During his taxing 30-plus year rise from a defensive backs coach at a Cincinnati high school to the top of the college football world, Urban Meyer somehow had been to the Rose Bowl only once before he arrived Sunday morning with his Ohio State Buckeyes.
At first, with the cameras set in front of him as the head coach at a bowl media day for certainly the last time at Ohio State, Meyer did not remember ever having been here. But then, something in his tired mind jarred awake a memory, and the coach began to tell a story from the early 1990s, before anybody knew who he was or who he would become, a simpler time.
“I have been here one time,” Meyer said, adjusting his earlier statement. “I pulled up when I was recruiting for Colorado State University, and I was told to leave. They said, ‘Hey, bud, you’ve got to get out of here.’ I said, ‘OK.’
“I’ve never seen the field.”
That is all young Urban, then a wide receivers coach for Colorado State, wanted in this wistful faraway tale, to see the Rose Bowl field. And that is all the 54-year-old Meyer wanted to do Sunday, to take in a moment on his sport’s most hallowed ground before snapping the requisite team photo outside the stadium on the way back to the team buses and more preparation for what he swears is his final game as a football coach.
Yes, it is hard to believe. Of course, after the last four months, he is hard to believe, too. Is this really it for Urban Frank Meyer III?
The story he told Sunday was one that, if delivered, say, a year ago, would have landed easier as the predictable romantic reminiscing from a man grappling with a momentous life transition that feels forced upon him by health concerns — those left over from a high-stress tenure with the Florida Gators that wore on his heart and new ones from another stint in the game with Ohio State, like a cyst on his brain. The Colorado State story very well was exactly that, pure nostalgia, but it is hard to know for sure, because Meyer’s memory and trustworthiness have come under fire during this trying autumn in Columbus.
Meyer’s August admission that he did know about domestic violence allegations against Ohio State assistant coach Zach Smith by Smith’s wife, Courtney, even though he had previously stated that he did not know about them, was blamed then on the coach’s clouded mind. And it has since clouded a personal legacy he had spent the past seven years polishing at the school of his childhood dreams.
There is no disputing Meyer’s coaching legacy, which puts him and only him in the same breath as Alabama’s Nick Saban as an iconic head coach of this era: three national championships, two at Florida and one at Ohio State, 186 wins and an incomparable .853 winning percentage, and, most recently, a 7-0 record with the Buckeyes against arch-rival Michigan.
Yet, Tuesday’s 105th Rose Bowl Game against Washington represents a complicated farewell for Meyer, who is beloved in Ohio but viewed critically elsewhere as another powerful college football coach who chose to ignore allegations of abuse within his program.
But things have a way of working out for Meyer, whose brilliance as a recruiter, motivator and offensive tactician are undeniable. If the Buckeyes beat the Huskies on Tuesday, it is likely he will be carried off the field and celebrated as a legend with the sun setting over the field he says he wasn’t important enough to lay eyes on a coaching lifetime ago.
At Florida, Meyer’s program, as successful as it was, became known for off-the-field discipline issues. He retired from the Gators after the 2010 season, he said, because of health issues related to his heart. He’d been hospitalized and needed to spend more time with his wife, two daughters and son and reassess his priorities. When he took the Ohio State job a year later, he said he would do it with better perspective and make sure to see his daughter’s volleyball matches.
Learning from his time at Florida, he also espoused building young men of character who are prepared after leaving Ohio State. This emphasis led to Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business offering him, in the wake of his retirement, and despite the fall’s ugly headlines, the chance to teach a class next year on leadership.
For those reasons, Meyer, who will also be named an assistant athletic director after he hands over the program to offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting Ryan Day after the Rose Bowl, said Sunday this is “not the end of the road.”
“It means I’m 54 years old,” Meyer said. “My passion is the student-athlete. And other than hoisting trophies, the next best thing is watching a young person come up to me and say that Goldman Sachs just hired me or that I got a job opportunity.”
Meyer did acknowledge that “hoisting trophies” has come first. He later mimicked the motion with his hands empty in the air. While Meyer thinks that the Buckeyes saying that they are playing this game for him is “media putting microphones in players’ mouths,” his players are adamant their goal is to give him some actual hardware to hold.
“Everyone on this team has been grateful to play for him,” Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell said, “so we take these last moments with him very seriously. I’m pretty sure game-time things will be emotional. It means a lot.”
Meyer’s half-hour with the media ended Sunday morning without a question about Zach and Courtney Smith. It became one last forum for him to tout the virtues of his Ohio State program, one he believes is a trailblazer in those matters he plans to teach to Buckeye business students.
How long will a life without the pursuit of trophies give him purpose? How long until the next plum job comes calling? Could Meyer really turn it down?
Around the time he left the media tent in Pasadena on Sunday, Miami announced the retirement of head coach Mark Richt. College football’s social media community immediately started fantasizing about Meyer in Coral Gables, Fla.
As Meyer walked the Rose Bowl concourse to the team photo shoot, surrounded by Ohio State athletics staff, his cellphone was attached to his ear. Who was he talking to, and what about? With Meyer, it was only natural to wonder.