Ohio State’s 28-23 Rose Bowl win over Washington ended too late for Urban Meyer to ride off into the sunset.
He had to settle for a walk into a tunnel at the most iconic venue of the sport in which he’s made his living for the past three decades.
After joining his players to sing the Ohio State alma mater with the Ohio State Marching Band at the south end of the Rose Bowl Stadium, Meyer saluted the band then returned to his wife, Shelley.
Together they walked the length of the field to the north end of the stadium, surrounded by a mob of cameras with adoring fans swooping in and out to give thanks and maybe one final cheer.
He stopped at the entrance to the ramp, saluted the fans one more time, threw his towel to one and then was gone.
Asked later if that walk had felt different than most, he gave an unsurprising Meyer response.
“Oh, sure,” he said. “We'd been on the phone recruiting the last half of the walk if it wasn't our last game. And right now I'd be starting to put pencils to who is coming back, who is not coming back, and what do we do at left tackle, what do we do this, what do we do that. But the new guy's got to worry about that, and we're certainly going to help him. So it felt different.”
So, too, did coaching at Ohio State for Meyer, who also excelled at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida before landing at Ohio State in November 2011.
“This has always been very personal,” the Ashtabula, Ohio, native said. “I'm from the great state of Ohio and I'm very proud of my state. I've been a Buckeye fan, like I said, as long as I can remember.”
He said that gave him extra motivation to succeed — for better or for worse.
“It's not healthy all the time, but I operated under the sense of fear,” Meyer said. “When I would see our former players come around this program, and you know I was in the elevator yesterday with Archie Griffin, a dear friend, and John Cooper is a dear friend, and we lost Coach (Earle) Bruce recently and Jim Tressel is a dear friend of mine. And I just felt an obligation to not let them down.”
It’s that connection to Ohio State, where he was a graduate assistant for Bruce in 1986 and ’87, that led him to cut short his first retirement from Florida after the 2010 season.
“We were going to not coach right away, and then this position opened up,” Meyer said. “And the program was struggling a bit. We had probation. We lost nine scholarships. The year before we lost seven games. And we just were hit with a bowl ban two weeks after I took the job.”
That was the fallout from an NCAA scandal that brought Tressel’s tenure to an end in May 2011.
“We were in dire straits,” Meyer said.
But his first team famously went 12-0. Those Buckeyes were unable to play for the Big Ten or national titles because of a postseason ban, but Meyer credited that group with helping him build recruiting momentum to sign the classes that would be the backbone of future teams, including the 2014 national champions.
“Every one of those seniors could have left back in 2012, and every one of them stayed,” Meyer said. “And it was one of the six undefeated teams in Ohio State history. And so it was something that every week, every yard, every down, when we recruited these players, I just wanted to make sure that we made the great state of Ohio proud. And once again, we weren't perfect, but we did a lot of good things.”
How good was Urban Meyer as a college football coach?
HIs teams won three national championships, two at Florida and one at Ohio State.
He had four winning streaks of 20 or more games, and he finished with a winning percentage of .853.
That mark is bettered only by Notre Dame legend Knute Rockne (.881) and Frank Leahy (.864), who coached at Notre Dame and Boston College.
Twelve of Meyer’s 17 teams won at least 10 games, including all seven at Ohio State.
He made it to that benchmark in his final season despite being suspended for the first three games when an independent working group found he mismanaged the employment of former receivers coach Zach Smith. The group's investigation was a result of accusations Meyer mishandled allegations Smith had abused his wife. Although the group concluded he had done what he was supposed to do when made aware of a police investigation of Smith, the entire episode was damaging to the reputation of both Meyer and the university.
Ironically, the controversy also opened the door for Ryan Day to show how he would handle the program if it were his, and Day's 3-0 mark as acting head coach gave Meyer more confidence he was ready to take the reins permanently as concerns about Meyer's health mounted throughout the year.
As Meyer steps away, he sounded like he might have more trouble figuring out what to do with himself than Day will have trying to win football games.
He steps away hoping to have left behind a program that is stronger than he found it, and he sounded like he might have more trouble figuring out what to do with himself than his successor, Ryan Day, will have trying to win football games.
“I have no idea, to be honest with you,” he said when asked what he planned to do the next day. “I've been thinking about that a little bit and trying not to think about it because it gets in the way of these players and the team.”
His contract calls for the university to create a position for him in the athletics department, and he said prior to the Rose Bowl he plans on still being around the team.
He is likely to continue being a leader in the department, but the football team will no longer be his sole focus nor his to lead.
“I have the best athletic director that you can be around,” he said, referring to OSU AD Gene Smith. “I have a school that I love dearly. I feel very welcome in Buckeye Nation and here.
“I’m an Ohioan. So my job as we move forward is to make coach Day, who is an elite coach, make this program even stronger, and that's all our focus. That's their focus, my focus, Gene Smith's focus. It's a very strong program, but we're going to make it stronger.”
Since Meyer announced Dec. 4 his plan to step down after the Rose Bowl, there have been those skeptical he is really done.
After all, he retired once (from Florida) and was back after a year.
“I've been blessed,” the 54-year-old Meyer said. “I know this is relatively young, but I started young, 17 years as a head coach, 33 years doing this. And just very fortunate, and I do believe I'm done.”