As Urban Meyer makes his exit, Big Ten breathes sigh of relief

At Ohio State, Urban Meyer coached 62 games against Big Ten opponents, including four appearances in the conference title game.

He won 57 of them, including all seven against hated and supposed-peer Michigan.

Meyer arrived in Columbus in 2012 and found a slumbering league that struggled with national relevance. He brought with him a spread offense, an aggressive recruiting tact and a take-no-prisoners approach to winning. It had won him two national titles at Florida. It would win him another in Ohio.

Along the way, it would completely steamroll the conference. Ohio State has long been great. Meyer didn’t build the place, but this just felt different, with the Bucks riding a newer, fresher system to victory. His worst regular-season finish was … tied for first. Even as the repeated beatings forced everyone else to modernize with bigger-name coaches, better salaries and beautiful facilities, he remained on top.

Now he leaves, announcing Wednesday morning that he will step down as the Buckeyes coach due to a combination of health concerns, burnout and stress. Offensive coordinator Ryan Day will replace him.

At 54, Meyer can walk away with the dueling satisfaction of knowing the program is as strong as ever and no one in the league, no matter how much they tried, ever did catch up to him.

The champ was here. The champ is gone.

Across the league there are exhales. Oh, Meyer was a boon to the Big Ten. He won them a national title in the College Football Playoff’s first year and if not for that, who knows what its reputation would be. In the league’s two other playoff appearances, it’s been outscored 69-0 (Alabama trouncing Michigan State, Clemson hammering Meyer’s Buckeyes).

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and wide receiver Terry McLaurin, left, celebrate early Sunday after defeating Northwestern 45-24 in the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and wide receiver Terry McLaurin, left, celebrate early Sunday after defeating Northwestern 45-24 in the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

The league’s been left out in each of the last two seasons, with Ohio State going 12-2 in 2017 and 12-1 this year.

At least there was 2015, though. At least there was that.

In truth, Meyer’s high tide raised all boats, although not enough to swamp over the Buckeyes.

Jim Harbaugh couldn’t beat him. James Franklin got him just once, but even then Meyer got the last laugh by making the playoffs over the Nittany Lions, who actually won the league that year. Mark Dantonio managed two victories, including one in a Big Ten title game. There were upsets at Iowa and Purdue.

That was it. Everything else was scarlet-and-gray roadkill.

Everyone appreciated his brilliance. He’s the best coach of this generation not named Nick Saban. Three national titles. Two additional unbeaten seasons (one at Utah, one at Ohio State when it was dealing with a postseason ban). Only the Big Ten’s curious award voting managed to keep him from somehow ever being named Coach of the Year in a league he all but owned.

He brought star power and attitude and television ratings. But eventually they all got tired of getting crushed. When last month the Buckeyes laid waste to the best Michigan team in years, leaving Harbaugh humbled again, the common refrain was the Wolverines won’t make this a rivalry again until Meyer is gone.

Well, now the Wolverines got their reprieve.

The hints were clear all season. The pained and prone posture on the sidelines. The public admission of dealing with complications from a brain cyst. The stress and frustration of being suspended for three games after failing to properly manage an assistant accused of domestic abuse.

Meyer burns hot and fast, a ride that’s equal parts exhausting and exhilarating. Ohio State would love to keep the victories going forever. The drama that comes with it, well, there was some fatigue.

During the Michigan game, Fox showed Meyer’s wife and family crying on the sideline, a clear indication that they knew this might be his last game, at least at Ohio Stadium. He’ll coach the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl and then walk away. For how long, no one knows. With Meyer, you never will.

Now, perhaps, the league is a fair fight. Day, the 39-year-old who stepped in during Meyer’s suspension and did an excellent job, is in. He may prove to be a great one. Even the great ones struggle to meet Meyer’s standards though.

The conference tried to rise with Meyer and nearly everyone stepped up their game. Even as he burned the joint down, he left it in better shape.

Michigan and Penn State and Northwestern and Wisconsin and Michigan State. Heck, even Purdue. None is what it was before he came to Columbus. The attitude is different. The goals are grander. The intensity of the pursuit is greater. All those whippings whipped them into a new era.

It doesn’t mean it’s easy. It doesn’t make it a league full of Clemsons or Alabamas now. It also isn’t, for the most part, just accepting of being pretty good and maybe making a Rose Bowl.

Meyer was always in this for everything, national title or bust, five-star recruit or not, no matter where they lived. He recruited less from Ohio and more from Texas. He’d go to Detroit’s Cass Tech and take from Michigan’s one-time feeder program. It didn’t matter. He was going to get his guy.

When he walked into a stadium, you knew it. He looked at times like a peacock, bright white coat, chest puffed out. This was serious business. This was Urban Meyer. This was the Buckeyes. He went 82-9 overall, with one to go.

Mostly though, he bludgeoned the Big Ten. And now he steps away, forever toasting that Michigan never got him, that Harbaugh never equaled him and other than a rare and random upset, neither did anyone else.

The Meyer Era is done in the Midwest. The rest of the place is overjoyed that they finally stand a chance, but deep down, one day, they’ll appreciate what they lost and lost to.

Oh, he was easy to hate, but damn was he good.

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