On Monday night, Urban Meyer and his Ohio State Buckeyes became the first team to win a college football national championship in the playoff era. The win has people talking about the masterful coaching of Meyer, whose win on Monday night makes him only the eighth coach in history to win three championship titles and one of two coaches to win championships with two different programs.
It seemed improbable at best. The Buckeyes snuck into the playoff as the fourth and final seed. They faced this season’s Heisman-winning quarterback in Marcus Mariota. And yet Ohio State, with its third-string quarterback at the helm, won. And it was a win not only for Ohio State and the Big Ten, but most of all for Meyer. The team has gone 38–3 the past three seasons under Meyer’s leadership, and Monday night’s win could mark the start of what’s to come for Ohio State football.
Also on Monday, about 1,800 miles away from the packed AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, day two of jury selection for the murder trial of Aaron Hernandez, a former player at Florida under Meyer, was underway.
Hernandez is currently on trial for the first-degree murder of Odin Lloyd at his North Attleboro home in June 2013. His arrest, especially in its immediate aftermath, proved damaging to Meyer’s reputation and the reputation of Florida football at large. Many called into question Meyer’s role as a mentor and coach to Hernandez and perhaps his shortcomings in shaping Hernandez not just into a superstar tight end for the New England Patriots, but also into a responsible citizen.
Hernandez’s arrest for Lloyd’s murder is part of a larger pattern of violence and crime. Since the news of his arrest for Lloyd’s murder, claims have arisen about Hernandez’s alleged connections to other shootings in both Florida and Massachusetts. And Hernandez isn’t alone.
From 2005 to 2010, 30 different Gators were arrested on 31 separate occasions during Meyer’s tenure as Florida’s head coach. The charges ranged from underage drinking to more serious accusations such as aggravated assault and domestic violence. By and large, Meyer turned a blind eye to his players’ wrongdoings, choosing instead to pursue success at all costs.
And it seemed to work. During the same period, the Gators enjoyed tremendous success on the field, including Meyer’s first two national titles, two SEC championships and a Heisman win for quarterback Tim Tebow.
Despite the Gators’ accomplishments, however, Meyer’s reputation took a hit from the many arrests and questionable characters he coached and mentored at Florida, with the largest impact coming from Hernandez’s arrest and the media firestorm that ensued. As a consequence, in his tenure at Ohio State, Meyer’s regimen for his players has focused not only on ensuring excellence on the field, but also on building character and preparing young men for lives beyond football.
Perhaps thrust into the spotlight in response to the controversies of Florida, Meyer has proved himself to be a master motivator, implementing programs and opportunities for his players to improve themselves as players and as people. His players undergo Navy SEAL training in preseason, work with life coaches and participate in business training opportunities to prepare for life after football. There are slogans and mottos, and the now infamous “Eliminate the 16” idea that served as a singular mission for the Buckeyes in their preparations for Oregon’s offense in the National Championship Game.
Meyer’s story is a complicated one that raises the question of how we should define success in collegiate athletics.
Success has never been an issue for Meyer on the field, and he has a sparkling 142–26 record and three national titles to prove it. But it’s his sense of commitment to investing in individuals that seems to be tied up in his most recent success.
There are two important takeaways from Meyer’s and his Buckeyes’ win on Monday. First, Meyer’s situation on the whole has raised the question of how, or to what extent, coaches should be responsible not just to coach, but also to mentor their players. Following his time at Florida, it seemed that, whether it was right or wrong, it wasn’t necessary for Meyer to worry himself with his players’ lives outside of football. And he had the numbers — and two national titles — to prove it.
What Monday’s win has proven is that strong coaching and mentorship can go hand-in-hand, and that success on the field and off the field aren’t mutually exclusive.
What should be taken from Meyer’s story is that the obligation to try to make that impact is there, and it need not come at the price of success.
By no means is Meyer perfect, and no one can reasonably expect a coach to have a positive impact on all of his players. But this is a start.