Sports

The Jaguars’ Tim Tebow Signing Puts Urban Meyer’s Worst Habit on Full Display

Shocking as it may seem, the reunion in Jacksonville is not the first of its kind.

Urban Meyer, an alligator mascot, and Tim Tebow pose with their arms around one another.
Old pals Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow with Florida mascot “Albert” in Florida in 2011. Mark Ashman/Disney Parks via Getty Images

The story of Tim Tebow signing a contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars and trying to make the team as a tight end is, for the most part, not really about Tim Tebow. Like everything he does, it provokes a strong reaction from people who love him and people who don’t, whether because they think he’s corny or they resent the fantasy camp sports life he’s been living since he flamed out as an NFL quarterback and then, in 2016, became a New York Mets minor leaguer, with plenty of high-profile television jobs mixed in as his moonlight gigs. That Tebow thinks he can try playing a new position and make an NFL roster at 34 years old (the age he turns in August) is either inspiring or silly. Fifteen years after Tebow arrived at the University of Florida and became a public figure, and 11 after his NFL Draft year, we’ve all had ample time to choose sides.

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Tebow’s Jaguars career is probably not going to last long. But the coach who signed him—first as a dual-threat quarterback out of Ponte Vedra, Florida, in 2006, and now as an NFL tight end—is likely to leave a mark on the league. Perhaps Urban Meyer will succeed in Jacksonville, encouraging more NFL teams to consider hiring college coaches. Perhaps Meyer will crash and burn spectacularly. At the least, he’s the head coach charged with developing Trevor Lawrence, the best QB prospect to enter the league in years. Meyer is in charge of what should be one of the NFL’s more interesting franchises for the foreseeable future.

The history Meyer has with Tebow, and the reasons and circumstances under which the coach brought his former college quarterback back into professional football, is revealing. This story is entirely representative of how Meyer always ran his teams in the college game, and of how he is likely to continue running his teams in the NFL. As weird and even daring as signing Tebow in the year 2021 as a tight end seems, it says more about Meyer’s single-minded way of doing business than it does anything else.

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At Florida, Tebow and Meyer won a couple of national championships together. Tebow became one of the best college QBs and one of the most famous college athletes ever. In the years since, Meyer’s wife, Shelley, has described Tebow as “like a son to us and definitely part of our family,” saying she’d fight anyone who said anything negative about him. She probably wasn’t kidding. While the Meyers were at Florida, Urban berated a reporter, threatened his access, and called him a “bad guy” because he’d printed a quote that suggested Tebow wasn’t a “real quarterback.” When Tebow left for the NFL, he said he and Meyer would “always have a father-son relationship for the rest of our lives.” By every indication, that has held up.

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If Tebow is a son to the Meyers, then Urban Meyer is hiring an unqualified family member to try a difficult and competitive job. Meyer has an elite football mind and knows well that Tebow’s success as a QB in Gainesville in the late aughts says nothing about his ability to play a new and difficult position in his mid-30s, after five years out of the sport. But Tebow’s lack of any discernible tight end skills—what little sample we have did not look good—is not the point.

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In his long-ago QB, Meyer found someone he loves and respects. He wanted to give him a job, regardless of anything else. So he did. That’s how Meyer runs an organization. Whether the consequences are minor or severe, or good or bad, depends on your vantage point. But those outcomes are immaterial to the coach. The most important factor in predicting whether Meyer will do something is whether doing it will make Meyer and the people in his life happy. The consequences are not his problem, until they very much become his problem.

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The examples of Meyer doing business this way are many.

In 2009, near the end of Meyer’s time in Gainesville, police arrested Gators graduate assistant Zach Smith on suspicion of aggravated battery against his pregnant wife, Courtney. The police report said Smith grabbed Courtney “by her T-shirt, picked her up and threw her into the bedroom wall.” The police later dropped the case. Meyer was aware of the incident, but he kept Smith on staff. “There were no charges, and what was reported was not what was told to me afterwards,” Meyer said, echoing what’s become a constant theme: that he thinks he’s well suited to question staff and friends who have been accused of wrongdoing.

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In 2011, Meyer hired Smith as Ohio State’s wide receivers coach. When more allegations from Smith’s now ex-wife came to light in 2018, including one that led a judge to grant a protective order against Zach Smith, Meyer finally fired him. An Ohio State investigation later revealed that Smith had a stack of bad performance reviews that painted the picture of an ineffective staff member, regardless of what Meyer knew or should’ve done about the allegations against his subordinate. But Smith stayed on the staff for most of the decade, getting a national title ring in 2014.

Why did Smith get so many chances? His grandfather, a former Ohio State coach, was one of Meyer’s most influential mentors. “As I reflect, my loyalty to his grandfather Earle Bruce, who was my mentor and like a father to me, likely impacted how I treated Zach over the years,” Meyer acknowledged as Ohio State suspended him for three games in 2018.

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Not every case of Meyer making hiring decisions for ostensibly personal reasons is that egregious, but a pattern has emerged. For the 2016 season, he hired former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano to run the Buckeyes’ defense, despite Schiano being out of football the previous two years. They’d been friends since the ’90s. Schiano’s Ohio State defenses went on to underachieve by the standards of their immense talent advantage. In 2017, the team gave up 55 points in a loss to Iowa, an epic defensive breakdown. The next year, they gave up 49 in a loss to Purdue. Those losses cost Ohio State two College Football Playoff bids.

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Additionally, a few months after he joined Ohio State (but before his first season on the job), Schiano’s name appeared in court documents connected to the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. The documents included a claim that Schiano had seen Sandusky “doing something with a boy” as far back as the 1980s. Schiano was on Penn State’s staff from 1990–95; the claim was hearsay that’s never been verified. The point is not that Schiano should’ve been disqualified from the Ohio State job on the basis of the claim alone, but that his new boss’s way of handling it was familiar: Acclaimed investigator Urban Meyer and his old friend Schiano “had a long talk.”

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In 2017, Meyer hired recently fired Indiana coach Kevin Wilson to coach Ohio State’s offense, just a few months after allegations of player mistreatment got Wilson fired in Bloomington. Meyer respected Wilson’s ability as a coach and, as usual, his own ability as an investigator. “I already knew the guy, but I wanted to hear what went on, whether it was a disgruntled player or whether it was an issue with a trainer or an issue with something else. I just needed to find out, and so did my bosses,” Meyer said.

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After taking over the Jaguars, one of Meyer’s first big hires was former Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle, who’d battled Meyer’s teams in the Big Ten and built a reputation as one of the industry’s best. That was until Doyle resigned in 2020, when numerous Iowa players alleged racist mistreatment at his hands. Meyer wanted Doyle anyway and relied, yet again, on his own ability to investigate a guy he’d known for many years, citing their long relationship as a strength of his inquiry rather than a problem with it. “I vet everyone on our staff and, like I said, the relationship goes back close to 20 years and a lot of hard questions asked, a lot of vetting involved with all our staff,” Meyer said. “We did a very good job vetting that one.” Apparently not good enough; Doyle resigned after one day of intense backlash.

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In the middle of all of that, Meyer hired and then promoted his own son-in-law, Corey Dennis, who joined the Buckeyes as an intern in 2015 and rose to the role of “senior quality control coach” by 2018, Meyer’s last year in Columbus. At 28, Dennis is now one of the youngest college quarterbacks coaches in the country, leading one of the most talented QB rooms of any team. Dennis may be quite good at his job––Ohio State’s QBs are so talented and head coach Ryan Day is such a QB guru that it’s hard to know––but there’s no pretense that his father-in-law didn’t help him get the gig.

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Meyer’s influence is so vast that he’s helped install his friends in plenty of other jobs, too. It goes beyond having a big “coaching tree” like many greats of the game. In 2019, when Colorado State was seeking a coach to fill one of the most attractive jobs in the Mountain West, the athletic director brought on Meyer for “advising.” The AD insisted “there was no way where he was trying to shape the decision for us.” By what I guess is total coincidence, CSU landed on Steve Addazio, a longtime Meyer lieutenant and ally who’d just been fired by Boston College and ran one of the most consistently boring offenses in the power conferences.

There’s room for nuance in a lot of Meyer’s moves. Schiano and Wilson were objectively qualified for their jobs as assistants at Ohio State, and neither had a smoking gun that would have kept them from those roles. Dennis had at least done enough for Meyer’s successor to promote him to a more important job. Given his player evaluation ability, Meyer would deserve a little more benefit of the doubt on the Tebow signing if not for his long history of giving jobs to his friends. Meyer also gets tagged often for the numerous legal troubles of his Florida players, who were arrested 31 times in his six years on the job. While Meyer’s belief that he could help talented but troubled players was clearly overstated in some cases, it wasn’t in others.

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It’s natural for an accomplished leader to look out for his own people. At least in the case of Smith, Meyer realized he’d let personal loyalties cloud his judgment. But it’s not clear Meyer has learned from that at all, and he has continued to stand out in a coaching industry that—league-wide—looks like a good ol’ boys network even when outright favoritism and nepotism aren’t occurring. By repeatedly giving plum opportunities to buddies and family members despite variously sized red flags, he’s become an avatar for an industry that’s the opposite of a meritocracy.

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In the college ranks, Meyer faced different consequences for his management style. At Florida, he worked himself to the point of serious health problems while plowing through them in the pursuit of more trophies. At Ohio State, the Smith episode earned him a brief suspension, while it’s arguable the Schiano hire kept the Buckeyes out of two separate national title races. Meyer looked miserable by the end of his tenure in Columbus, flashing body language that was impossible not to notice even by the midgame standards of anguished coaches.

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This, in short, is who Meyer is. Jaguars owner Shad Khan knew who he was hiring. Whether Meyer’s organizational approach brings Jacksonville the championships it brought Florida and Ohio State is up in the air. Whether it brings the rest of the Urban Meyer experience to the team has already become clear. The failed hiring of Doyle came earlier this off-season, so the Jaguars’ impending fling with Tebow at tight end isn’t even the first example of Meyer’s habit living on, and it won’t be the last.

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