In August of 2012, Wright Thompson, a senior writer at ESPN, published a fascinating story in ESPN The Magazine titled “Urban Meyer Will Be Home for Dinner”. It was a unique and nuanced examination of Meyer, then at Ohio State; and the primary focus of the piece surrounded the question of how Urban Meyer, the football coach coexisted with Urban Meyer, the husband and father.
The piece began with a story:
“A few years ago in Gainesville, his (Meyer’s) middle child, Gigi, planned a celebration to formally accept a college volleyball scholarship to Florida Gulf Coast University. It was football season, so she checked her dad’s calendar, scheduling her big day around his job. As the hour approached, she waited at her high school, wanting much, expecting little. Some now-forgotten problem consumed Meyer, and he told his secretary he didn’t have time. He wasn’t going. His beautiful, athletic, earnest daughter would have to sign her letter of intent without him. Meyer’s secretary, a mother of four, insisted: “You’re going.”
Eighty or so people filed into the school cafeteria. Urban and his wife, Shelley, joined their daughter at the front table, watching as Gigi stood and spoke. She’d been nervous all day, and with a room of eyes on her, she thanked her mother for being there season after season, year after year.
Then she turned to her father.
He’d missed almost everything. You weren’t there, she told him.”
Urban Meyer’s football pedigree is unassailable. While head coach at the University of Florida, Meyer led the Gators to two National Championship victories during his six seasons with the team. Years later, as head coach at Ohio State, he added a third championship victory to his resume when the Buckeyes claimed the inaugural College Football Playoff Championship with their win over Oregon. Early in his career, Meyer took rudderless programs at Bowling Green and Utah and turned them into conference contenders. With seven conference championships and a litany of personal awards to his name, including being named Sport’s Illustrated Coach of the Decade in 2009, it’s fair to say that no coach say for Nick Saban has been more consequential in college football over the past 20 years.
Impressive as his resume is, it can be easy to forget how significantly Meyer’s history of health problems has impacted his career; first with his temporary (and eventually permanent) leave of absence while at Florida in 2009, and then in 2018 when he retired from coaching at Ohio State.
Throughout his career, Meyer suffered chest pains; later discovered to be the result of esophageal spasms, as well as intense headaches due to a cyst on his brain: both conditions exacerbated by stress. These afflictions disrupted the sort of continuity you’d expect between a top-tier college football program and a generational coach; but Meyer’s medical history was not the sole impediment to longer coaching stints at either Florida or Ohio State.
During his six seasons at Florida, neither Meyer nor the program were strangers to controversy.
At Florida, failing to report positive drug tests for key players was routine; offending players were instructed to wear walking boots on the sideline so as to fane injury rather than face the consequences. Punishment, OK, but certainly no accountability. Coaches and players got into physical altercations routinely without repercussion. While in charge of the program, more than 30 players on Meyer’s teams were arrested for various offenses; the severity ranging from petty misdemeanors to what can now be identified as the early signs of erratic behavior by then Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Then there was his time at Ohio State. When video emerged of his star running back, Carlos Hyde, striking a woman at a bar, Meyer gave a tepid 3-game suspension; after which he welcomed Hyde back with open arms and a spot atop the depth chart. Later, in 2018, Meyer failed to disclose information about Zach Smith (Meyer’s longtime assistant coach); and the accusations of spousal abuse against him. Meyer fired Smith; who had worked with him since his time at Florida, rather than report accusations of ongoing abuse made by his wife, Courtney Smith, to the proper authorities. Urban was placed on administrative leave weeks before the season began, and suspended the first three games of the season. Despite Ohio State going 12-1 that year, he announced that due to health problems; he would be retiring from coaching following the team’s eventual Rose Bowl victory.
After a brief stint with Fox Sports following his departure from Ohio State, Meyer came out of retirement. In January of 2021, he agreed to become the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars; his first head coaching job in the NFL.
It hasn’t gone well.
It began with Meyer hiring strength coach Chris Doyle; and then firing him once information emerged that Doyle had left the Iowa program the year prior amid accusations of racism and bullying. Soon after, Meyer and the team were fined for OTA violations. All of this came before the season began.
Now in Week 5, Meyer, a coach accustomed to winning, has yet to tally a victory – Jacksonville currently sits 0-4; one of only two remaining winless teams in the league. Growing pains were expected. Despite drafting former Heisman winner Trevor Lawrence as the consensus number one pick in last year’s draft, new coaching staffs and personnel groups take time to gain traction; particularly in the NFL. If it were only a matter of the on-field product; last Thursday night’s matchup with Cincinnati, despite their loss, was easily the best Jacksonville has looked all season. The problem, however; is that instead of focusing on the Jaguars’ upcoming matchup with Tennessee, we’re once again left picking up the pieces of a non-football Urban Meyer story.
The timeline goes something like this:
- On Thursday September 30th, Meyer and the Jaguars fell to 0-4 with their loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati.
- After the game, Meyer elected not to travel back to Jacksonville with the team.
- On October 2nd, video emerged of Meyer dancing with a young woman (not his wife, Shelley) at a Columbus, Ohio bar and restaurant he owns.
- Information soon came in that while at the bar, Meyer was with his grandchildren – though their whereabouts at the time of the video were unclear.
- Meyer canceled regularly scheduled team meetings on Monday, October 4th.
- On October 5th, reports emerged that Meyer had apologized to players in private – but to individual position groups – not to the entire team.
- Soon after his private meetings, more reports came in, this time claiming players openly laughed at their head coach following his apology.
- Later that day, Jaguars owner Shad Khan issued a statement emphatically condemning Meyer’s behavior.
- On October 6th, Meyer held a press conference and publicly apologized to the team, players, and his family.
Urban Meyer explains his decision not to return to Jacksonville after the loss to the Bengals; he says he needed to “get out of Dodge” for a few days and “clear [his] head.” https://t.co/RgRxuHVbBZ— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) October 6, 2021
The content of the video won’t be the finishing blow to Meyer’s credibility; at least with the team.
The circumstances surrounding the incident will be Meyer’s undoing. It’s perfectly normal for a new NFL head coach, still searching for their first win, to take some time to clear their head. No one scoffs at that. Ducking away from your grandchildren, as a married man, to chum it up with some young women at a bar seems ill-advised; but even that can be forgiven from the perspective of a football organization. Abandoning your team, though, after a tough loss, making yourself a spectacle, and then failing to hold yourself to account and canceling team meetings? That’s another story. Rebounding from that would be a tall order from even an established head coach, let alone one like Meyer who was already struggling to win the trust and affection of his team.
It’s clear to anyone paying attention that the question is no longer if, but instead when Meyer will be relieved of head coaching duties in Jacksonville. My own opinion is Meyer will be fired sometime in the next few weeks – after more losses; and at which point the dust of this incident will have settled enough for ownership to claim that, after much deliberation, they believe Meyer is no longer capable of effectively executing his duties as head coach. Regardless of when exactly this professional relationship ends, it’s likely that Meyer’s time in Jacksonville will be both his first and last head coaching opportunity in the NFL.
Wright Thompson’s expose on Meyer concluded just as the head coach began his tenure at Ohio State. After health problems and a neglected family forced him to take a step back from coaching at Florida, he had reached the point in retirement where he believed he could return; this time balancing his personal health and familial responsibilities while maintaining an unyielding intensity as a football coach. Whether that balance is possible for Meyer, now, seems dubious.
As we enter Week 5 in the NFL, neither of Meyer’s camps are doing well. His football team is answering questions about an off-the-field incident with their coach; instead of focusing on their upcoming matchup with the Tennessee Titans. His family is in the unenviable position of having to either defend or ignore an embarrassing situation they had no part in creating. Meanwhile, the vast majority of us, as impartial viewers, look on and ask; why?
Why would a supposedly serious NFL organization extend one of the most exclusive job offers in the world to a man whose coaching credentials have been in direct conflict with his personal baggage at every stage of his career? As viewers, why are we so easily forgetful about past transgressions when the potential for renewed success arrives – so capable of ignoring the specter of reality which tells us any string of behavior that lasts this long should be viewed as a pattern; not just an isolated event? And finally, why would Meyer, a man who in his introductory press conference at Florida said his priorities were his children, his wife, and football – in that order; be so wholly incapable of treating any one of those priorities with a modicum of respect?
It won’t take you long to scan the sidelines of the league to find someone who has violated the trust of a particular team. It won’t even take you long to find someone who has seriously violated the law.
The NFL refers to itself as a family, and just like a family, they give second chances. More often than not, though, those second chances are reserved for the winners; for those that offer the potential to help teams and the league succeed.
Urban Meyer has been negligent to the well-being of his players, fellow coaches, and family; unable and unwilling to hold himself accountable – winless.
At 0-4 as an NFL head coach, sometimes it takes numbers to tell us what the rest of the data has been telling us for years.
Forget the accolades.
Urban Meyer is a loser.