COLUMBUS, Ohio — A few minutes after a press conference formally announcing the shift of coaching power at Ohio State, the current Ohio State football coach and its future one passed in the hallway at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. Urban Meyer and Ryan Day wore gray suits, looks of relief and departed in disparate directions.
Day embarked on the first afternoon of the rest of his life, as he scurried off on recruiting visits. His wife, Nina, joked with him on Monday that this was their last normal night before the glare of becoming the head coach at Ohio State. Meyer headed to his office to watch Washington’s punt units on tape and ponder his future, which involves transitioning to a life not measured by a scoreboard. For a football lifer who has struggled with health issues, it’s not a comfortable place.
Urban Meyer, who stepped down at age 54, has long reigned as college football’s most angsty soul. And on Tuesday evening, Meyer sat down with Yahoo Sports in his office for a final deep dive into his psyche as the Buckeyes coach.
Meyer reflected on why his legacy means so much to him, addressed the public assumption he’d soon return to the sideline and explained why he’d never be able to coach in the NFL.
“I never thought of it as scared, more anxious,” he said of the future. “I’m still relatively young. I’m a very passionate, hard-working person who is going to have to fill a void.”
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That void looms as one of the most captivating spaces in sports. Could it be golf that fills it? His second grandchild? More charity work? A gig on television? Meyer isn’t quite sure yet, although he’s spoken with OSU athletic director Gene Smith about a role mentoring coaches and athletes at Ohio State. That’s intriguing to Meyer, whose career has evolved to a job less about schematics and more about motivating players as the years have passed.
“There’s a little anxiety involved in what’s next,” he said. “I’ve thought about that. I’m not a wake-up late kind of guy. I hope I find a passion.”
Meyer was told the immediate reaction to the news he’d be retiring: A round of speculation about when and where he’d return. USC next season if Clay Helton gets let go? Notre Dame if Brian Kelly ever left? On and on it went. When Yahoo Sports asked Meyer if he’d ever come back, he answered: “I don’t think I am.”
Meyer has offered an array of reasons for stepping down – the strength of the program, his confidence in Day to execute an Oklahoma-esque Bob Stoops-to-Lincoln Riley transition, the aggressive headaches from the cyst in his brain, the fallout from his suspension this summer and his fear of evolving to a coaching CEO role antithetical to his obsessed ethos. The same traits that made Meyer great – intensity, tunnel vision and perfectionism – his health wouldn’t allow him to flex at full capacity.
After Ohio State’s 52-51 overtime win at Maryland, which looked and felt more like a loss most of the day, Meyer went to hug his wife, Shelley. He recalled her shaking and she had tears streaming down her face. “She knew that if we don’t win that game, our lives and my life is going to be so different,” he said. “When I come home, [that loss] would last for seven months.”
Meyer went on to joke he wished he could be more like coaches who can separate winning and losing from their daily lives. “That’s why I admire coaches who can just move on,” he said. “Mike Leach is my hero. First of all, I love him. We’re great friends. But he’s my absolute hero.” Meyer defined the difference between he and Leach this way: “I’m paranoid about everything.”
Those close to Meyer are genuinely curious how he’ll handle the transition from compulsive worker to retirement, the word both Meyer and Ohio State used in the press release. From his boss, Gene Smith, to his close friend and longtime strength coach, Mickey Marotti, there’s a fundamental concern of where that singular focus will be directed.
Smith answered a question about Meyer filling that void with a question. “Will it be enough?” Smith said, in reference to a mentoring job he has in mind for Meyer. “No. I’ve been candid with him. There’s nothing that can fill that void. He’ll go through a psychological transition that you go through when you realize that your day isn’t full.”
Marotti has always been the most delightfully unfiltered and cliché allergic voice in the Ohio State program. He recalls seeing the mental and physical low-point Meyer hit at Florida and thinking he’d never coach again. Meyer did, obviously. “He’s in a much better place now than he was then,” Marotti said.
While Marotti is supportive of his friend’s decision, he’s also unsure of what Meyer will do: “I don’t know. I don’t know. He’s got to find something. He can only play golf so much. He can only go on so many walks.” Does he believe Meyer is finished coaching forever? “I believe him, but it wouldn’t surprise me [if he returns].”
He paused and laughed, acknowledging the paradoxical response.
“I don’t know what that means,” he said, understanding the popular sentiment. “I’m probably like everyone else.”
Marotti brought up an interesting point: “Where’s he really going to go?” There are so few jobs Meyer would take, that it would limit his options. Ohio State was one, and there aren’t a lot of others. Meyer would sneer at the middle-class jobs that opened in the current cycle – Louisville, Maryland, North Carolina, Colorado, etc.
That’s similar to the reason he’s never seriously considered the NFL. Meyer took the Bowling Green job after flipping through the press guide to see they historically had a winning record against most MAC opponents. He left there for Utah because they were No. 1 in budget in the Mountain West and in one of the league’s top markets.
For all the Packers fans tweeting about Meyer going there, don’t bother. He said he could never work in the NFL, as his extreme tendencies wouldn’t mesh with a job where losing four times a season is celebrated as a success. Meyer went 54-4 in Big Ten play during his seven seasons at Ohio State.
“I could never work at a place … I see some of these guys’ records because the NFL is so even,” he said. “Some of these guys, their record is 74-58. I could never do that.”
That’s because there’s been one singular Meyer motivator. When asked what he’ll miss most aside from his players, Meyer answered without hesitation: “Winning.” His tone hinted at the question being insulting. “I could say the preparation. Yeah! Sitting in there 12 hours a day and trying to figure out a way to gain four yards,” he said. “Yeah, sure. I could say traveling all over the country and eating chicken sandwiches recruiting. Sure! That’s part of the process. For what? The ultimate prize for all that work is winning.”
Meyer will likely do mentoring work and is considering dabbling in television. But what happens in mid-October when there’s a longing to run down the tunnel? “It’s already started,” he said. “But, [the decision] is right. When you’ve devoted your life to something [it’s time]. I’m going to call Coach [Bob] Stoops and talk to him a little bit. I admire him.”
Meyer gave compelling reasons why this retirement will be different. A second grandchild is due in December. He’s eager to go watch his son, Nate, play baseball for the University of Cincinnati. He wants to stay affiliated with Ohio State, a place that he appreciates and that appreciates him. There’s fundraising for the Buckeyes, charity work with Shelley and the allure of normalcy.
“I would get jealous, sometimes, of just seeing ordinary lives,” Meyer said. “Going out to dinner and not 40 percent of the time talking and texting to recruits.”
Marotti acknowledges that the severity of Meyer’s headaches from his congenital arachnoid cyst have been underplayed in the media. He recalls practices where Meyer’s head hurt so much that “he couldn’t yell.” He said he gave Meyer this advice when he revealed his decision to retire: “I said, ‘You’ve got stay busy man. You’re as ADD as anyone I know.’ He said he was going to do this and that. But is that enough? Is that enough? Is watching [his son Nate at] Cincinnati play Xavier in a baseball doubleheader on a Thursday? Is that going to be enough? It wasn’t enough the other time. Why now?”
Meyer admitted that he’s concerned with his legacy and image, something he considers important. He still gets emotional about not being embraced by Florida fans, who have viewed him more through the skeptical prism of his departure in 2009, return a few days later and listless 2010 season rather than his two national titles. “That crushed me, it still does,” he said of not being embraced by Gator fans. “To this day. It’s one of those things.”
His legacy at Ohio State remains important. On the field, it’s clear – a 2014 national title, 82-9 record and back-to-back Big Ten titles. He acknowledged that the three-game suspension earlier this season in the wake of an investigation into his and the university’s handling of former wide receiver coach Zach Smith could cloud the legacy. “If someone is going to tell you it’s not [important], they’re not being truthful,” he said. “It’s your name. You work your whole life, and I guess that’s the way I was raised. When you say the name ‘Meyer’, what do you think?”
In college football, even without Urban Meyer on the sideline, that question will continue to be asked. Meyer may remain the sport’s most tortured and discussed figure, even after stepping away.
As the interview wound down on Tuesday, Meyer’s Buckeye-logoed tie laid folded on his desk next to his reading glasses. His phone buzzed persistently with text messages, which he ignored as he put up his feet on his desk and munched on two McDonald’s cheeseburgers – his new vice – that assistant operations director Quinn Tempel smuggled into his office. As a reporter exited the room, Meyer pondered his next step.
“I hope,” he said, “I find something to fall in love with.”
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