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Urban Meyer’s the rare Buckeye coach to not get fired, but it’s not that simple

Not many Ohio State head coaches leave on their own terms, though there’s a bit more to it than that.

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Big Ten Championship - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Ohio State is unquestionably one of the best jobs in college football. But coaching tenures typically end badly there.

  • Woody Hayes, the godfather of the modern program and the archetypal Midwestern coach? Fired after he punched a Clemson player during a game.
  • Earle Bruce won more than 75 percent of his games over nine years in Columbus but got fired for not winning enough.
  • John Cooper — a College Football Hall of Famer whose conspicuous un-Ohio-ness (born in Tennessee, played at Iowa State, and coached at Tulsa and Arizona State) became even more egregious as he failed to beat Michigan — was canned.
  • Jim Tressel — who won a national title, beat Michigan like a drum, and dominated the Big Ten — was fired over a scandal that seems hilariously quaint now.
  • Luke Fickell was not retained after being a season-long interim.

And that leads us to Urban Meyer, the most accomplished coach of that group.

The path to failure was there, clear to anybody who’d followed Meyer’s career or knows how things typically go at Ohio State.

His health problems were resurfacing. The offense, a true revelation to Buckeye fans after the staid conservatism of the Tressel era, had begun to emulate its predecessor. And Meyer’s longtime Achilles heel, an inability to manage assistant coaches after the best ones leave, nearly brought him down. In one specific way, it probably should have.

But it didn’t. So the legacy-conscious Meyer left on his own terms.

What legacy will he leave?

The football accomplishments are unquestionably great, as he built on everything he inherited from the Tressel era and made it better. He transformed Ohio State’s recruiting from good to championship quality, rivaling Alabama near the end. His relentless focus on recruiting and achievement dragged a moribund conference to innovation. He won a national title, went undefeated in another season, came within a whisper of the playoffs in basically every other season, and — perhaps most importantly to Ohio State fans — never lost to Michigan.

He beat Michigan in close games. He beat Michigan in blowouts. More than the title, in Columbus, he’ll be remembered for conquering the supposed savior of Michigan, Jim Harbaugh. All the sleepovers, camps, and histrionics couldn’t make the Spot Less Good. Hell, Meyer has more career wins over Ohio State than Harbaugh does.

The other stuff? Boy howdy, that’s complicated.

Even at its most charitable reading, Meyer’s role in the Zach Smith affair was ugly. He didn’t give straight answers, couldn’t apologize correctly for his answers, couldn’t come clear on what his responsibilities should have been, and at the end of the day, kept a coach who had no business being a leader of young men around the program for too long.

It also nuked any modicum of goodwill he had left in the college football world outside of Columbus and made some of his previous controversies even trickier to defend. His messy departure from Florida, where he’d won championships with hordes of off-the-field issues, now looks even worse. His failure to monitor Smith also makes his decisions to hire Kevin Wilson and Greg Schiano at Ohio State look even more suspect.

The venn diagram of elite coaches in college football and those whose hands are totally unblemished by poor judgement is small, but that alone does not absolve Meyer.

I wrote back in October, during a game in which the Buckeyes were getting pummeled by Purdue, that this squad had some real problems, and perhaps the best solution would be for Meyer to retire at the end of the year.

A lot of people disagreed with that conclusion, and some probably still do, seeing as Ohio State went 12-1 this year, won the Big Ten, and will head to the Rose Bowl. But I stand by it.

What happens to Ohio State now is an interesting question. Ryan Day doesn’t fit the profile of the typical Ohio State coach. He’s young (only 39). He’s from New Hampshire (not Ohio) and spent the bulk of his career in the Northeast and the NFL. He hasn’t been a college head coach before, outside of his interim duties.

But he has a white-hot reputation in coaching circles (Meyer reportedly said he’s better than protégés Dan Mullen and Tom Herman), and Ohio State thought well enough of him to entertain making him coach in waiting. Former players love him.

And hey, this year, Ohio State’s defense might have sucked, but Dwayne Haskins is a Heisman finalist after turning in perhaps the best season for a Big Ten quarterback ever. And Day did go 3-0 as an interim coach, albeit against Oregon State, Rutgers, and TCU, the equivalent of playing two games on junior varsity difficulty and another on varsity.

He’ll have some difficult questions about Ohio State’s staff, and he’ll need to personally establish himself as an ace recruiter now that he heads over a program. But the floor and the expectations at Ohio State remain high. Ohio State has never lost eight football games in a season, and historically, they’re probably the most recession-proof program in the country. Ohio State has every financial resource, a favorable recruiting territory, a massive fan base and brand, and powerful inertia. Day doesn’t have to be a Hall of Fame coach to win a lot of games there.

What happens at Ohio State over the next few years will be part of Meyer’s legacy as well, especially after what happened in his wake at Florida.

Many people will guess that there’s no way Meyer will be satisfied with what he’s leaving at Ohio State, and might try to get back in the college game somewhere else. Maybe USC. Maybe Notre Dame, the only other program he could credibly call a dream job. Maybe the NFL. I don’t personally think that’s likely, but I can’t blame anybody for thinking it could happen.

Nothing about the last several years with Meyer has been simple.

He was an architect of some exciting, easy-to-root-for teams, but was often difficult to root for himself, particularly in his final season.

Now he’s the rare coach to leave Ohio State on his own terms, but even that is up for some debate.