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STILL STUCK BACK ON CAMPUS, MEYER DOESN’T BELONG IN THE NFL
Between his overly emotional reactions to losses and early struggles to develop Trevor Lawrence, it’s unlikely Jacksonville will be a place of Urban Renewal — and if he’s fired, would anyone want him?
With the benefit of a time machine, sure, he’d still be sheltering back in his television Foxhole. His health, legacy and tear ducts would be protected that way, unharmed by studio chalk talks with Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. But Urban Meyer, knowing the gut-bomb losses and accompanying schadenfreude might be coming, dared to try the NFL meat grind anyway.
At least give him that much. Without a Hazmat suit, he dove into the toxic waters of Big Boy Football. He placed his head into an unforgiving coaching guillotine, on professional earth that is scorched, not paved with the privileged velvet of three national championships and the third-highest winning percentage — 187-32 calculates to .854, behind only Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy — in college football history. He could have settled and enjoyed the easy life.
Instead, Meyer opted for fool’s gold.
He thought he could accomplish what his contemporary, Nick Saban, painfully could not. He wanted to join Pete Carroll, Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer as the only college coaches who have won Super Bowls. Yet already, he is drowning in the first four-game losing streak of his career, as we wonder if his rash attempt to regenerate the miserable Jacksonville Jaguars will finish either with a hospital stay, the league’s first-ever 0-17 regular season or his one-and-done dismissal. The Urban Renewal experiment will not end well, and he knows he can’t go back to his old life, as Bob Stoops occupies his TV chair and looks happy and healthy, the pleasures Meyer likely won’t experience again on a sideline.
If the Jaguars don’t win a game soon — and there is little reason to think they will, with Tennessee next, followed by an ill-timed London trip, then tests against Seattle, Buffalo and San Francisco before what will not be a pleasant Thanksgiving — Meyer’s family and friends will start worrying about his physical and mental well-being, if they aren’t at this point. The concerns started after a Week 2 loss to Denver, with a regrettable post-game comment during a handshake with Broncos coach Vic Fangio, the kind of dues-paying lifer who might resent Meyer’s immediate NFL entry upon snapping his fingers on the yacht of Jaguars owner Shad Khan.
“I don’t know Urban Meyer at all, really, I met him the other day, and his comment to me was, ‘Every week, it’s like playing Alabama in the NFL,’ ” Fangio volunteered. “And that’s it. Everybody’s capable of beating everybody in this league.”
Then Meyer took to social media, always a mistake for an NFL coach who should leave such frivolities to his public-engagement department. When a franchise has lost 19 straight games, Meyer should realize fans aren’t interested when he posts a photo of players and coaches locked in arms of purported unity — and why wasn’t he in the picture, by the way? “Hang in there with us,’’ Meyer wrote. “We’re going to get better. The one thing about Jacksonville and the 904 (area code), go to sleep knowing there’s not going to be any group working harder to get this thing flipped.”
Rah. Rah. Sis boom bah. All that was missing was a video of the Ohio State marching band playing “Hang on Sloopy.’’
It was ammunition for the legions who dislike and troll Meyer, based on a perceived reckless, tone-deaf approach — winning at Florida amid dozens of player arrests, winning at Ohio State while ignoring a national outcry over his support of a staff assistant coach accused by his wife of domestic violence. Was he surrendering in the big leagues after only two regular-season games? Then came a blown 14-0 lead Thursday night in Cincinnati, where Meyer and his staff were out-strategized by Bengals coach Zac Taylor — who might hail from the tree of Sean McVay, but remains a mere twig — in a last-minute, 24-21 crusher. He reacted like a man unaccustomed to the sting of losing, his eyes red from crying, his hand possibly swollen after he slammed the podium.
“It's devastating. Heartbreaking," Meyer said. “These guys. Usually, I'm not wrong about stuff like that. I just see a good team in there. I see good guys. I see good hearts. I see guys that work, and I told them I'm not wrong. I'm not wrong about that stuff. This team is going to win some games."
The scene triggered unsettling memories of Meyer’s health issues the last time he was at a career crossroads. Remember when Saban beat him in the 2009 SEC title game, a landmark setback that led Meyer to take a leave of absence at Florida, return for a troubled 2010 season, then depart permanently in a prelude to taking the Ohio State job — all while Saban was launching a dynasty of six national championships at Alabama. If Meyer wound up in the emergency room at 44, what happens at 57?
No longer can he dominate seasons by recruiting batches of five-star players. If his previous regime left him with a gutted defense, Meyer will be judged on whether he develops Trevor Lawrence, among the most talented quarterbacking prospects of this or any era. So far, Meyer is no QB whisperer, as Lawrence has thrown seven interceptions and fighting the first four-loss streak of his life. He has shown improvement of late, but if Lawrence doesn’t project the look of a franchise player by season’s end, it’s possible Khan won’t have the patience to keep Meyer. Next offseason is too critical for the Jaguars, who will have $100 million in salary cap space and possibly the No. 1 overall pick again, to leave the future in the hands of an overly emotional, stuck-in-college coach who is learning on the job.
With every Jaguars loss, curiosity about Meyer’s next gig rages: Might he want the USC job? Oh, he might, but a better question is: Why would USC want him when his reputation is trending backwards? Why would a university mired in years of scandals, across campus, inherit Meyer’s baggage when he’ll be lucky to avoid 15 losses in Jacksonville? More likely, athletic director Mike Bohn is focused on the coach he hired at the University of Cincinnati, Luke Fickell — who slayed Notre Dame for his signature victory Saturday — and Penn State’s James Franklin. A better fit for Meyer might be a return to Ohio State, where the Buckeyes have slipped out of the national elite under Ryan Day.
Or, it could be, Urban Meyer has nowhere to go but early retirement. If so, his final chapter shouldn’t be relegated to a simplistic conclusion: He’s the latest college coach who can’t succeed in the NFL. As Meyer and the Jags sink to the bottom of the power rankings, consider the 3-0 Arizona Cardinals, who are coached by Kliff Kingsbury, hired out of college without a lick of pro experience, and notice the 3-0 Carolina Panthers, coached by Matt Rhule, who had just one season as an assistant line coach with the New York Giants in 2012 but otherwise was trained in the college ranks, most recently at Baylor.
When Kingsbury and Rhule strap on their headsets each week, they see an NFL opponent across the way.
Urban Meyer, forever the Big Man On Campus but never the King of Sunday, still sees Alabama.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he has gravitated by osmosis to film projects.