Former Florida football coach Urban Meyer will become the football coach at Ohio State. Let's start with that assertion, and get past the "Ohio State and Urbie, sitting in a tree" rumors.
The litany of reasons why Meyer's is the first name to bubble to the surface when Ohio State and head coach and vacancy get churned through the stream of Google News flotsam is well-known and unsurprising.
Meyer's from Ashtabula, Ohio, nearer to Cleveland than Columbus, but if a young man is growing up a football fan in Ohio in the pre-Internet age and not a) in Athens or b) a rebel, that young man was likely an Ohio State fan; Urban Meyer, no rebel, was an Ohio State fan. Members of the Earle Bruce coaching tree tend to be loyal to Ohio State; Urban Meyer was Bruce's receivers coach in the '80s. People write out clauses into contracts to preserve dream job opportunities; Urban Meyer had one for Ohio State. Tim Tebow, probably the closest thing to a child Meyer has outside his actual family, thinks Meyer will coach in college again.
Meyer's certainly given anyone interested in presenting a case that he will be the next Ohio State head coach a treasure trove of circumstantial evidence with which to make a compelling case. I don't think that he will be the next Ohio State head coach, and as much as it pains me to agree with Mike Bianchi, I think Ohio State needs a Ron Zook first.
Florida fans have seen this Ohio State scenario before. When Steve Spurrier left Florida for the NFL in early 2002, there were a few problems with Florida's program that left it looking less like the shiny new Cadillac it has become and more like a early-'90s Benz: Spurrier's reputation as a fantastic coach and occasionally great recruiter was cemented by mediocre classes in 2000 and 2001, leaving Zook's first Gators roster with Rex Grossman and Taylor Jacobs and Earnest Graham and ... hey, Keiwan Ratliff was good. And there was also a growing public perception that Florida had slipped behind Miami and Florida State in the state of Florida, which was as true then as it is odd to type now.
Ron Zook helped fix all that. Really.
Though Zook was, charitably, an underwhelming coach on Saturdays, and a lamentable steward of a program that needed a far firmer hand than he could provide, except when mixing it up on Frat Row, he primed the pump for Meyer's successes in Gainesville. He was young(ish) and fiery, and that sort of thing drew in big, strong, fast, and great football players; much is made of how valuable Meyer's recruitment of Tebow was to Florida, but Zook reeling in Chris Leak primed the pump for those future successes. Heck, hiring Meyer when Zook was fired was likely easier than selling Bob Stoops et al. on the program post-Spurrier; the team Meyer got sold in the fall of 2004 was at least rising, while Spurrier's 2001 team had plateaued.
And, yeah, Zook didn't beat Miami in two tries and indirectly led to a third loss to the 'Canes, plus he went 1-2 against Florida State. (And, yes, two of those four losses are among the five most painful Florida losses in the span of my fanhood.) But that one victory against Florida State was a huge shot in the arm for the Gators, and helped condemn the Seminoles to the Jeff Bowden death spiral. And Zook, for all his mismanagement, didn't let the laissez-faire miasma poison players' conduct to the point that Larry Coker would, later, resulting in a revolting end. (He also didn't have a player killed on his watch, though Coker shouldn't be blamed for the death of Bryan Pata.)
Zook's recruiting gave Meyer the players he needed to win a national championship and set the stage for an encore; Zook presiding over mere decline rather than decay helped keep Florida from slipping further behind Florida State and Miami. Hate him all you want: Ron Zook was bad by Florida standards, but not, ultimately, bad for Florida.
Right now, Ohio State needs a Ron Zook figure because the Buckeyes need someone who will do damage control, not go full steam ahead.
Make no mistake about this: Ohio State is going to get hammered by the NCAA. If USC's penalties, considered tough by many, are the punishment for what is essentially a lot of hot air and a smidgen of proof about an assistant providing illegal benefits, what, exactly, will the NCAA do to Ohio State, where the compliance department has been made to look clueless or duped by a head coach who lied to the NCAA? Is Ohio State's bumbling handling of multiple investigations even worse than USC's defiance? Will a "tougher" NCAA be less lenient on the Buckeyes than it was on Troy?
There may be drawbacks to Urban Meyer being a cutthroat corporate coach more in line with Ryan Bingham than Bear Bryant, but that's also what makes him smart enough to avoid all but the wake of the meteor that will hit Columbus. And Ohio State has to have at least one decision-maker smart enough to see the dark clouds on the horizon and decide that spending on a young go-getter in the Zook mold will help more in the 2012-2015 window than wasting money on a top-flight coach who will be handicapped by far more than scholarship restrictions. (I mean, it has to, right?)
There's virtually no way Ohio State will be less appealing in 2014 or 2015 than it is in 2012. Give Ohio State a few years to clean this stain and play through the penalties, and it'll be Ohio State again. That's the premier program in the conference Meyer grew up watching; it's a program that will back up multiple truckloads of money at Meyer's Haile Plantation home whenever Meyer decides to say "Boo"; it's a program big and strong enough to give Meyer shots at winning a third national championship and completely sealing his legacy as the greatest college football coach of the modern era.
The prestige and money will always be there; Meyer only needs to figure out if his timing is right.
I think it will be easy for Meyer will wait more than a year to return to coaching, recharging his batteries and spending time with the family that he might, y'know, love. In four years, both Nicki and Gigi Meyer will likely have graduated from college, and Nate Meyer will be in high school; in the fall of 2015, Meyer will be 51 and will have dealt with whatever his health concerns add up to for a longer time. He might even be able to get things fixed rather than managed with more significant time off.
So, yeah, the writing's on the wall for Meyer coaching at Ohio State, even if I think the 2012 start date that will be mentioned literally thousands of times on the Internet and at tailgates between now and New Year's may be a little off. And it's going to hurt Florida fans, even though it shouldn't.
Meyer's the most successful coach in the history of Florida athletics. Other coaches have won as much — Billy Donovan, sure, but also Mary Wise, Andy Brandi, and a slew of others — and done more to make Florida successful — cough, Spurrier, cough — but Meyer delivered two national championships and the most popular player in Florida football's history in a span of six years, and you need not know much about how lucrative college football is to conclude that Meyer's winning ways paid off for the University of Florida in ways none of his predecessors and contemporaries can match. Seeing that guy, the one who brought so much joy to Gainesville, wearing that steely visage on a sideline in Columbus? It will be painful.
But Meyer owes as much to Gators fans, the University of Florida, Jeremy Foley, and Gainesville as LeBron James did to the Cleveland Cavaliers and their respective fans and decision-makers in the summer of 2010. Meyer, like James, completed the terms of his contract, and is free to make his own decision to do whatever he likes. It's his prerogative to leverage media interest in his future into a splashy hour-long charity-plumping ESPN special if he wants; it's his decision to return to coaching, and his alone, though I would imagine Shelley, Nicki, Gigi, and Nate might have some input on it, and we can do little more than speculate about it.
While I will miss Meyer, in some ways, during this fall and future falls, I can't get mad at someone making decisions worth millions of dollars and having his own best interests at heart rather than mine. So I've resigned myself to seeing Meyer in scarlet windbreakers: That's a lot easier than hoping it won't happen.
I wish Meyer the best of luck in his future plans, and I wish the Meyer family good health and continued good fortune. And I hope my Florida Gators have a little bit more, if ever our paths should cross again.