Wojo: Does Urban Meyer’s departure open door for Harbaugh, others?

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
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Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer celebrates winning the Big Ten championship. He is retiring after the Rose Bowl.

Detroit —  Be relieved or celebratory if you wish. Be skeptical of his motives and intentions, too. Just be careful assuming this is the end – for Ohio State as a super-power or Urban Meyer as a coach.

Meyer is retiring from Ohio State after the Rose Bowl, and suddenly there’s a gaping hole in college football and the Big Ten, and the task seemingly just got easier for Jim Harbaugh and others. That’s the theory, at least.

The reality is, the Buckeyes are losing one of the game’s all-time greats, and it’s a huge blow for them. But be cautious forecasting an immediate boon for the Wolverines, or the Spartans, or the Nittany Lions, or any other would-be reign-taker. The Buckeyes have been rocked before by scandal and sudden departures, and for most of the past half-century, they haven’t slipped from the elite.

The pressure is back on blast for Harbaugh, 10-2 this season but 0-4 versus Meyer after the 62-39 pummeling two weeks ago. It’s renewed for Mark Dantonio, 7-5 this season but the only Big Ten coach to beat Meyer twice, and renewed for James Franklin too.

There is an opening in the Big Ten East, for sure. But kicking in that door might not be so simple. The Buckeyes have recruited at an incredible level, and new coach Ryan Day has helped coordinate a record-setting offense the past two seasons, including that 62-point cavalcade against Michigan’s vaunted defense.

We’ve never seen a coach quite like Meyer, 82-9 in seven seasons with the Buckeyes, an astonishing 54-4 in Big Ten regular-season games. He’s won a combined three national championships at Florida and Ohio State, and lost zero games to Michigan (7-0) as the Buckeyes coach. Outside of Nick Saban, there’s nobody better at winning by any means necessary, with innovation, motivation and risk-taking (good and bad).

But similar things were said about Jim Tressel, whose ugly ouster in 2010 with a 106-22 record at Ohio State was supposed to signal a seismic shift. That shift lasted precisely one 6-7 season under interim Luke Fickell, before Meyer stepped in. Go all the way back to Woody Hayes, fired in 1978 after punching a Clemson player during the Gator Bowl, and Earle Bruce, fired in 1987, and John Cooper, fired in 2000.

The Buckeyes always find their way back, as consistently ruthless as any program in the country. Meyer said he’s leaving primarily for health reasons, which were evident as he struggled with headaches and other effects from a brain cyst that required surgery in 2014. If that’s it, the honorable thing to do is wish him well. The wise thing to do is acknowledge this might not be his official end, at 54. In 2009, he announced his retirement from Florida for health and family reasons, unretired shortly thereafter, then left after an 8-5 mark the following season.

“The decision was a result of cumulative events,” Meyer said Tuesday at a news conference in Columbus. “And health number one. The fact that we have an elite coach on our staff. The fact that our program is very healthy, we’ve recruited very well. All played a significant role in this.”

And yet when asked if he’d ever coach again, Meyer said it was a “complicated question.” He later clarified, sort of, saying, "I believe I will not coach again."

You can’t ignore other factors for his departure now, including the turmoil and three-game suspension by Ohio State at the start of the season, and his obvious disgust with it. And here’s one possibility that should chill Michigan fans anxious to revive a rivalry in which they’ve lost 14 of 15: What if Meyer is leaving now partly because he believes he has the ideal replacement in Day, considered a top recruiter and brilliant offensive strategist?

As much as it seems Meyer has pulled off remarkable things all by himself, he’s done it at places willing to give him broad latitude and limitless power. And he’s done it with coaches who know how to run his spread offense, and how to plug in quarterback after quarterback.

Meyer always had a quarterback, from Alex Smith at Utah (a No. 1 overall NFL pick), to Tim Tebow at Florida to Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Dwayne Haskins at Ohio State. Just as important, he always had an assistant perfectly aligned with the system.

At Florida, it was Dan Mullen, who went on to become a success as head coach at Mississippi State, and now leads the Gators. At Ohio State, Tom Herman helped run the offense for three years, including the 2014 national champions, and landed one of the top jobs in the sport at Texas.

Cris Carter, the former Ohio State receiver, said on FS1 that Meyer considered Day the best offensive coordinator he’s ever had. Maybe that made it easier for Meyer to leave now, instead of coaching one more season, as was reported last week by some outlets.

Meyer is an ambiguous man with an unambiguous won-loss record. His legacy is more complicated, from the nasty rash of off-field problems at Florida, to his distasteful, damning handling of assistant Zach Smith’s domestic abuse case the past several years, which led to the suspension.

Ultimately, Meyer was good for the Big Ten, raising stakes and competitive standards, even imploring other programs to upgrade their recruiting to lift the conference’s profile. His 2014 national title gave the Big Ten exactly two in the BCS/playoff era, with Tressel winning in 2002.

Like the bully who leaves school before anyone knocks him out, Meyer departs. And foremost among the scrutinized ones remaining will be Harbaugh, to see if his day is coming. He’s got an improved shot, no doubt, although Ohio State’s Day is coming too. If nothing else, this had better become a much closer fight.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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