PASADENA, Calif. — Urban Meyer stood in the tunnel heading onto the field at the Rose Bowl. The Ohio State wide receivers had just finished their pregame warm ups and were on their way back to the locker room.
Redshirt senior Johnnie Dixon dabbed Meyer on the shoulder as he passed his head coach, as did freshman L’Christian Smith. Meyer continued to look forward, acknowledging his players, but continuing to peer out into a stadium filling as time ticked down to kickoff, leaning down to get a better view.
Meyer turned to a member of his coaching staff, curious of what the crowd dynamic would be, whether it would favor his team or Washington, asking the coach whether it was “60/40.”
The Ohio State head coach seemed anxious. Anxious to coach the Rose Bowl: the game on the top of the bucket list for the three-time national champion. Anxious to leave this game in particular the same way he had in the 82 previous wins he’d coached in his Ohio State career.
He was done. He was retiring, and this time, he was not coming back.
“I’ve been blessed,” 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.”
But his anxiousness prior to this game, as he stood in the tunnel, was no different than the Big Ten Championship, than the Michigan game, than the Tulane game.
It’s the same anxiousness that he had in every game he coached for Ohio State, something he said may not have been the most healthy thing.
“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.”
But Meyer said this fear brought a sense of joy, a joy that, throughout his tenure at Ohio State, he had to learn to have, learn to live in.
For him, he finds joy on the football field particularly in the way Ohio State left the Rose Bowl Tuesday.
“There was joy when you see that you have one more point than the opponent at the end of the game,” Meyer said.
Meyer’s one goal at Ohio State was to make Ohio proud, to recruit players around the country to bring the best product to Ohio Stadium that he could, to ignite a national powerhouse.
And as he coached in his final game at the Rose Bowl, those same players he had recruited wanted to give something back to him: one simple win.
“There was this feeling amongst the players: We needed to send him out the right way,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Tuf Borland said. “With everything he has done for us and provided for us. You guys just see the wins and the championships over the course of his career, but he means so much more to us than that.”
Dixon was a four-star recruit out of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He said, when he came into Ohio State, he considered himself a good person, but said, looking back, he had a lot to learn.
Meyer was the one, for him, who helped with that.
“When you get here, you are still a young man,” Dixon said. “He’s helped me develop into the man I am today. I give him a lot of credit for what he has done and how he has helped me in my life.”
Meyer had tried to do this ever since he arrived at Ohio State in 2012. Deciding to take the job despite thinking he would not return to coaching right away, the head coach inherited a struggling program: Inheriting a team under probation and a bowl ban, a team that had lost scholarships, a team that had lost seven games the season before.
But he said it was the 2012 senior class that could have left, but created one of six undefeated teams in Ohio State history.
That was the beginning of Meyer’s template for Ohio State.
“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,” Meyer said. “Once again, we weren’t perfect, but we did a lot of good things.”
After the game, after the confetti had fallen, Meyer entered the locker room and addressed his team for the final time as head coach. In what Borland described as an emotional speech, Meyer had something to do: give the team to Ryan Day.
The former Ohio State offensive coordinator said Meyer passed him his whistle, something he described as a special moment in front of the team.
Meyer will remain with Ohio State as the former head coach will take on a new role with the athletics department as assistant athletic director. He said his job now is to make Day and the football program stronger.
But even without the new job, a part of Meyer will remain in the Ohio State athletic program.
“He’s set the foundation for coach Day,” redshirt junior defensive lineman Robert Landers said. “He’s brought a lot of tradition. Just the mentality that he has brought ot Ohio State that had started to fade into the culture. It’s something that will never leave.”
Redshirt junior Mike Weber, who announced his departure from Ohio State prior to the game against Washington as well, watched Meyer as he celebrated the Rose Bowl win.
He said he knew the retirement was something that was coming, that was inevitable. But it was still surreal.
“Honestly, it felt like a movie,” Weber said. “Watching him go out like that, I’m so glad to be a part of it.”
But Meyer was already thinking about that.
When he initially announced his retirement on Dec. 4, Meyer said he would always remember the time between the third and fourth quarter when the Ohio State marching band would play “Hang on Sloopy.”
He said that was a moment that gave him a moment of solace, no matter how long the time was, no matter the score.
After the clock hit zero in the Rose Bowl, Meyer, before he left the field, went straight to the band, shaking the hand of director Christopher Hoch and gave a salute to its members.
And he was done. He was gone. The program was Day’s.
Even through the adversity the program had gone through in his final season — from the three-game suspension to his health issues — Meyer felt he was leaving the program better than when he inherited it.
“I told you that when adversity strikes and people scatter. And when I needed them the most, you gave us the very best,” Meyer said. “The band didn’t scatter. The band was there. Buckeye Nation was there. We saw that all throughout the adversity that we went through. And I can’t tell you — my love affair for Buckeye Nation has never been as strong.”