Sports

Urban Meyer Was Not Built for This

The NFL has no patience left for a coach like him.

Meyer smiling with his arms folded
Meyer during pregame warm-ups before the Jaguars game against the Rams at SoFi Stadium, on Dec. 5 in Inglewood, California. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

It has been a long time since an Urban Meyer coaching tenure ended happily. At Florida, where he won two national championships, he resigned in 2009 for health reasons, a product of what he called a “self-destructive” lifestyle as a college football coach. At Ohio State, where he popped up a year later and then added another title, he “retired” following the 2018 season, in what felt less like a retirement than an inevitable divorce. By that point, Meyer and his employer had clearly grown sick of each other after the coach had been suspended three games for his handling of assault allegations against an assistant. But in Columbus as in Gainesville, he at least nominally went out on his own terms.

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Meyer is not leaving the Jacksonville Jaguars on his own terms. After eight months as the team’s head coach and an astonishing number of humiliations in that short stretch, team owner Shad Khan fired him overnight on Thursday. This should be the last coaching job Meyer holds, and the last time he has direct reports, for at least a while. Naïve as this might sound, it will probably be his last NFL head coaching dalliance, because from the outset of his brief tenure, Meyer made it clear to anyone who was paying attention that he was never built to coach professional athletes.

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In his most recent college tenures, Meyer was wildly successful on the field and only burned himself out because of his management failures later on. In his lone NFL head job, Meyer couldn’t sniff the on-field success to cover for his deficiencies as a leader. So he’s gone after 13 games, and he should go down as the ultimate cautionary tale about the differences between coaching players who have agency and players who do not. Meyer was never built to rule anything but his own kingdom, and his spectacular collapse in Jacksonville proved it.

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As a college coach who won a lot, Meyer had an almost unlimited leash to lead his teams as he saw fit—not just to lord over his players, but to hire whomever he wanted, dictate media coverage of his teams to a significant extent, and to generally make himself bulletproof for a long time. College football programs construct cults of personalities around successful coaches, and Meyer had one at Ohio State. Even after his suspension-marred final year in Columbus, the university had him teach a “leadership and character class”—it was really called that—to undergraduates. His reputation in the sport was such that in 2019, Colorado State University, a school Meyer had worked at in the 1990s, essentially substituted him in for its athletic director to select its head coach. Big shocker: Colorado State landed on Meyer’s close friend and former offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, a curious hire who wound up fired just two seasons into the gig. Meyer has allies and former assistants all over the country.

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When Khan hired Meyer in January, it was clear the owner wanted some of that Meyer shine. “He’s a winner, a leader, and a champion,” the owner said then, as if winning and leading in college are the same in the NFL as in college. Meyer quickly demonstrated that they are not. In his eight months in Jacksonville, Meyer compiled an absurd list of instances in which he got himself into trouble for doing things he might’ve gotten away with on campus but could not get away with as the coach of one of the NFL’s worst teams. It’s worth going through them.

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In his first days on the job, Meyer hired strength coach Chris Doyle, who left Iowa in 2020 after multiple former players accused him of demeaning and racist behavior. Meyer, who already had a well-cultivated reputation for hiring friends with shaky resumes, said he’d known Doyle for “about 20 years” and that he’s “known him,” “studied him,” and “vetted him thoroughly.” Meyer’s insistence that people trust his judgment didn’t do it for much of the public, or for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group that works on diversity issues in the NFL, which called the hire “a failure of leadership.” Doyle resigned a day after taking the job.

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In May, Meyer signed Tim Tebow, his title-winning Florida QB, to try out at tight end for the Jaguars. Tebow had never played the position and predictably got cut before the season. It was a classic Meyer move, giving an opportunity to someone whose main qualification for the opportunity was a close personal relationship with Meyer. It resulted in a more qualified player not getting a chance to try out, while Tebow lived out his fantasy camp before going back to a TV job. Plenty of NFL players went public with their annoyance at the whole thing, and I’d bet money that some of Tebow’s new teammates thought it was absurd, too.

In July, the NFL fined the Jaguars $200,000 and Meyer $100,000 for violations of regulations around physical contact during offseason drills. Those rules are the product of collective bargaining between the league and the NFL Players Association. Meyer was not used to coaching union-represented labor. He would’ve faced no such consequences for running his workouts as he saw fit if he’d still been atop a college program. In September, Meyer got into more union hot water after he said the Jaguars would consider players’ vaccination statuses in evaluating them for roster spots. It was a reasonable idea, but also in direct conflict with collectively bargained rules that said teams couldn’t do that. The union investigated, the Jaguars walked back Meyer’s comments, and everyone ultimately moved on.

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Throughout training camp, Meyer insisted that his No. 1 overall draft pick and franchise cornerstone, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, was locked in an honest position battle with former sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew. Staging fake position competitions with obvious eventual winners is common practice in college, but it’s weird in the NFL, where preseason repetitions are currency. Meyer spent the preseason wasting a huge share of those reps on Minshew, before inevitably making Lawrence his starter with less preparation than he could’ve had. The Jaguars then traded Minshew, having more or less wasted his snaps.

The season started, and the Jaguars were predictably terrible, and Meyer didn’t handle it well. At the end of September, they lost in Cincinnati to move to 0–4. Meyer, who has family in Ohio, took the unusual step of not flying home on the team plane—a no-no in the NFL, where coaches of 0–4 teams are expected to at least accompany their players home and make an appearance of getting to work on fixing things. Then a video came out of Meyer acting publicly horny at his own restaurant with a much younger woman who is not his wife. Rampant leaks suggested that Meyer’s players had little respect for him by that point.

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Leaks were a problem for Meyer all year, in fact. At Ohio State, Meyer publicly threatened to fire anyone who talked to reporters without his program’s authorization. In Jacksonville, the building was like a colander. The latest and most damaging round came in an NFL Network report last week, which said Meyer had berated his assistant coaches as “losers” who’d never won like he had, and that he had so alienated respected receiver Marvin Jones that Jones recently left the facility and had to be brought back by assistants. Meyer denied calling assistants losers but admitted he is hard on them while denying the story about Jones. He again threatened leakers, saying he would fire one “within seconds” of identifying them. All of it is a far cry from college, where media access is tightly controlled and leaks from players are rarer than in the NFL.

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All the while, the team stumbled to 2–11, and Meyer seemed completely aloof. When a reporter asked him about playing time for safety Andre Cisco, he said he thought Cisco had been playing a bit more, despite Cisco not having played a defensive snap in the most recent game. He acknowledged his unawareness of who was being rotated into the game at running back and receiver, though the NFL Network report said he’d also overridden his running backs coach to bench perhaps the team’s best player, James Robinson, after a fumble.

Meyer, who often looked like he was in physical pain on the sideline when his Ohio State teams struggled, never took it well. After his last game, a loss to the Tennessee Titans, Meyer looked like a dead man walking. Witness his handshake with Titans coach Mike Vrabel, a former assistant of his:

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The thing that finally sealed Meyer’s doom, it appears, was an allegation by former kicker Josh Lambo that Meyer kicked him at a practice in August. “It certainly wasn’t as hard as he could’ve done it (kicked), but it certainly wasn’t a love tap,” Lambo told the Tampa Bay Times. “Truthfully, I’d register it as a five (out of 10). Which in the workplace, I don’t care if it’s football or not, the boss can’t strike an employee. And for a second, I couldn’t believe it actually happened. Pardon my vulgarity, I said, ‘Don’t you ever f––king kick me again!’ And his response was, ‘I’m the head ball coach, I’ll kick you whenever the f––k I want.’ ”

It makes sense that Meyer would believe he could do whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted. Those were more or less his ground rules while he reigned over unpaid athletes on college campuses, where the wins he racked up made him a god. Coach authoritarianism is on its way out in the college game, but it’s even harder to pull off  in the NFL. And now Meyer is gone along with the myth that he was ever any kind of authority on leadership.

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