Column: Urban Meyer leaves Ohio State with a legacy that doesn’t smell good

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer hoists the Rose Bowl trophy after leading the Buckeyes to a 28-23 win over the Washington Huskies in his final game.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Decked out in glossy scarlet, the Ohio State football team danced through the Pasadena afternoon like dozens of overstuffed roses.

Yet, in the middle of it all, stalking and scowling, there was a thorn.

It was Buckeyes legendary coach Urban Meyer, who awkwardly stole the show while seemingly ending a career as prickly as it was pretty.

While his players were celebrating a 28-23 victory over Washington in the 105th Rose Bowl, the focus was clearly on the farewell for Meyer, who last month claimed he was retiring.


As the game ended, Meyer repeatedly pumped his arms. He threw his headsets into the air. He hugged his wife Shelley. He bathed in the falling red and white confetti.

He acknowledged the Ohio State marching band. He faced the fans and formed an “O’’ and an “H’’ with his arms. Those fans chanted, “Ur-ban, Ur-ban.’’ And, of course, two of his scarlet giants dumped a bucket of Gatorade across his back that left him shivering in the early-evening mist.

But surely he wasn’t the only one who felt a chill.

One had to ask, how much of this legacy was worth celebrating?

Urban Meyer has been a great leader of football players, but he has not been a great leader of men.

His football achievements are astounding, but his enabling and empowering of miscreant athletes has been embarrassing.

Meyer is one of only two modern-era coaches to win national FBS titles at two schools, hoisting the trophy twice at Florida and once at Ohio State. With a 190-32 record, he has won more games in his 17 years than any other FBS coach in a similar span in NCAA history. He went an astounding 86-9 in seven years at Ohio State and beat Michigan every season.

But at what price?

In his six years at Florida, he oversaw several sketchy teams whose players were arrested for all sorts of alleged crimes, including domestic abuse. In dealing with numerous off-the-field issues there, while protecting players instead of holding them accountable, Meyer twisted the truth so much that he became known as Urban Liar. Those players included the late Aaron Hernandez, who later played for the New England Patriots before being convicted of murder and ultimately committing suicide in his cell.


At Ohio State, his cover-up culture surfaced last fall when he was suspended for three games for continuing to employ receivers coach Zach Smith in the wake of multiple accusations of domestic violence by his former wife Courtney. Throughout the university’s investigative process, which focused on Meyer’s refusal to fire Smith even though he knew of the allegations, Meyers lied and whined and essentially played the part of the victim instead of owning up to his mishandling of the situation.

It wasn’t a pretty sight. He came across as arrogant and insensitive. With every attempt to defend himself, he continued to bury himself.

Meyer announced his retirement in December because of what he said was lingering health issues and fallout over the three-game suspension. The health issues included stress headaches, but the suspicion is that this “retirement’’ is all about that suspension.

Many think that Meyer, who is only 54, will take a year off and return to coaching somewhere else. After all, he announced his retirement twice before and always returned.

This time, many wonder whether he isn’t quitting simply to spite the Ohio State officials who benched him against the wishes of a large portion of the fan base.


He seemed to address this during a strange postgame news conference Tuesday in which he seemed devoid of any emotion. His answers were devoid of any misty memories or tearful farewells. He was awfully stoic for someone who was in the process of riding off into the sunset.

“Oh, sure, sure, a lot of joy along the way,’’ he said. “That’s something I have to learn to have, more joy.’’

The only time he seemed to show his feelings was when asked about his gestures to the band and the fans. He sounded a lot like a guy who was calling out those who didn’t support him.

“When adversity strikes … people scatter,’’ he said. “The band didn’t scatter. The band was there. Buckeye Nation was there. We saw that, all throughout the adversity that we went through.’’

Just wondering, but, the adversity that they went through? The adversity of coaching a football team that continually employs an assistant who is allegedly hitting his wife? That adversity?

What about Courtney Smith? How about her adversity? How about the adversity of any number of victims of alleged crimes committed by some of his former players?


At least in one corner of this country, Meyer’s football success far outweighs his personal failings. There were actually fans who publicly protested his suspension last fall and, Tuesday, thousands of fans continued to roar their approval.

After the game, I ran into John Chubb, a friendly Columbus businessman who wears an all-white Ohio State outfit topped by a cowboy hat and calls himself “the Buckeye Guy.’’

And the Buckeye Guy loves his guy.

“Things come up all over the place, in my personal life, surely with your personal life, with everybody’’ Chubb said. “It’s all about how you handle those things, and Urban Meyer has been a good steward, a great guy, he came in and promised a national championship and he delivered and I’m forever grateful.’’

My colleague Sam Farmer ran into another guy, Matt Walter, a Buckeyes fan holding a sign reading “Thanks Urban.’’

“Some of the off-the-field stuff, it’s going to be a small footnote, but that’s not going to be his legacy,’’ Walter told Farmer. “His legacy is, he was given a program that was really good and he made it really great.’’

Upon his retirement announcement last month, Meyer was asked about his legacy, and admitted that it mattered.


“I can lie to you and say that’s not important to me,’’ Meyer said at the time. “For any human being, that’s important to you. And people have their opinions … just do the best to do things the right way.’’

His ‘’right way’’ will continue to be on display in Columbus in his first postretirement gig, and this is not a joke. Meyer will be co-teaching a class on character and leadership at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business.

Here’s guessing he will work a couple of semesters and head back to the sidelines for the 2020 season.

USC, don’t even think about it.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke