How Urban Meyer still looms over college football even in retirement

Gene Smith likes what he’s seeing from his new assistant athletic director at Ohio State, a go-getter named Urban Meyer.

Smith sees a newcomer to college athletic administration who is fascinated by how that side of the department operates. He sees a coaching legend reveling in mentoring Ohio State’s 36 head coaches. He sees a proven team builder who enjoys meeting with captains from all the Buckeyes’ sports, providing feedback on what makes a good leader.

“In year one, he’s consumed by the learning curve and what goes on in athletic administration,” Smith said. “He’s been heavily engaged.”

Then Smith paused, and acknowledged the question floating above Meyer’s latest attempted life transition.

“Now, how long will this be something that keeps his interest?” Smith asked. “I can’t answer that. … There’s a point, naturally, where all this newness and novelty is going to wear off. It’ll probably happen during this fall.”

And when it does, then what happens to Urban Meyer? Does the tortured genius of college football heed the siren song of the sideline once again? Does the college game’s foremost narcissist need to hear the cheers once more?

These questions don’t just loom over Meyer. They loom over the entire sport.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer celebrates at the end of the team's 28-23 win over Washington at the Rose Bowl. (AP)
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer celebrates at the end of the team's 28-23 win over Washington at the Rose Bowl. (AP)

Urban Meyer is the most accomplished college coach to sit out a season while still in his prime since Urban Meyer. He’s done this before, “retiring” for health reasons in 2011, moving from Florida to ESPN to Ohio State. After two national titles with the Gators he won a third with the Buckeyes, cementing his status among the all-time greats and single-handedly reviving the Big Ten.

Now, at age 55, Meyer has hung up his whistle again, and taken up residence in the fever dreams of fan bases everywhere. Just about every head coach is one bad loss away from his fans casting a longing eye toward Columbus — or the Fox Sports studios, where Meyer will work this fall as an analyst — and wondering if their school could be the three-time national champion’s latest reclamation project.

Meyer has tried to project certainty regarding Retirement 2.0, stating that his health depends on it after being treated for a painful brain cyst. But the adrenaline rush of a football season is only beginning to percolate — wait until the thrill of Labor Day weekend hits, or the urgency of October, or the title drive of November. What replaces that rush? What else could adequately occupy the mind of one of the most obsessive men in an obsessive profession?

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Many college football insiders will only believe Meyer stays retired when they see it. That includes some who know him well.

“I just don’t see how he sits out the rest of his life,” said one former colleague of Meyer’s. “That’s who he is, that’s what he does.”

The colleague cautioned, though, that Meyer wouldn’t come back for a second-tier job. He’s accustomed to driving Cadillacs, not Kias.

“It would have to be the perfect place,” the colleague said. “He’s not going to North Carolina State or Pittsburgh or something like that. It has to be a legit job where he can win it all. USC, to me, is that type of place.”

That’s the obvious option. Clay Helton begins the season on the hottest of seats, and the schedule could doom him by mid-October. USC opens with Fresno State, Stanford, at BYU, Utah, at Washington and at Notre Dame — teams that went a combined 50-17 last year. If things start badly, there is also the convenience factor of a potential covert meeting between USC officials and Meyer: Fox Sports studios are in Los Angeles.

USC has almost all the trappings that attracted Meyer to his previous two jobs: national championship pedigree; forwardly placed within a Power Five conference; sitting on fertile recruiting soil; down on its luck and dying for a savior; and at least one coach removed from the glory days under a coaching giant.

At Florida, Meyer was replacing the guy who replaced The Guy, Steve Spurrier. At Ohio State, Luke Fickell was the interim coach after taking over for the fired Jim Tressel. At USC, Clay Helton is the latest in-over-his-head replacement for Pete Carroll.

But there is one thing USC lacks that both Florida and Ohio State offered — an established and respected athletic director. Both Jeremy Foley in Gainesville and Smith in Columbus provided sage counsel and strong leadership when all the off-field crises inevitably came along with all the on-field victories.

Lynn Swann? Not so much. He’s about as embattled as his football coach, and the Hall of Fame former wide receiver brings no administrative gravitas to the position.

“He’s not going to USC to work for an AD who’s about to be fired,” the former colleague said. “There has to be some stability over him or his head will explode. Urban likes to have a guy he can go talk to about a problem.”

There have been plenty of problems to discuss over the years. Which is why Meyer’s former colleague speculated about another possible option if a college opening doesn’t move the needle.

“Maybe the next stop is the NFL?” he said. “He’s had some disciplinary decisions he’s had to make, or not make, and those were uncomfortable for him. In the NFL, the owner or Roger Goodell is handling discipline. Maybe they could protect him a little bit.”

That makes sense, but there is this counterbalance: Bill Belichick has averaged 3.6 regular-season losses over the last five years. Meyer averaged less than one regular-season loss per year at Ohio State — and those laughably rare defeats were agony. Anything worse than 14-2 could kill him.

But even if Urban Meyer thinks he couldn’t live with losing, he may not be able to live without coaching. Not for the rest of his days. And the expectation of yet another return from retirement will be a storyline that runs throughout this college football season.

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