Urban Meyer did not leave the University of Florida to take the head coaching job at Ohio State. It may feel that way to some disillusioned Gator fans, but no one knew last December that the scandal just then unfolding in Columbus would lead to Jim Tressel's ouster. Had Meyer stuck to his 2009 resignation, he could easily be the head coach at Michigan right now for all we know.
However, Meyer's move to Ohio State makes him unique in recent Florida football history. The only other UF head football coach to subsequently take a college coaching job thought of as on par or better than Florida's was Charlie Bachman, who left in 1932 to coach at Michigan State.
In fact, Meyer will become only the fourth non-interim coach in Florida history to coach more than two football seasons at another college after Bachman, Steve Spurrier, and Ron Zook.
If he makes it that long in Columbus, that is.
Urban Meyer is nothing if not a study in contrasts.
His dispassionate demeanor on the sideline and in press conferences would lead you to believe he's an unfeeling robot. At the same time he had occasional passionate outbursts, feuded publicly with Shane Matthews, and poured so much of himself into the program that he suffered serious personal health issues.
His 2006 and 2007 recruiting classes are possibly the best back-to-back classes anyone has ever signed. However, his 2008 class produced just four multi-year starters, and 50% of it is gone by this, its fourth year. His 2009 class is full of players who also haven't lived up to their star ratings.
He is known for offense and quarterbacks particularly. He groomed a No. 1 overall pick at Utah in Alex Smith and a Heisman trophy winner at Florida in Tim Tebow. He also only had one season in his six in Gainesville where his backup QB was not a freshman, that being 2009.
He is the master of the quick turnaround, producing fantastic results in the second year of each of his three head coaching stops so far. Whether he can sustain a program is in doubt thanks to his constant moving. He resigned for good from Florida after a five-loss season and left behind a team that would lose six in his successor's first season.
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I don't think this Ohio State job is going to end well for him.
In his nature, he's a hands-on coach. He agonized over every part of the UF program for five years, even coaching special teams personally. It worked out well, with the team winning 13 games in three of those five seasons.
It also took an immense toll on the man. He worked himself into the ER after the 2009 SEC Championship Game, the culmination of years of stress and poor living habits. There were stories of him skipping lunches to work. Of his brain cyst causing blackouts. Of searing chest pains that he somehow didn't seek medical attention for, which thankfully turned out only to be esophageal spasms. He was almost the very definition of a person working himself to death.
In 2010, he tried true CEO-style coaching, where he was largely hands-off and relied on his assistants to do much of the work. It resulted in easily his worst season as a head coach.
The team was 8-5, but it's half a miracle that it got that far. The offense was supposed to be tailored to the pocket passing of John Brantley, but it turned out to be largely the same old one just with a few under center plays mixed in. He ended up using a three-quarterback rotation, probably the first time that has intentionally been tried. It exposed his inability to recruit a power running back, a necessity for his offense with him being a spiritual successor to the Bo/Woody days of Big Ten football. Tebow had been that power back in the past, but Tebow was in the orange and blue of Denver by then. He chose to lean on Steve Addazio as his surrogate head coach, but it was too much for the man to do that and be both offensive line coach and offensive coordinator. A deep rift between the old and young emerged in the leadership vacuum, and it was largely incited by Addazio's veteran offensive line starters.
Meyer thinks he knows how to manage his work-life balance now. Perhaps he learned something from that '10 season and in talking to other coaches this year as a TV analyst.
You'll have to excuse me if you think having doubts about that are inappropriate. I don't know if the guy is cut out to be that CEO-style head coach. It didn't work well in 2010, and he looked miserable while trying it. If he launches himself back into his old way of coaching, he'll probably end up with the same results. It took all of one practice for him to go back on his 2009 resignation. When it comes to football, he really can't help himself.
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There are going to be a lot of Gator fans unhappy about Meyer taking the Ohio State job. There already are, really.
I was furious at Meyer as I left Ben Hill Griffin Stadium last Saturday. Florida had lost to FSU, the rival I hate the most, by a score of 21-7. FSU's first two TDs came on "drives" of 20 and four yards set up by interceptions, and the third was a pick-six. The one score the Gators did get was on a "drive" of 21 yards where 15 of them were from a penalty. Florida State didn't even manage to gain 100 total yards, and yet it won by two scores.
Florida lost that game entirely because of the offense. That offense is broken at every position at least in part due to factors directly attributable to Meyer. It was always going to be a tough transition from the spread option to the pro-style, but there are things at work that go deeper than mere transition.
It burned me up that the team he left just capped off a 6-6 year while he was likely going to be smiling at a press conference in Ohio sometime in the coming days. Florida has a multi-year rebuilding project ahead of it, and he'll not have to do any of the heavy lifting.
Upon further reflection, he owes Florida nothing and Florida owes him nothing. He brought UF three division titles, two SEC titles, two national titles and a Heisman trophy winner. Florida paid him somewhere north of $15 million for his troubles. It was clear by the end of 2010 that he was lost as a coach. He couldn't be hands-on and maintain his health, and he failed as a CEO. By leaving when he did, it gave UF the chance of getting 100% of someone else instead of 50-75% of Meyer.
The way everything went down will lead plenty of Gator fans to wonder whether he was truly theirs. His biography tells of him growing up an Ohio State fan and dreaming of being the head coach at Notre Dame. It tells that his gut instinct in 2004 was to take the Notre Dame job and not Florida's. It tells of his wife agreeing for him to have "veto rights" over her on only three jobs: Ohio State, Michigan, and Notre Dame. We learned he had a picture of Woody Hayes in his home's rec room. It's not Meyer's fault, but almost from the day he was hired, media types predicted that one day he'd somehow, some way, end up coaching in South Bend. All in all, such doubts are entirely valid.
I do think he ended up loving Florida, in the same way he loves Utah and keeps in close contact with Kyle Whittingham. On some level though, he was a mercenary. Nearly every coach is one to a degree nowadays, and that is nothing unique in this situation.
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So what could Meyer have done differently? I'm not sure.
He could have extended his 2010 leave of absence from a couple of months to a whole year, though no one has ever done anything like that before. He could have stuck to his 2009 resignation, though no one could have predicted what came next.
What this does mean is that Florida football is enduring its lowest point in over 30 years without a comforting figure to symbolize the good times that have been and will likely come again. Spurrier is in Columbia, Meyer is now in Columbus, Will Muschamp is still the new guy no one really knows yet, Danny Wuerffel is unable to make public appearances as he battles Guillain-Barré syndrome, and Tim Tebow is in Denver getting trashed by one NFL analyst or another on a daily basis. Even Mr. Two Bits hung up his whistle a few years ago, now only leading cheers at one game a year if that.
What Meyer's ultimate legacy in Gainesville will be is as of yet uncertain. By winning two SEC and two national championships, he oversaw one of the best coaching tenures anyone has ever had at any school. He also burned up a lot of goodwill with his coming and going at the end and by staying out of coaching all of 10 months before jumping back in.
He might be seen unequivocally as a legend. He might also have revisionist historians try to say he was a guy who hit the jackpot both with players—like Tebow, Harvin, Spikes, Haden, and the Pouncey brothers—and with assistants—five of whom would become head coaches elsewhere.
Ultimately you can't separate the head coach from his players or assistants; he set the recruiting agenda for the former and personally chose the latter. As time goes on, he'll be seen in more and more of a favorable light.
Right now though, without the blessing of the Gators he left behind, Meyer goes to Ohio State alone. The feeling of aloneness is mutual.