|Meyer says he would have taken the Ohio State job even if he knew a bowl ban was coming. (US Presswire)|
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- What was the best for Urban Meyer?
Not what is best for the reborn coach. That decision -- The Decision -- has been made. For better or worse he's back. At this moment in his Ohio State office, it's not about the health issues -- the long-term well-being of the driven 47-year-old. It's not even about the relative comfort of taking over here in his native state at an entrenched powerhouse.
It's about the memories of the last year. He was a dad, a full-time dad. Even with ESPN analyst work wedged in there, he was getting to see daughters Nicki at Georgia Tech and Gigi at Florida Gulf Coast University on a regular basis. Urban Meyer, coaching legend, had become Urban Meyer, first-base coach for son Nate's travel baseball team.
It got better.
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"That's probably the best two weeks we ever had together."
That was the coach's takeaway from one of those dad-son trips of a lifetime. Last spring, Urban Meyer and Nate, 13, road-tripped together. Cooperstown. Penn State and Rutgers camps. A Yankees game. They flew in by helicopter with former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. Nate got to fire an M-4 assault rifle and ride in a Humvee during a trip to West Point. They stayed in Red Blaik's old residence.
That was the best, and there was more to come.
"I didn't think I'd coach this year," Meyer had concluded.
When, to the surprise of no one, he took the Ohio State job on Nov. 28, there quickly was a snarky joke going around: Meyer was stepping away from his family to devote more time to football. (See the reversal of terms there?)
"There were a lot of phone calls about other situations," Meyer said of job possibilities. "Maybe two years from now I would go to another job. I was kind of enjoying that part of my life, but I missed it so bad, being at those games."
We kind of knew that. When a guy comes back 24 hours after resigning (see Florida, December 2009), it is assumed that football has a certain tug on his life. And so there he was in late November back in the game -- less than a year after leaving Florida the second time. And here they are, the Buckeyes, about to enter their first spring practice under Meyer beginning Wednesday.
He'll always have the family memories of 2011, but football has been that mistress that Meyer cannot drop. There are worse places to make a comeback. He landed in perhaps the nation's best support system for that comeback. No one really knows how this is going to go. Only that the first full-time guy to follow Jim Tressel can coach like few others in the modern game -- and that Meyer has given the term "burnout" a 21st century redefinition.
"After that Sugar Bowl? No, no way," said Ohio State strength coach Mickey Marotti.
The question put to Marotti, one of Meyer's closest confidants, is whether he expected his boss to coach again so soon. On the floor of the Superdome the night of Jan. 2, 2010, Meyer looked gaunt, sickly.
"Awful," Marotti said. "Pants were dragging like he had poop in his drawers."
Urban and his wife Shelley embraced publicly and emotionally at the conclusion of that 51-24 win over Cincinnati. It was more out of relief than celebration. Perhaps the coach has simply traded venues on an incredible stress load. Marotti, for one, did not expect Meyer back this soon.
"I also know him pretty well," he said. "What else was he going to do? He's a football coach."
When Meyer called, Marotti couldn't leave Florida fast enough to join him. He's overseeing, in a way, a coach and a friend who has to change. For one of the few times since he became a national figure in '04 leading Utah to the Fiesta Bowl, Meyer showed incredible vulnerability during a 45-minute interview in his office.
The health issues aren't back at this point. The piercing headaches and esophageal spasms were historically stress-induced. Marotti won't hesitate to inject an opinion if he notices the coach boiling over.
"It involves me and my family too," he said of the livelihood that doesn't stop at his door.
For now, diet and dialing it down are simple remedies. Meyer did well to control his emotions when Ohio State was slapped with a one-year bowl ban on Dec. 20. It wasn't easy.
"I've had a couple [of issues] that I probably would have lost my friggin' mind over and went on a rampage," this Meyer says of the old Meyer. "I haven't done that. I've taken the Joe Paterno advice. Slow down, don't react. You hear something? Take your time, investigate it, research it."
The old Meyer, says the new Meyer, would have reacted immediately and impetuously -- "Woosh" he says, punctuating the point by sweeping his hands through air. Unbearable stress cultivating throughout his career is not an option. The new Meyer says the old Meyer was not ready for the SEC after taking the Florida job in 2005.
"There was a culture I had to get used to," Meyer said. "The recruiting culture, speed-of-the-game culture. The [Steve] Spurrier culture, that was always there. Every step I took he was always there."
This is not a shot at Florida football's patriarch. The two are friends and remain close. It was something Spurrier left behind for Meyer to inherit -- his unprecedented success. They say never be the guy to follow the guy. Ron Zook had already done that, but Spurrier's legacy was still making the rounds on campus.
"I'm not saying him, I'm saying the cult following," Meyer added. "He played there, won the Heisman, won the national championship, really put them on the map. A lot of people wanted him to be the coach [after Zook], like a lot. I felt that everywhere I went. At least for the first few years.
"I never really told people that."
Meyer called himself an "outsider" coming to Gainesville. He says even his ebullient wife felt it.
"It's deserving," Meyer said of Spurrier. "He's the Woody Hayes of Florida."
But if Meyer was worried about following legacies, this definitely wasn't the place to come. It helps that Earle Bruce is a mentor from Meyer's days as an Ohio State grad assistant. But the football facility is named after Woody. Tressel, for all his misdeeds, had been the greatest Ohio State coach since the old man.
"Guy made a mistake, a pretty serious one," Meyer said of Tressel. "I don't believe it was willful, the research I've done. I know the man who did it. I don't believe it was intentional. I believe it was an error. We all make errors."
Meyer is the guy inheriting the tonnage of expectations after those "errors." The bowl ban was crippling, dropped by the NCAA 22 days after he took the job. Meyer actually consulted with an attorney familiar with NCAA dealings to do some research on the worthiness of the job. Would he have taken it knowing a bowl ban was coming?
"Yes. A no-brainer," he called it, "just because it was Ohio State, not because it was any job."
Still, the school's administration had a lengthy window during which it could have self-imposed a postseason ban.
"How can we make sure," AD Gene Smith countered, "that we don't throw the baby out with bathwater?"
Here's how: Get the punishment out of the way ASAP. It was generally assumed that Ohio State wasn't going to be that typical powerhouse in 2011 with all the NCAA suspensions and distractions. The assumption was a good one after a bumpy, contentious, uneven 6-7 season that ended in a bowl loss to -- surprise! -- Florida.
The Buckeyes, in essence, are now assured of suffering the immediate effects of Tattoogate for two seasons.
If it was a gamble, it failed miserably. Meyer and the staff had to go back and re-recruit the guts of a class that was eventually ranked in the top five. Some Big Ten coaches and administrators were upset that Ohio State was given an NCAA waiver to operate with parts of two staffs for a time. In general, interim coach Luke Fickell prepared for the bowl game while Meyer recruited.
What is the message, then, to the innocent left on the roster, especially the seniors, who can't play in a bowl?
"I don't know yet," Meyer said. "I'm really concerned about that part."
If his coaching magic holds, Ohio State could become a modern version of Auburn, 1993. Those Tigers were undefeated but banned by the NCAA from postseason (and television) that season. Ohio State's penalty could invite similar awkwardness in the Big Ten. USC's absence from the first Pac-12 championship game due to NCAA sanctions forced an undeserving UCLA to play an uncompetitive game against Oregon.
But if there are only five programs in the country that can survive the tsunami of Tattoogate, Ohio State is one of them. Fans can't wait to see how Meyer's offensive expertise is applied to sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller. Super recruit Noah Spence, a defensive end, could be the cornerstone of another great defense.
Meyer recalled a loss to South Carolina (and Spurrier) his first year at Florida. Fans booed him on the way to his weekly radio show. After that 9-3 debut in 2005, Meyer set about recruiting "the best recruiting class in the history of college football." Two championships in three years followed.
To cleanse Ohio State's program, the temptation was to blow out the remains of Tressel's entire staff. Start over.
"Take a fire hose to the whole thing," Meyer said.
When AD Gene Smith gently suggested considering a couple of holdovers, Meyer relented. He interviewed Fickell for four hours. The wives were there. It was one of those get-to-know you sessions without any football talk.
"For me to ask about Cover 2, I don't care about that," Meyer said. "We'll figure that out. What kind of person is he, what kind of agenda does he have? It could destroy this place."
"No one could have blamed you if you blew everybody out. What I found out was it wasn't that broke."
Fickell (defensive coordinator), Mike Vrabel (defensive line) and Stan Drayton (running backs) made the cut.
Now we'll see if Ohio State football does the same, this season and long-term. There is an indelible image of Meyer the analyst bounding out of a Michigan State broadcast booth to chat before a game last season. He was reminiscing about the good times with Nate. He was glad to have gained 22 pounds. He looked healthy, happy.
Then he said something else before going back to what turned out to be his temporary home behind the microphone. It was going to be a while, but he would coach again someday.
That was five months ago.