Here's the lesson Urban Meyer needs to learn after his first big mistake as an NFL coach
Since taking the job as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Urban Meyer talked, both publicly and privately, about how he knew he was now working in the NFL, not in the fiefdoms of Ohio State or Florida.
His players are now adults, not college kids. They have obligations, families, agents, contracts and experience. They also often have the confidence and power to voice their concerns and opinions. Teams have to be something of a partnership these days, not merely a dictatorship. And it's not just a comparison between college and pro. It’s 2021 versus 2015 or 2009 or whenever.
“The times are changing,” Meyer said last month. “... I mean, the whole country has changed, everything's changed. And so you have to adapt, and those who adapt have success, those who don't, fail.”
Talk is cheap, of course, and even among Meyer’s words you could see potential problems lurking. Then he made the disastrous decision this week to hire a strength-and-conditioning coach with a history of allegations of bullying, belittling and even racism.
That coach, Chris Doyle, resigned late Friday, just a day after taking the job.
“Chris did not want to be a distraction,” Meyer said in a statement.
Too late for that.
Upon taking the job last month, Meyer tried to downplay his transition from the king of college to unproven NFL coaching rookie by noting that he adapted through his two decades at the college level. The way he coached at Bowling Green was not the way he coached at Ohio State.
He then equated coaching NFL players to coaching all the players he sent to the NFL, even though the circumstances are different.
He sounded like who he is: the uber-confident, my-way-always-works, able-to-rationalize-everything guy who rode those characteristics to three national titles and an .854 winning percentage.
Part of that is what made him great and can still make Jacksonville great.
Only part of it, though.
Hiring Doyle as the team’s new Director of Sports Performance made no sense. Doyle spent 20 years at the University of Iowa before Hawkeyes former players came forward with allegations of intimidation and racist comments. Meyer took him anyway, dismissing, or even oblivious to, the uproar.
Then he quickly walked it back.
“We are responsible for all aspects of our program and, in retrospect, should have given greater consideration to how his appointment may have affected all involved,” Meyer said in a statement.
This better be Meyer’s mulligan, or else he’ll fail precisely in the manner he laid out at his introductory news conference — via an inability to adapt.
Presumably, he can smooth over whatever hard feelings exist between NFL players -- both current Jaguars and the kinds of free agents Meyer wants to recruit -- and himself. This was a self-inflicted wound to his credibility. It doesn't have to be fatal.
Meyer rationalized that Doyle was the best in the business and thus would give the players the best chance to win.
“The one thing I’m very confident is that I would imagine within a year or two we’ll have the best sports performance team in the National Football League,” Meyer said.
That’s a rah-rah, hyperbole. It works on teenagers and desperate fans and boosters. And it’s how Meyer has always operated. Throw some impossible-to-quantify statement out there, and use it as both a reason for the madness and as a cudgel against critics.
If you disagree with Meyer, you must not want to win as much as he does. If you challenge him, you must not care as much as he does.
Yet, these aren’t unpaid kids anymore. Pro players know quality strength-and-conditioning coaches are fairly easy to find. The highly paid, much-hyped strength guy — Doyle made $1.1 million his final year at Iowa — is mostly a college recruiting ploy.
If Doyle was so incredible, why was he at Iowa, anyway? Meyer didn’t hire him away from the Patriots or Steelers, or even Alabama.
Meyer stated that he had “vetted [Doyle] thoroughly,” although what that meant is unknown. He said the Jags owner and general manager were in on the background check, but neither is an African American or a current or former player. And nothing about the process was publicly shared other than Meyer stating, “I’ve known Chris for close to 20 years.”
That’s not really a positive in this case. It sounds like one friend bailing out another. While nepotism runs rampant on NFL coaching staffs, this was ridiculous, especially for a new coach.
In college, Meyer's track record of success was enough for boosters, administrators, fans, even plenty of media, to excuse any and all of his actions because the end always justified the means: winning. Meanwhile, players, desperate for success and eager to move onto the NFL, flocked to his system.
When Meyer was occasionally challenged, he took it poorly. Ohio State suspended him for three games in 2018 for continuing to employ an assistant coach accused of spousal abuse, despite Meyer allegedly knowing of the allegations.
Meyer resigned at the end of the season, citing his health.
Now he’s back, with his first stumble.
If he can somehow adapt his tremendous coaching talent and over-the-top confidence to a professional setting built on mutual respect and cooperation, then the Jaguars can become successful. That swagger he has can be a great thing for a football operation.
It also needs to conform to Meyer’s new reality. Or else this is doomed.
That’s the gamble with Meyer. That’s always been the gamble with Meyer. A high-risk, high-reward, high-drama, high-wire act.
Welcome to the NFL.
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