Urban Meyer is one W from leaping Nick Saban as nation’s top coach

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Three years later, Urban Meyer still gets asked about the much-publicized contract he signed with his family upon returning to coaching at Ohio State. You can tell just how much he loves rehashing that period of his career from his two-word answers.

“Just wondering if you’re living up to what’s up on the [office] wall?” a reporter asked at his news conference Tuesday.

“Doing great,” the Buckeyes coach curtly replied.

“Everything is OK with your family?” the reporter followed up.

“They are great," said Meyer, before adding a little levity. “They like winning.”

Meyer’s odd coaching detour back in 2010 — when he briefly “retired” from Florida due to health concerns, then came back the next day only to step down again a year later — served for a time to overshadow his considerable on-field accomplishments. “Spending more time with his family” became an oft-repeated punch line. If not that, then the fact he coached a future NFL tight end who would one day be charged with murder became a misguided referendum on his disciplinary style at Florida.

Only now, with his three-year Ohio State record sitting at a staggering 37-3 and the Buckeyes playing for a national championship Monday against Oregon, has the focus on Meyer returned to his coaching abilities. As it should, given 2014 may be his most remarkable performance yet.

In fact, if Meyer, 50, can earn his third national championship with a team that lost two Heisman-caliber quarterbacks since the preseason, he should take over the mantle as the current best coach in college football. Alabama’s Nick Saban, who Meyer’s Buckeyes knocked off in last week’s Sugar Bowl, has held that unofficial title for the past several years. Saban has won at least 12 games in six of the past seven seasons, while Meyer has in six of his past eight, and Saban would still have one more ring than Meyer even if the latter picks up his third.

But Meyer has a better overall career record (.844) than Saban (.746), trailing only Washington’s Chris Petersen and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher among active coaches of at least five seasons. Like Saban did at LSU and Alabama, Meyer would hold national titles from two different schools (Florida and Ohio State), but he also notched 12-0 seasons in 2004 (at Utah) and 2012 (at OSU).

But most impressive is how he’s done it. Lots of coaches are great recruiters. Lots of coaches develop successful schemes. But this season of quarterback attrition in Columbus has proven a testimonial to Meyer’s defining coaching trait: his ability to adjust around his personnel from year-to-year — or even game-to-game.

“Coaches have to adapt to what you have,” Meyer told FOX Sports in an interview here this week. “We won 12 games our first year [in 2012], and we didn’t have the skill set we have now. We’re going to lose some players next year. You’re always adapting, but I like where we’re at now.”

With three loaded recruiting classes, Meyer was able to mold the 2014 Ohio State team to his long-intended vision. Speedy skill players like tailback Ezekiel Elliott and receivers Devin Smith and Michael Thomas proliferate on offense. Pass-rusher Joey Bosa and run-stuffer Michael Bennett anchor a disruptive defensive line.

Even so, the Buckeyes had to replace seven players from 2013 — running back Carlos Hyde, receiver Philly Brown, offensive linemen Jack Mewhort, Andrew Norwell and Cory Linsley, linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby — who started in the NFL as rookies this season.

And that was before two-time Big Ten player of the year Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in preseason camp.

Asked whether he could have seen the Buckeyes making it this far back then, Meyer said flatly: “No, I did not.” No one thought Ohio State would still be playing Jan. 12 back on Sept. 6, when Virginia Tech went into the Horseshoe and beat the Buckeyes, 35-21.

But under Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman’s tutelage, Miller’s replacement, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, developed into a top-five Heisman vote-getter, while several other members of OSU’s highly rated 2013 recruiting class — Bosa, Elliott, linebacker Darron Lee and defensive backs Vonn Bell and Eli Apple — “carried the ball a little bit,” said Meyer.

But the undisputed hero of Ohio State’s postseason run has been 6-foot-5, 250-pound quarterback Cardale Jones, the three-year backup who took over when Barrett broke his ankle Nov. 29 against Michigan and inexplicably led the Buckeyes to both a 59-0 Big Ten championship game rout of Wisconsin and last week’s 42-35 upset of No. 1 Alabama.

Many coaches at the nation’s premier programs have struggled to develop one standout quarterback recently. Jones is merely the latest Meyer protégé to excel, following in the footsteps of Heisman top-five finishers Alex Smith (2004), Tim Tebow (2007-09), Miller (’13) and Barrett (’14).

“[Jones] is the first guy I’ve had since Alex Smtih that can throw high-to-low,” said Meyer. “There’s some throws he made against Alabama that were ridiculous. You could tell we opened up the playbook for him a little bit, we threw the ball down the middle a little bit. Against Wisconsin he wasn’t allowed to throw it down the middle.”

Mind you, this is the same coach who won his first national title in 2006 with a two-quarterback rotation of Chris Leak and true-freshman Tebow, the latter a short-yardage specialist meant to compensate for Leak’s minimal running ability.

He’s also the same coach whose first Ohio State team went 12-0 in an NCAA-shortened season with a converted tight end (Reid Fragel) playing tackle and a converted fullback (Zach Boren) playing middle linebacker.

Meanwhile, Meyer has also adapted his offense over time to stay on the sport’s cutting edge. For all the comparisons being made this week between Oregon’s and Ohio State’s up-tempo spread offenses, it’s worth remembering that Florida was not a no-huddle team. Meyer recounted this week just how resistant he was initially to making that change after sending then-coordinator Dan Mullen to Missouri in the 2008 offseason specifically to install a faster system.

“I [ended] that after about four days of spring practice,” he said. “It was just, technique went to hell and our receiver coach is over there signaling instead of coaching receivers … we ended that real fast.”

But after visiting Oregon, among other places, during his one season out of coaching (2011), Meyer realized he was foregoing a significant competitive advantage. When it came time to form his first Ohio State staff, he recruited Herman, then at Iowa State, due to the latter’s no-huddle experience.

The current Ohio State offense is an amalgam of Meyer and Mullen’s old Utah/Florida scheme and newer spread and up-tempo concepts. But it’s still definitively Meyer’s offense.

And scheme is just one piece of his championship-level success.

“He’s a huge motivator,” said Lee. “He knows how to get the message across to the entire team and make sure he gets the entire team on board. If you’re not on board, you’re not going to play.”

"All year, all we’re prepared to do is excel in tough situations,” said Bennett. “In the winter, spring, summer and throughout the season, we’re preparing for tough situations and the big lights. You don’t come to Ohio State to play lower-level teams. You come to Ohio State to play for conference championships and national championships. Coach Meyer beats that into our brain from the very moment you get here."

There’s no one right way to chase a championship in college football. Saban has his wildly successful Process. Pete Carroll Won Forever until he left USC. TCU’s Gary Patterson is unparalleled in terms of player development. And if Mark Helfrich’s Ducks beat Meyer’s Buckeyes on Monday, the unique, cloak-and-dagger Oregon program will for the first time achieve the sport’s pinnacle.

But if Ohio State wins, the coach who hoisted two trophies, bottomed out, left, came back, reinvented his offense, withstood two season-ending quarterback injuries and hoisted another will have a very strong case for Best.

The only thing his system lacks is its own clever name. 

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, "The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff," is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.