What do we talk about when we talk about Urban Meyer? Do we mention that he beat No. 1 Alabama with his No. 3 quarterback? That he went undefeated at Utah? That he coached Tim Tebow and Ezekiel Elliott? That he’ll retire with three national championships, the last two coming after he one-upped the Great Saban en route?
Or do we talk about Zach Smith, whom Meyer hired at both Florida and Ohio State? About the tin-eared lack of remorse shown after his employer suspended him for three games? About how many players were arrested in his time at Florida? About how his pursuit of victory never seemed to allow him to ask, “Is this really worth it?”
On the day of his second announced retirement, we probably should talk about his health. He had issues at Florida, which prompted him to quit there. Those issues apparently resolved themselves posthaste, for he was back at it as soon as the prime job in Columbus came open. (In between prestige postings, he spent weekends away from home working for ESPN.)
This season began with him not coaching because of a Smith-related suspension. Along the way, it was revealed that Meyer had a cyst that causes migraines and might require a second round of surgery. Amid all this, his gifted Buckeyes contrived to lose to Purdue by 29 points. And then, with everyone expecting them to wilt against mighty Michigan, they won 62-39.
There were many sides to Urban Meyer. (Rule of thumb: There are many sides to everyone.) Within the media, he was widely seen among the least sincere of any big-time coach, a profession not exactly a-swim in sincerity. Among ourselves, we’d refer to him as Urban Liar. But the Michigan game reminded us, though we shouldn’t have needed reminding, that he was the greatest underdog coach ever.
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The catch is that, being at Florida and Ohio State, he was rarely an underdog. But his first master class of coaching came when his Gators were matched against – small world – the hugely favored Buckeyes for the BCS title. (Meyer’s impassioned lobbying might have been the reason his team was invited.) Florida yielded a touchdown on the opening kickoff. It then outscored Ohio State 41-7.
In the first year of the College Football Playoff, Ohio State gained entrance only because it beat Wisconsin 59-0 for the Big Ten title. It did that after losing quarterback J.T. Barrett to injury against Michigan, and Barrett was starting only because Braxton Miller was hurt in preseason. Behind third-stringer Cardale Jones, the Buckeyes stole the No. 4 seed from TCU and Baylor and, once in, upset Alabama and Oregon.
I’ve gone back and forth on this, but if there was one game for the fate of the world, I’m not sure who I’d want coaching Earth’s team. It’s either Nick Saban or Meyer, and I don’t know that even Saban has had more how’d-that-happen victories than Meyer. These men have been the two best coaches of this century. One is about to win a seventh national title. The other is about to embark on Retirement No. 2.
I won’t claim to know Meyer well, but I have been around him. (I once interviewed him on the steps of the Cobb Galleria. He’d come to speak to the Atlanta Gator Club. He delivered his remarks in shorts and a T-shirt.) He’s unbelievably smart. He’s one of the few coaches whose words bear warrant close listening. That said, you wonder how much of what he says is real. He’s the guy whose “Core Principles” include, “Treat women with respect” – and he hired Zach Smith twice, and he kept him around until keeping him around became too embarrassing for a man not easily embarrassed.
I admit it: My first thought on hearing about this latest retirement is that it could well be just the latest hiatus. A year from now, will he pop up at – just picking a name – USC? This, however, we know: Should he decide that his health allows him to return to coaching, he’ll win. A lot of people are skeptical about Meyer the guy, but there has never been a doubt about Meyer the coach. He’s among the best there ever was.