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Column: What is Urban Meyer’s legacy?

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer answers questions after announcing his retirement after the season at the Fawcett Center on Dec. 4. Credit: Amal Saeed | Assistant Photo Editor

The Urban Meyer era is over.

After seven seasons as head coach at Ohio State and 17 seasons overall as a collegiate  football head coach, Meyer announced on Tuesday he will be retiring following the Buckeyes’ Rose Bowl game on Jan. 1 against Washington.

After that, Meyer said he believes he will not coach again.

“I can’t tell you the exact time, walking off the stadium against our rival in that last game, things started to cross my mind. Going into Indianapolis, started to cross my mind,” Meyer said. “I hope to stay involved.”

Ohio State will move forward with Ryan Day as head coach, who is the current offensive coordinator and served as interim head coach for the first three games of the 2018 season.

But what does Meyer leave behind? What does one of college football’s most successful coaches of all-time — after an offseason of controversy that led to a 12-hour meeting about his future, ultimately leading to Meyer missing the first quarter of Ohio State’s season — leave as a legacy?

“I hope it’s the truth. The truth is that you have a football coach who has devoted 33 years of my life to the love of student-athletes and not just on the football field,” Meyer said. “I hope that’s our legacy. And we won a lot of games and represented this great university and great state the right way.”

On the field, his legacy is nothing short of exceptional.

The Toledo native came back to his home state and has won 82 of 91 games as Ohio State’s head coach. The Buckeyes have won four of their six bowl games under Meyer — with the potential for a fifth on New Year’s Day — including the 2015 National Championship in the first ever College Football Playoff. He went 7-0 against rival Michigan.

Meyer has never had more than two losses in a single season at Ohio State, and has peaked at No. 3 or higher in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll every season.

The .901 win percentage is the highest of any coach in program history, aside from Day, who is 3-0 in his head coaching career.

“I think in trying to build the most comprehensive premier program in America, you also want to hand it off to someone at some point so it can get even stronger,” Meyer said. “My witnessing of the work Ryan has done and [making] this decision, not as difficult as I thought.”

Meyer’s success is unparalleled, but his off-the-field record does not leave Columbus unscathed.

Eight years after resigning from Florida following an 8-5 season in controversial fashion in 2010 — after multiple Gator players were arrested for off-the-field issues — Meyer was investigated for keeping on staff former wide receivers coach Zach Smith after alleged domestic violence incidents in 2009 and 2015.

Smith was fired on July 23 and Meyer was asked questions on what he knew at Big Ten Media Days on July 24.

His answers in Chicago started the downward spiral of one of college football’s most successful coaches.

I got a text late last night something happened in 2015. And there was nothing. Once again, there’s nothing,” Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days. “I don’t know who creates a story like that.”

The investigation into Meyer’s knowledge on Smith’s domestic violence history resulted in a three-game suspension. But the punishments from the situation might have hurt Meyer longer than those three weeks.

Meyer thinks it will have a negative impact on his legacy as a whole, but it is not something he has thought about extensively.

“I’m sure it will,” Meyer said. “That was a disappointing time, obviously. But I think today, this is about celebrating a new football coach. This is about a very strong program and a group of players that just won back-to-back championships.”

Ohio State’s 2018 campaign has been a rocky one by the program’s standards. Even after sitting at 12-1 as Big Ten champions and a trip to Pasadena on the horizon, it’s not the playoff, and it did not come in a fashion the Buckeyes are used to.

The 49-20 defeat to 6-6 Purdue is the game that defines the lack of success this season, but close wins against 4-8 Nebraska and 5-7 Maryland, the latter of which could have ended in a loss with a remotely good pass from Terrapins quarterback Tyrell Pigrome, showed an Ohio State team that was vulnerable.

But Meyer made the Buckeyes into one of the few programs that have the luxury of calling a one-loss season a disappointment.

Meyer took over a team that, under interim head coach Luke Fickell, went 6-7 in 2011, the first sub-.500 season for Ohio State since 1988. In his first season, the 2012 season, Meyer went 12-0.

“To compete with Urban-coached teams, the Big Ten colleagues have had to elevate their programs. Urban has a very, very special gift. He’s an elite coach,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “You rocked it, brother. We did what we talked about. So thank you so much, Urban Meyer.”

Meyer is hanging up the headset in less than a month as Ohio State moves forward with Day, who at 39 years old is the youngest coach the Buckeyes have had since Woody Hayes was hired in 1951 at the age of 38.

So what is Meyer’s legacy?

He leaves behind a legacy of consistent success, always putting his team in the conversation for a national title, always setting the bar for expectations sky high in the program.

Meyer will exit his final game with one of the most impressive resumes of any coach in college football.

But for someone who wants to be remembered by “the truth,” it is the “truth” that might permanently tarnish Meyer’s legacy, regardless of the success he accomplished on the field.

 

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