Urban Meyer is back on familiar turf, fit and rarin’ to go as Ohio State’s new football coach.
Without question, he’d like to add to the national titles and success he had at Florida — only this time with a better ending: No burnout.
A match that seemed obvious for months was made Monday, when the Buckeyes hired Meyer to take over a glamour program struggling through a year of well-publicized NCAA violations.
Meyer resigned as Gators coach after last season, citing health concerns and a desire to spend more time with his family.
”A year ago in my mind I was convinced I was done coaching,” the 47-year-old said.
He’s now convinced he can balance a healthy life and a high-pressure job.
”I had a health scare a couple of years ago that made me sit back, reflect,” Meyer said of heart and stress problems. ”I didn’t feel right. But I feel fantastic now.”
He did, though, yearn to be back on the sideline at the Horseshoe.
”If not for the coaching position at Ohio State, I would not have coached this year,” said Meyer, who grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio, about 200 miles away from campus.
Meyer will become one of the highest-paid coaches in college football, along with Alabama’s Nick Saban and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops and Texas’ Mack Brown. He was given a six-year contract that pays $4 million annually, plus another $2.4 million total in ”retention payments.” He also can qualify for supplemental bonuses.
Interim coach Luke Fickell, who took over when Jim Tressel was forced out for breaking NCAA rules, will coach the Buckeyes (6-6) in their bowl game. Meyer will keep him on as an assistant but declined to say in what capacity.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said his first conversation with Meyer about the coaching job was by phone on Nov. 20. The two met face-to-face three days later.
”There’s a right time for certain leaders,” he said. ”This is the right time for Urban Meyer to lead this football team. … He gets it.”
Meyer spent six years at Florida, winning national titles in 2006 and 2008. He spent his year away from coaching working as an analyst for ESPN and watching his two daughters play volleyball for their college teams.
Former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce gave Meyer his first college coaching job in 1986 and remained a close friend and confidant through the years. He said he had no concerns about Meyer’s health.
”Well, if he’d had a heart attack and his heart was bad, I’d be worried about that,” the 80-year-old Bruce said. ”I’m not worried that he was stressed out over the game of football because he was thinking too much and not doing some things (exercising) that would have kept him straight. I think he got everything back under control by sitting out a year. I think he missed football. And he’s good at it.”
Meyer met with the team on Monday before his news conference and said he was impressed with the players’ enthusiasm.
Meyer takes over a program that is likely facing NCAA sanctions and was crippled by the forced resignation of Tressel. The Buckeyes completed their only season under Fickell with a 40-34 loss to Michigan on Saturday that snapped a seven-game winning streak against their rivals.
Tressel was forced out for knowing but not telling his superiors that Buckeyes players likely broke NCAA rules by taking cash and free or discounted tattoos from the subject of a federal drug-trafficking investigation.
In 10 seasons as a head coach — two at Bowling Green, two at Utah and six at Florida — Meyer has a 104-23 record. His teams are 7-1 in bowl games, including the Gators’ 41-14 victory over unbeaten and top-ranked Ohio State in the 2007 Bowl Championship Series title game.
Meyer initially denied all the talk about succeeding Tressel, saying he wasn’t interested in leaving ESPN, where he was a college football analyst.
”He enjoyed what he was doing, but I think he also had the bug to start coaching again,” ESPN broadcast partner and former Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman said. ”This was just an opportunity that he couldn’t pass up.”
Meyer inherits a young team led by freshman quarterback Braxton Miller, who would seem to be a perfect fit for his spread offense.
”We’re putting a lot of pressure on this cat,” Meyer joked. ”He’s special.”
Ohio State’s .500 record this season marked the most losses at Ohio State since John Cooper’s 1999 team also went 6-6 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes already lost their string of six Big Ten titles when the school was forced to vacate the 2010 season for the NCAA violations. The school has also self-imposed two years of NCAA probation and offered to return $339,000 in bowl revenue from 2010 and to forfeit five scholarships over the next three seasons.
Ohio State is awaiting final word from the NCAA’s committee on infractions. The committee tagged Ohio State with a ”failure to monitor” label – second only to a lack of institutional control on the list of most egregious charges against a university. The school could still be hit with a bowl ban, a loss of more scholarships, or other penalties.
Ohio State President Gordon Gee was at Vanderbilt when Meyer was in the Southeastern Conference with Florida.
”I always viewed him the way many other coaches referred to him as being a goody two-shoes,” Gee said in a phone interview. ”He was called that because he always tried to do things right, and he was upset if others didn’t try to do it right. I have always admired him.”
But Meyer’s teams have not always been so well behaved.
The Gators had 30 arrests involving 27 players during Meyer’s six seasons.
Meyer left Utah for Florida after leading the Utes to a perfect season. He had a choice of either the Florida job or the Notre Dame job and he picked the Gators.
In his second season with the Gators, No. 2-ranked Florida beat unbeaten Ohio State, coached by Tressel, 41-14 to win his first national title.
Two years later, Florida won another national title, beating Oklahoma 24-14 behind Tim Tebow.
The next year Florida contended for a repeat, but after losing the SEC title game to Alabama, Meyer said he was retiring from coaching, citing health problems. He changed his mind and was back the next day, saying he would only take a leave of absence.
In addition to the deal he signed with Ohio State, Meyer’s two daughters in college and young son also made him sign something. It promises that he won’t overdo it, that he won’t work too hard, that he’ll take care of himself this time.
”This is a contract that my kids made me sign before I was allowed to sign a real contract,” he said, holding up a pink slip of paper. ”It’s tougher than any other contract I’ve signed in my life.”