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By Will Leitch
One of my earliest, and happiest, college football memories is watching my beloved Illinois Fighting Illini lose. We’re very used to losing — our current coach, Lovie Smith, is 9-27 in three seasons in Champaign — so we know a special loss when we see it. It was the 1982 Liberty Bowl, and my Illini were sacrificial lambs. Why? Because that Liberty Bowl was the sendoff for legendary coach Bear Bryant, the man who led Alabama to six national championship and is widely considered the greatest, and most revered, college football coach of all time. Bryant’s Crimson Tide won the Liberty Bowl that year, 21-16, and Bryant was feted as a king, an all-time warrior deserving a true Viking funeral. (He ended up dying less than a month after he walked off the field.)
Bryant’s sendoff is considered the gold standard of college football coach retirements, a vaunted leader of men able to gallop off into the sunset fully intact. All college football coaches want it, and, as it turns out, many of them get it … whether they deserve it or not. Which brings us to Urban Meyer.
On New Year’s Day, Urban Meyer, Ohio State’s head football coach and a two-time national champion, will take to the sidelines for his final game as a college head coach. Meyer announced earlier this month that he’ll be retiring once his Buckeyes finish their Rose Bowl game against Washington, and, to hear Meyer and his Ohio State brethren tell is, this moment is the logical conclusion of decades of uninterrupted, peaceful bliss. “What Urban has brought to Buckeye Nation by far exceeded expectations,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said at the press conference announcing Meyer’s retirement. “He is a brilliant leader of men.”
To hear Meyer and his Ohio State brethren tell is, this moment is the logical conclusion of decades of uninterrupted, peaceful bliss.
This is one way to look at it. Another is that Meyer has had about as difficult a final year as you could imagine, a mess entirely of his own making. Remember, Meyer had to sit out the first two games of this season on an “administrative suspension,” after news broke that he not only had kept on an assistant coach who had been charged in multiple domestic violence incidences, but he had in fact known about it and may have even discouraged the wife from coming forward to authorities. He then lied about it at Big Ten media day this year and was forced to quickly backtrack when the assistant coach’s wife came forward.
Many called on Meyer to resign (coaches have resigned for much less), but he rode it out and served his “suspension” at a school where the president of the university once joked that he, in fact, worked in the service of the head football coach. By the end of the year, Meyer was being cheered by the Ohio stadium crowd again as if nothing had happened. If Ohio State had caught a break here or there, the Buckeyes might have even made the College Football Playoff, instead finishing No. 6 in the country with a coveted Rose Bowl appearance. Meyer, whose team is a 6.5-point favorite, couldn’t have asked for a better final game.
But, uh, doesn’t it feel like Meyer’s getting away with something here? Three months ago, it looked like he was going to slink away in disgrace. Now he’s getting the Bear Bryant treatment. (Bryant had a couple pseudo-scandals of his own — he was once accused of fixing a game, which led to landmark national legislation — but nothing that rose to the level to protecting a man who beat his wife.) And it’s not just that. After Meyer leaves the field Tuesday, he has another job waiting for him in Columbus: He’ll be co-teaching a class called “Leadership and Character” at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business. At most jobs, what Meyer did in regards to his assistant coach would get you banned from the industry. In college football, it gets you a farewell tour and a cushy retirement job in which you extol wisdom to the masses.
At most jobs, what Meyer did would get you banned from the industry. In college football, it gets you a farewell tour and a cushy retirement job.
How can this be? Did we learn nothing from Joe Paterno? (Who, of course, has his own gaggle of truthists still rallying in his defense.) If Paterno had been young enough to coach again after being forced to resign at Penn State, would he too have been given another chance? D.J. Durkin, the Maryland coach who was fired after his conditioning drills led to a player collapsing and dying on his practice field, is already consulting for top program Alabama before its national championship game.
If Durkin helps Nick Saban win another title, you can fully expect him to return to coaching, just like Hugh Freeze, the disgraced Mississippi coach who abruptly resigned in 2017 because of recruiting violations and his tendency to use his work phone to call escort services. Freese was out of work a year and is now back coaching at the uber-religious Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr’s school. Don’t think Rick Pitino isn’t going to get a chance to come back to college basketball coaching either.
Is it any wonder that Art Briles, the Baylor football coach who oversaw one of the worst scandals in recent college sports history — one involving multiple players accused of rape and Briles actively trying to cover it up — now thinks he can and indeed should get another shot?
You don’t have to have a fall as dramatic as Paterno or Pitino to get a second chance: A lot of times, you’re allowed to plow forward without many knowing anything had happened at all.
You don’t have to have a fall as dramatic as Paterno or Pitino to get a second chance: A lot of times, you’re allowed to plow forward without many knowing anything had happened at all. James Franklin was accused of asking a player to delete an incriminating video involving a rape when he was coach at Vanderbilt. Franklin denied the allegation and later admitted he had lied about ever seeing the video. Franklin suffered no consequences as a result of the scandal, however, and is now coaching at … Penn State, of all places. Another great example of this: Meyer! His program at Florida was, in his words, “broken” when he left it, with player arrests in the double digits. And that’s not even getting into Aaron Hernandez. None of this stopped Ohio State from eagerly hiring him when he returned to coaching.
If Ohio State wins Tuesday, Meyer will get his hero’s farewell: His players might even carry him off the field, or dump Gatorade on him. He’ll then teach his class, and someday, he’ll probably get a plaque — if not a full-blown statue. No matter the scandal, Meyer has always had an ace card: He kept winning. And when you win everyone you work with, and work for, gets conveniently forgetful. That is college sports, incarnate.