’t know how history will remember Coach Meyer. At Ohio State, he will always be a legendary figure and generally revered. But nationally? I don’t know. How do Florida fans feel about him? How will Ohio State fans feel if (when?) he takes another job somewhere else? How do we weigh the scandals, lack of discipline, health concerns, and loyalty to coaches with a dubious history and/or personal connection to him against the nearly unrivaled run of success on the field?

To be clear, there is not a universal love for Urban Meyer among the Ohio State community. I know plenty of fans and alumni (more so alumni than fans) who have been sorely disappointed with the things we have learned about the Zach Smith issue at Ohio State and how Urban handled it. They are the minority viewpoint, but it’s not an insignificant number. And all of this speaks to the complicated nature of this issue.

The football team at Ohio State matters in Ohio. Reasonable people can disagree on the merit of this, but this is a football state to the very core. You can find pockets of Michigan and Notre Dame fans in northern Ohio, there are some Penn State fans in eastern Ohio, West Virginia in the southeast, and tons of Cincinnati fans in the south. But Ohio State is the program that largely transcends all of these regions. The football team at Ohio State is a point of pride for so many in this state. And for seven remarkable seasons, Urban Meyer has delivered winning and recruiting at a level never really seen before at Ohio State. When it comes to success, Urban Meyer has more than delivered, and for that reason, he will remain a beloved figure to so many in Ohio.

It’s funny if you really think about it, how incredibly lucky Ohio State was to get Urban in the first place. If you recall, Ohio State was mired in scandal before Urban got here. The once clean-cut image of “The Senator” Jim Tressel was damaged when news leaked that he didn’t report his knowledge of players selling their own trinkets to pay for tattoos. Tressel was eventually forced to step down and given a show-cause penalty that essentially ended his coaching career. Ohio State was given a postseason ban and placed on probation. Typically when this happens, a program is set back. Somehow, though, Ohio State rose out of the ashes of that scandal and landed the most prized head coach candidate in the land, Urban Meyer. That isn’t how these things are supposed to happen. But it did.

OSU fans were well familiar with Urban. Not just because he was an Ohio guy who had gotten his start under Earle Bruce, but also because Ohio State was embarrassed in the 2007 National Championship game by Meyer’s Florida Gators team. Prior to that game, it really felt like Ohio State one of the best coaches in college football. It felt like Ohio State was one of the premier programs in the land. They had knocked off Miami in 2003 to win the National Championship, and here OSU had Heisman winner Troy Smith and the unanimous number one team in the country. That 2007 loss, followed up by another National Championship Game loss the following year, seemed to shift that paradigm. When Tim Tebow took over at Florida and Urban won yet another Championship, only Nick Saban’s growing Alabama powerhouse could rival Urban.

None of this is to speak ill of Jim Tressel and what he did for Ohio State. He turned everything around for the program. He flipped the balance of power in the Michigan rivalry on its head. He restored Ohio State as a true national power. When Urban took over, though, it felt one of the best drivers in the world being given a Ferrari. Things were about to be very different at Ohio State.

Urban turned Ohio State into a true national recruiting power. Year after year Urban was bringing in five-star recruits from across the country. He was winning at an incredible rate on the field, and he continued Ohio State’s run of dominance over Michigan. He won the 2015 National Championship and he did it in style, with a third-string QB leading improbable wins over Alabama and top-ranked Oregon.

When Urban Meyer was hired, I had remarked that it would be hard for him to match Tressel’s results over his ten seasons in charge. Urban didn’t make it ten years, but in no way did he slow down the program from where Tressel had it. In ten seasons, Tressel went 106-22 (9-1 against Michigan), 6-4 in Bowl Games (5-3 in BCS Bowl Games), and seven Big Ten titles. In Urban’s seven seasons he went 82-9 (7-0 against Michigan), 4-2 in Bowl Games (2-1 in CFP games), and three Big Ten titles.

In recent years, there have been plenty of questions about Urban Meyer’s health. Health issues forced him to step down at Florida, and there was always a fear that they could impact his tenure at Ohio State. I never thought Urban would be a long-term coach at OSU. However, I am surprised that he is stepping down now. Between his health and the season-long cloud hanging over the program in the wake of the Zach Smith situation along with a three-game suspension for Coach Meyer, it’s not entirely shocking, though. Rumors have been swirling for months that Ryan Day was being groomed to take over. In the last week, rumors of Urban stepping down soon began to grow.

I kind of thought that Urban would want to coach a couple more years to put a little distance between the end of his Ohio State tenure and the Zach Smith incident, but perhaps the health issues were too much. Perhaps he was defiant with how the incident was handled by Ohio State. Perhaps it’s a little of both. Seeing Shelley Meyer break down in tears when Ohio State beat Michigan a couple weeks ago, though, I began to wonder if the end wasn’t sooner rather than later. And so here we are today, trying to understand and put Urban Meyer into the proper context. It’s not easy, and a lot of it depends on everyone’s unique perspective.

On a personal level, I remain largely disappointed in how Urban handled Zach Smith. Loyalty is a tremendous character trait in some situations, but when it crosses the line into something looking more like nepotism, it can become problematic. I wish Urban would have separated himself and the university from Zach Smith a long time ago, but I also acknowledge I don’t really know what it was like in that situation in real time. Some can call that a cop-out, and that’s fine, but I prefer to acknowledge the things I simply don’t know.

I don’t know with absolute certainty what all happened between Zach Smith and his ex-wife, nor do I know what Urban Meyer actually knew about any of it. I don’t know the nature of any of those relationships. I can only express my disappointment in how Zach Smith was handled based on the limited things I do know.

I also know that my disappointment in that situation doesn’t completely overwrite my appreciation for Urban Meyer as a football coach. I have a lot of pride in what the football team has accomplished over the last seven years and I’m apprehensive about what the future will be like without Urban in charge. To say otherwise would be lying to myself and to others.

So where does everyone go from here? I’ve already heard plenty of people call for Urban to take over as AD from Gene Smith. I’ve also heard plenty of people are speculating that maybe he would be interested in coaching the Cleveland Browns or Cincinnati Bengals next season. I’m not sure which of these rumors is the least likely to happen, but they’re all up there. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Urban return to coaching in a few years, but I think for now he might return to the media for a bit or else he may just relax and enjoy the benefits of being a former Ohio State coach in Columbus.

For Ohio State and Ryan Day, there are plenty of question marks. Is Day ready for this job? Is he the Buckeyes’ version of Lincoln Riley? Or did Ohio State hand this job to him prematurely without scanning the nation for the best candidate?

With rumors of Day taking over being around since September and rumors of Urban’s health being in decline and talk of him retiring being around all season, there’s been plenty of time for Ohio State to put out quiet feelers, gauge interest, and scan the country for potential replacements. It’s not unreasonable to think that Ohio State feels Day is the best person for the job. It’s just a big question mark.

When you look back at Ohio State coaches going back to Woody Hayes (not counting Luke Fickell’s one season as interim coach when Tressel stepped down), the names are all significant. Woody Hayes, Earle Bruce, John Cooper, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer. And now, Ryan Day. Day is easily the youngest and least experienced name on that list. He has the difficult duty of following in Meyer’s footsteps and maintaining a new expectation of never losing to Michigan, competing for Championships every year, and landing top-five recruiting classes every year.

Coach Day has some things working in his favor, though. First of all, he is reportedly going to be able to maintain continuity on the operations side of the program by keeping Mark Pantoni, Mickey Marotti, Brian Voltolini, and Ryan Stamper.

Make no mistake, this is an absolute coup for Day. Those guys are the backbone of Ohio State’s recruiting and operations and not having to rebuild those roles from scratch will be a great help for Day. It’s unclear at the time of this writing which coaches will be retained, but with Day being elevated from within, it would stand to reason that he could probably keep most, if not all, of the coaches he wants to keep.

The biggest question for Day and probably the biggest unknown for all of us is how Day’s hire will impact recruiting. It’s early to know how this will affect current recruits, but he already has confirmation from perhaps OSU’s most prized commitment in five-star Lake Travis WR Garrett Wilson that he is still coming to OSU.

I think it’s clear that Ohio State has a lot of confidence in Ryan Day, and so as a fan and alum, I’m hoping for the best. He has enormous shoes to fill and I hope expectations can be realigned appropriately, but that’s not really how it works at Ohio State. The leash with fans will probably be pretty short and Day will need to prove quickly that he’s up to the task at hand.

It’s a strange day at Ohio State. It’s not one that I hadn’t seen coming, but not one I expected to be talking about quite this soon. I’m sure plenty will be said and written about Urban Meyer and his legacy. His reputation nationally took a pretty big hit this season and I’m sure plenty out there are enjoying that he is stepping down. But for many in Ohio and those with any connection to Ohio State, the feelings will tend to be more complicated. It’s hard to sit here today and predict how things will turn out and how we will all feel about Urban Meyer in the future, but he will forever be remembered for an incredible seven-year run that cemented his place as one of the greatest coaches to ever lead the Ohio State program.