USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken explains Urban Meyer's decision to suddenly retire from coaching and what it will mean for his legacy. USA TODAY Sports
By the time Hurricane Urban blew out of Gainesville eight years ago, nobody really understood what kind of cultural rot had seeped into the place and how long it would take to remove it. In some ways, frankly, Florida football has never been the same.
From the outside, Ohio State today appears to be on more solid ground than Florida was in 2010 when Urban Meyer stepped aside, citing his health as the primary reason he could not continue. Still, it’s never easy to follow a legend, which prompts a question as Meyer once again abruptly leaves the stage: Does either Ohio State or Ryan Day know what they’re in for?
Though the 39-year old Day was both the natural and obvious in-house successor once it became clear at midseason that Meyer was at least contemplating retirement, promoting him under these circumstances is still a decision fraught with risk on both sides.
For the Buckeyes, it’s a huge gamble on the potential of their offensive coordinator, who has been in the mix for some Power Five jobs the last couple years but none approaching the magnitude of Ohio State.
And for Day, while it’s the career opportunity of a lifetime, it’s also a massive task to replace a coach who won 90% of his games over the last seven seasons because almost anything he does short of that will be viewed as a failure by a fan base that is accustomed to greatness.
On one hand, you can understand Ohio State’s thinking. Day will presumably keep a lot of Meyer’s staff in place as well as his offensive system, easing the transition for current players and recruits who are already in the pipeline.
The model for this has been Oklahoma, which successfully handed off the program from Bob Stoops to Lincoln Riley in the summer of 2017 and subsequently made consecutive College Football Playoff appearances.
But not all handoffs from legend to lieutenant are as smooth, and if Day struggles with the external demands of being a full-time head coach, it will be fair to ask athletics director Gene Smith why Ohio State didn’t make a run at luring Stoops (an Ohio native) out of retirement or even poaching Matt Campbell, who has worked wonders at Iowa State but previously spent his entire life in Ohio.
Instead, Ohio State is betting on the strength of the program as it is, the infrastructure already in place and his coaching talent to keep the Buckeyes at the top of the Big Ten.
Day’s three-game audition this season when Meyer was suspended looked promising. Ohio State had no trouble with Oregon State (77-31) or Rutgers (52-3) and overcame some in-game adversity against TCU to win comfortably (40-28).
But how much does that really mean when the standard Meyer set is so unrealistically high?
Even when Jim Tressel was dominating the Big Ten, the program wasn’t operating at quite this level. What Meyer did was to take what had already been in place under Tressel and enhance it with an SEC-style recruiting machine, repeatedly nipping on the heels of Alabama for five-star kids from all over the country.
How much of that was the Ohio State brand, and how of much of it was Meyer who, for all the melodrama surrounding him, could walk in any living room in the country with the gravitas of being the second-most accomplished coach of his generation?
Meyer had two great gifts as a coach: The ability to recruit and a knack for understanding the psychology of 18-to-22 year olds. His ability to probe the minds of his players and diagnose what it would take to get them to play their best set him apart from his peers. It won’t be easy to replicate.
On the other hand, it shouldn’t take long to see whether Day has the goods or not because among all the major powers in college football, Ohio State is really the only one that has never had a significant drought in the modern era.
For all of its success recently, Alabama had plenty of ups and downs before Nick Saban came along. Southern California has risen and fallen based largely on the ability of its coaches. Oklahoma fired three coaches after Barry Switzer left until Stoops returned the Sooners to national prominence. And Texas went through a mediocre decade of David McWilliams and John Mackovic before hitting on Mack Brown.
Ohio State, on the other hand, has essentially remained among the nation’s best programs without any long-term interruption since the 1960s. Even when John Cooper lost his mojo at the end of the 1990s, Jim Tressel — previously a Division I-AA coach at Youngstown State — came in and won a national title in Year 2.
In other words, the entire setup at Ohio State is built to keep winning. The in-state talent is there, the national branding is still strong and the current roster is loaded with former blue chip recruits.
The only missing element will be Meyer. That didn’t work out so well the last time he left a program, as Florida sunk quickly under Will Muschamp (who was fired after four years) and hasn’t yet fully recovered to its former glory.
Ohio State is probably in better position than the Gators to keep the success going. But as good as people in college football think Ryan Day can be, he’s got a tough job ahead of him.