The club of active head coaches with national championships is quite exclusive: Alabama’s Nick Saban (2003 at LSU; 2009/2011/2012 at Alabama); Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops (2000); South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier (1996 at Florida); Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher (2013); LSU’s Les Miles (2007); UT-San Antonio’s Larry Coker (2001 at Miami); and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (2006 and 2008 at Florida).
With multiple championships, Meyer occupies a VIP table in said exclusive club at which only Saban can join him. And with January’s Orange Bowl appearance, Meyer is in a class by himself as the sole active head coach to lead three separate programs to BCS bowls (Utah, Florida and Ohio State).
So why when Urban Meyer comes up in college football discussion, his success feels like an afterthought?
Meyer is a polarizing figure, to put it mildly. Detractors seem to take particular glee in his on-field failings, few as they may be. A photo of him forlorningly eating pizza in the bowels of Lucas Oil Field after the Buckeyes’ 34-24 to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game is the stuff of internet lore.
This photo of Urban Meyer, via @GeorgeSchroeder, is one of the saddest things we’ve ever seen. http://t.co/Fl4nZiQTGx pic.twitter.com/vCHom4REuT
— SB Nation (@SBNation) December 8, 2013
Now, critics delighting in an opposing coach’s failure is hardly exclusive to Meyer. A wave of schadenfreude follows Saban after any Crimson Tide loss. But with Saban, there seems to be a level of deference for his accomplishments that is absent from the Urban Meyer narrative.
Meyer is prone to PR gaffes, no question. The bizarre circumstances of his departure from Florida remain a hot topic years later.
His last season in Gainesville started with the recant of Meyer’s false-start resignation and cited health concerns. It was followed in the early days of spring practices with a verbal tongue-lashing of Jeremy Fowler. Fowler quoted Deonte Thompson in an Orlando Sentinel piece as saying John Brantley was a “real quarterback,” in apparent allusion to Tim Tebow.
Meyer later apologized, but his mea culpa failed to gain the same traction as the confrontation, which lives on in YouTube infamy.
That moment also set an ominous tone for the Gators’ 2010, which ended in a wholly unimpressive 8-5 and 4-4 in SEC play—marks reminiscent of Ron Zook’s time at Florida. And it wasn’t just that Florida lost, but how. The Gators lost games to rival Florida State by 24, new conference power Alabama by 25 and at home against LSU, South Carolina and Mississippi State.
The South Carolina and Mississippi State losses were the proverbial salt in the Gators’ wounds, with former Florida head coach Steve Spurrier leading the Gamecocks, and former Meyer assistant Dan Mullen heading the Bulldogs.
Naysayers will cling to Meyer’s final Florida season and his leaving coinciding with Alabama’s rise as evidence the coach couldn’t “hack it” in the SEC. Of course, this is pure nonsense. But who ever said college football rhetoric had to be logical?
When Meyer left the Gators for good, he made a salient point: coaching college football at its highest level is especially taxing. The ever-climbing expectations of fans and boosters fail to take into account that coaches are still human beings with families.
In his farewell press conference, Meyer said:
At the end of the day, I’m very convinced that you’re going to be judged on how you are as a husband and as a father and not on how many bowl games we won.
It would take an especially jaded cynic to find fault in this line of reasoning. And coming from a coach with two national championships, this hardly seems like the excuse-peddling of someone incapable of handling the sport’s grandest stage.
Alas, as rumors of Ohio-born Meyer accepting the opening at Ohio State circulated not even a year later, Urban Meyer critics had plenty of ammunition.
By the time he officially accepted the position, the narrative was set: Meyer is college football’s villain. College Gameday host Chris Fowler asked Meyer about his coaching peers wanting to punch him.
This characterization spun so far that just last summer, he was lumped in with actual, real-life villainy when Meyer was portrayed as an enabler for Aaron Hernandez.
Hernandez is set to stand trail for multiple murders, three and four years removed from his time in Meyer’s Florida football program.
This crosses over into a discussion far more serious than leaving a football program under dubious circumstances or yelling at a reporter. Meyer’s supporters rightly point out Hernandez was an adult responsible for his own, heinous decisions. Critics address Hernandez’s missteps while under Meyer’s tutelage, and theorize how the tight end’s life might have played out had he faced serious consequences earlier on.
It’s a divisive and contentious discussion, but that’s typical of Meyer.
Love him or hate him, Urban Meyer is at the absolute pinnacle of his profession. With him adding two blue-chip prospects to the Buckeyes’ 2015 signing class on Wednesday, Meyer continues to build Ohio State into a program equipped to challenge the Florida States and Alabamas for supremacy in the College Football Playoff era.
Should he win his third national championship at a second different program, it’ll prove increasingly difficult for his detractors to diminish his accomplishments.