The Messy Pursuit Of Urban
October 07, 2011
Urban Meyer has been connected to the Ohio State football program as a top-line coaching candidate practically since the moment Jim Tressel resigned on Memorial Day, and SportsRappUp.com has confirmed there is mutual interest.
However, there are several potential snags that could prevent OSU from landing the free-agent extraordinare – namely the mysterious handling of current coach Luke Fickell, the growing interest in Meyer by other major programs and the mire of an ongoing NCAA probe and player scandal that is growing murkier by the day.
Meyer, of course, resigned as Florida’s head coach at the end of last season citing a need to spend more time with his family. Even though he reluctantly admitted late in his tenure in Gainesville that he was suffering from stress-related headaches and chest pains later diagnosed as esophageal spasms, the now 47-year-old said he simply wanted to take a break from coaching.
Of course, he didn’t stray too far away from the game. ESPN quickly gobbled up Meyer as a college football analyst and teamed him with former Buckeye and fellow analyst Chris Spielman as well as play-by-play man Dave Pasch.
As fate would have it, Meyer’s first gameday assignment was in Columbus for Ohio State’s opener with Akron. A few days prior to that Sept. 3 contest, Meyer was asked if already harbored desires to coach again.
“I’m in a little bit of an evaluation phase in my life so I try not to look too far in advance,” he said at the time. “There’s a big part of me that hopes I love that I do what I’m doing and I really enjoy some of the things I’m witnessing with my kids growing up, but I do miss coaching terribly, very badly. I don’t know. I’m not going to evaluate until it’s time to evaluate.”
However, a well-placed source who asked not to be named recently told SportsRappUp.com that Meyer already is entertaining ideas of returning to coaching and that Ohio State is near or at the top of his wish list. The source, who is a close friend of Meyer’s, said three jobs almost certainly would cause him to spring from the broadcast booth – Ohio State, Penn State and Texas.
Of course, all three of those tradition-laden programs currently have head coaches in place, but that could change rather quickly at any or all of them.
Penn State’s legendary Joe Paterno still hasn’t disclosed his intentions after this season, but there is now reason to believe that the 84-year-old may be willing to step down from the post he has held for 46 years, especially if he can leave the program in good hands.
Paterno and Meyer got along famously during the buildup to the 2011 Outback Bowl, which served as Meyer’s last outing as head coach of the Gators. Florida won the New Year’s Day bowl 37-24 to improve his record to a stellar 104-23 (a winning percentage of .819) as a head coach, including 7-1 in bowl games.
“Paterno certainly likes Urban,” Mark Brennan, editor of FightOnState.com, told SRU. “You could see that at the end of last year. And no question there are plenty of fans here who would be fine with a move like that. But who knows? We’re in uncharted territory.”
Apparently that possible transition also has a lot of merit within the Penn State administration.
The source told SRU that school officials contacted Meyer Sept. 25 and expressed major interest in pursuing him as head coach should Paterno, in fact, decide to retire.
Meyer was in State College to conduct a preseason interview with Penn State linebacker Mike Mauti, now out for the year with a torn ACL, and reportedly met with school president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley while on campus. Those talks apparently were productive.
“Urban would love to have that job,” the source said. “Keep in mind, though, that he doesn’t want to be known as the guy who forced out Joe Paterno. It would have to be done in the right way. I think they could appeal to Joe Pa’s best interests and allow him to be the king-maker.”
Meyer, as fate would have it, will be in Happy Valley this weekend to join Pasch, Spielman and sideline reporter Quint Kessenich for Penn State’s important Big Ten game with Iowa.
Since Meyer was born in Toledo, grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio, played college ball at the University of Cincinnati, once coached at Ohio State, and began his head coaching career at Bowling Green in 2001 – the same year Tressel set up shop at Ohio State – the majority of rumors involving Meyer link him to OSU.
However, that may not be a slam dunk, especially if Penn State really is in need of a new coach for the first time since 1966.
“Forget about Urban at Ohio State,” college football writer Matt Hayes of the Sporting News tweeted on May 30. “Doesn’t want to walk into NCAA violations – and is waiting out Penn State job.”
(More on the Ohio State candidacy in a moment.)
According to the source, Meyer also is very intrigued with the job at Texas, currently occupied by Mack Brown. The Longhorns have further secured themselves as an annual contender for the Big 12 crown, are inching closer to their own television network and enjoy conference consideration and major advantages in a recruit-rich area.
Brown has been at UT since 1998 and won the 2005 national championship but hit a nadir last season as the Longhorns were a dismal 5-7. Texas has a show-me game with rival Oklahoma this weekend.
Other potential openings also could interest Meyer. Arizona is expected to let go of Mike Stoops after this season and could make a substantial offer, and Georgia could be ready to off Mark Richt, ending his up-and-down 11-year run there.
The Southeastern Conference isn’t a likely landing place for Meyer, however. After all, he remains very connected to Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, his close friend and neighbor. Also, some in Meyer’s inner circle and others outside it say he became increasingly concerned with the win-at-all costs mentality of the SEC.
“He knew with (Nick) Saban coming into the league he couldn’t dominate down there, plus you’ve got a lot of programs in that league who are breaking the rules,” former Ohio State star lineman John Hicks, an unofficial spokesman for ex-Buckeye players, told SportsRappUp.com.
Meyer and Saban (2003, '09) are the only coaches with two BCS national championships on their resume, the former victimizing Tressel and the Buckeyes at the end of the 2006 season and then besting Ohioan Bob Stoops and Oklahoma two years later. Meyer also is 4-0 in BCS bowl games, owns two SEC titles, and allowed quarterback Tim Tebow to flourish enough to win the 2007 Heisman Trophy as a sophomore.
But even after winning 73 percent of his SEC games while at Florida from 2005-10, Meyer never felt like he had completely satisfied the need of greedy fans and occasionally bristled at media suggestions that a bevy of player arrests during his tenure spoke to his lack of control.
Publicly, Meyer stepped down because of family and health concerns. Privately, he told confidants such as Earle Bruce, who hired him as an Ohio State graduate assistant in 1986, that he was “burned out.”
“Here’s my thing with Urban: He didn’t go to Notre Dame (in late 2009) because of the academic requirements," Hicks said. "He was coaching in a great football state with beautiful weather, more kids, less restrictions, a great conference. In Florida, they have spring football in high school – high school.
“So why am I chasing a guy who walked away from a goldmine?
“I guess I don’t see it like other people do. He won a title at Florida with Ron Zook’s players. And nobody knows Urban around here.”
Meyer, however, keeps in close contact with Bruce, the College Football Hall of Fame coach who directed the Buckeyes from 1979-87 and currently serves as an analyst on Columbus-based radio station WTVN (610 AM). Bruce asked not to speak on the record for this article but did point out that he is first and foremost supportive of Fickell and for that reason doesn’t discuss the Ohio State situation with Meyer.
Plus, Hicks admittedly is a bit biased. He is very close to Fickell’s parents, Pat and Sharon of nearby Westerville, and coached Luke in both youth football and baseball.
“The guy with the most upside is the guy we’ve got now,” Hicks said.
That sentiment may be losing traction, if it ever even had any, thanks to unrest in the program that is mounting with regularity. With Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor suddenly vanished, the anger and frustration of Ohio State fans is beginning to fall on those left behind – university president Gordon Gee, athletic director Gene Smith, Fickell, Tressel’s longtime offensive assistants whom Fickell retained, and veteran players such as wide receiver DeVier Posey and tailback Boom Herron.
Those two seniors were suspended for the first five games of the season because of NCAA rules violations and recently were suspended again, along with starting offensive guard Marcus Hall, for Saturday’s game at Nebraska (8 p.m. Eastern, ABC) and possibly longer because of overpayment from a booster who employed them in the offseason. The latter bombshell landed on the program Monday, raising the disgust level to deep scarlet.
Several sources have told SRU that the upheaval has now seeped into the Ohio State locker room. One source, who has spoken with several players recently, said the team is now “fractured.” Some players are struggling with a newer, much younger head coach and some feel more allegiance to the veteran members of the staff such as coordinators Jim Bollman and Jim Heacock, and Dick Tressel, Jim’s brother, who coaches the running backs and also is in charge of special teams at Fickell’s directive.
A few players questioned the offensive play calling in Twitter posts in the days following the punchless 10-7 loss to Michigan State on Saturday.
Also, two very well-connected sources separately informed SportsRappUp.com of the following: Friction has set in between Fickell and Bollman, and first-year linebackers coach Mike Vrabel recently picked up the playbook during a staff meeting and fired it across the room at a group of offensive assistants, yelling “This is sh**!”
In a recent interview with Big Ten Network, Fickell, a former Buckeye nose guard, was asked how the Buckeyes would be able to endure a brutal October stretch of games – vs. Michigan State, at Nebraska, at Illinois and vs. Wisconsin – and the first-year coach said repeatedly, “We have to keep everybody together.”
That could be a very telling comment, and also may apply to the Ohio State hierarchy, which appears rudderless at the moment in terms of deciding how to handle the coaching situation.
“I’ve talked to the trustees,” Hicks said, “and here’s the problem: They have not set a parameter on how you gauge Luke, how he succeeds.”
After Smith’s press conference on Monday in which he confirmed the latest NCAA mess, SportsRappUp.com asked the AD one-on-one if the administration had any criteria in place that would detail how Fickell might be retained.
“I don’t talk about personnel issues like that publicly,” said Smith, who originally referred to Fickell as the program’s interim head coach and days later removed the interim tag in June.
When asked if he could at least address whether or not Fickell has been made aware of his standing, Smith repeated, “I don’t talk about that publicly. We’ve got lots of games ahead of us.”
The following day, SportsRappUp.com asked Fickell if he knew particulars outlining how he would be judged on his performance as head coach and if he had any notion as to how he might actually be a legitimate candidate for the position after this season.
“Nope,” Fickell told SRU. “I’ve heard nothing in regards to that. Nobody has laid anything out for me and, quite frankly, I haven’t even asked.”
When asked why he hasn’t inquired, Fickell added, “Well, because how would it change how hard I work, how I do my job and the effort I put into things on an everyday basis? Either way I love Ohio State and I want what’s best for the program. And that’s the beauty of working here even if the circumstances aren’t perfect. You’re at a place you love.
“So we’ll keep working on it as a staff, keep tweaking it, and make the little adjustments and make sure the kids are preparing to do the best we can. That’s what I want to focus on anyway.”
Former Buckeye William White, who serves as a player mentor in the program, called Fickell a “fighter” and a “grinder” and confirmed that the coach is working under a cloud of conjecture.
“I’ve talked to Luke and I truly believe he’s not even worried about it,” White said. “He is genuinely concerned about the program – and that’s something the kids need to get a hold of.”
The fans are getting restless as well. Many called for the heads of Gee and Smith this week and also demanded that Fickell kick Posey and Herron off the team. On Saturday, when the Buckeyes were in the neighborhood of 100 yards of total offense in the fourth quarter against the Spartans, the crowd of 105,000-plus booed lustily.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio was asked after the game if he was surprised by that response in Ohio Stadium.
“Was I surprised?” he said, repeating the question. “I used to work here.”
That answer garnered a few laughs in the interview room but sources close to Dantonio said he was highly disappointed with that reaction.
Days later, national writer Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com began his column thusly:
“They booed Saturday at Ohio State because the Buckeyes lost to Michigan State. They booed the remaining innocent, eligible student-athletes who (we think) haven’t taken extra benefits. They booed bad football. They booed bad football forgetting that better players were either suspended or had escaped to the NFL.
“That’s no way to impress Urban Meyer.”
Who’s Minding The Store?
Meyer, though, has even bigger concerns with the OSU situation, according to sources.
First of all, a lengthy NCAA investigation that led to school officials appearing before the Committee on Infractions Aug. 12 has left the university awaiting a ruling on sanctions, and Smith said Monday that finality likely is further delayed thanks to the latest booster/improper benefits scandal.
Also, allegiances appear to be varied. There are administrators in the corner of Smith, some who would like to see Fickell given a fair chance to stay and succeed, and others who think the school needs to begin courting potential candidates now.
Meyer was told by school higher-ups this summer that he was on the coaching radar and he expressed reciprocal interest.
However, he told the aforementioned close source that he has spoken with Jim Tressel and isn’t confident in the competence of the administration, especially Smith. Also, Ohio State hasn’t formulated a plan or pushed forward in its quest to tempt Meyer as other schools such as Penn State have.
The school’s Board of Trustees is not scheduled to meet again until Nov. 3-4 and its involvement has yet to be outlined.
Meanwhile, Gee, who recently dubbed Ohio State as “the poster child for compliance,” is still in the most powerful chair.
Gee knows his reputation and that of the university are on the line and it’s likely a coaching search won’t proceed until he gives the word and points the compass.
“Gordon is consolidating his power,” Hicks said. “He’s checking over the Alumni Association and he’s getting ready to take over the athletic department. He’s made Gene a VP (associate vice president) of the university. At this point, Bricker Hall runs everything – and that’s Gordon.”
Gee, of course, speaks well of Fickell’s efforts publicly but is monitoring the situation with caution. For example, two different sources informed SRU that Fickell has been told by university officials not to interact with Jim Tressel and to avoid even bringing up his name whenever possible.
When Dantonio’s father died early in the season, Bollman attended the funeral to support his former OSU co-worker but Fickell did not. Instead, he called Dantonio to explain, and Dantonio, who stays in touch with Tressel, told him he understood and already was aware of the circumstances.
Fickell is under a two-year contract paying him $775,000 annually, a bump in pay of right around half a million dollars from 2010, when he was in his ninth year on the OSU staff and holding the position of co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach.
Still, many close to the situation believe he is being treated merely as a one-year caretaker of the program without complete autonomy. All speculation now points to him not hanging onto his job, especially if the struggling Buckeyes, unranked for the first time in seven years, sink any further.
“He’s got too much on his mind to get caught up in that,” Hicks said. “He’s trying to get through this season, get possibly to a bowl, get the players shifted over to semesters (from the academic quarter system) and get up to northeast Ohio and secure his planks up there. There are a lot of millionaires from up there who played here for Tress and you can’t lose that area.
“The more uncertainty there is, the more you screw it up and it’s going to take four years to undo.”
Of course, that concern also could compel Ohio State to begin chasing after other coaches with more cachet.
When asked if he would be disappointed to find out that the university had formed a search committee for the job, Fickell told SRU, “No, because they’ve got to do what they need to do, and I understand that. Would I like it? No. But I’m going to fight on and control the things I can and come here every day looking to make us better.”
Of course, other name candidates could emerge if the OSU administration does indeed look outside the program.
Bob Stoops would be a tough get considering he just inked a lucrative contract extension – $34.5 million over the next seven years – and that Oklahoma is now well-positioned for Big 12 supremacy for years to come. Still, he could be contacted.
Jon Gruden’s name could arise again, Boise State’s Chris Petersen likely is on a short list and Dantonio has told a source close to SRU that he would at least listen to any overtures from Ohio State.
Meanwhile, Fickell continues to try to block out what are now monumental distractions and focus on doing his job. His critics are growing in number because of the Buckeyes’ tepid 3-2 start and some believe the 38-year-old is in over his head, citing his unwillingness to name team captains and his perceived lack of attention to detail on game day.
When asked recently if all of the naysayers and turmoil had somehow accelerated his growth as a head coach, Fickell said, “Who knows? In the long run you’ll see. There’s a lot of things that maybe you didn’t know what to expect. And there’s probably a lot of coaches that coach a long time that have never been in this situation. But then again there are a lot of coaches coaching for a long time that have never been in a national championship game.
“I guess you’ve got to go through them to be able to handle them. And the next time you go through them hopefully you are better at whatever you are doing. That’s when you probably evaluate yourself to see that you got better at what you do.”
However, the clock already may be ticking against Fickell’s chances at having another go-round at his alma mater – as well as Ohio State’s chances of landing Meyer as his replacement.