- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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As midnight approached Jan. 12, Urban Meyer stood on a podium at AT&T Stadium and raised the national championship trophy, the third of his coaching career and his first at Ohio State.
He guided Ohio State to a title with a third-string quarterback, a revamped offensive line and a still youthful defense that had struggled for most of the previous year. His Buckeyes outlasted both Alabama and Oregon, the nation's top two teams for most of the season, in the inaugural College Football Playoff to bring a trophy to Columbus.
Meyer's individual trophy case, however, gained no new hardware.
The national coaching honors all went to others (mostly TCU's Gary Patterson). Meyer didn't win either of the Big Ten's annual coaching awards -- both went to Minnesota's Jerry Kill -- as a baffling boycott of Buckeye bosses continued (an Ohio State coach hasn't won since Earle Bruce in 1979).
Meyer's coaching contribution the past season might not be directly recognized in tangible form, but it won't soon be forgotten.
Former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, speaking this past month with ESPN's Colin Cowherd, said Meyer "did the greatest coaching job of all time."
Where does Meyer's coaching performance rank in college football history? And can he deliver an encore at Ohio State, which opens spring practice Tuesday?
ESPN.com asked seven national coach of the year winners in hopes of finding out.
An 'incredible' job
Attaching the GOAT label to a single-season coaching performance is difficult and extremely subjective. But all the coaches surveyed agreed Meyer's 2014 job belongs in the conversation.
"It's hands-down one of the best," said Bill Curry, who won the 1989 Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year honor at Alabama. "To bring them through against those opponents with your third quarterback, especially since he didn’t play until the chips were down, it’s almost unthinkable."
Former Tennessee coach Philip Fulmer, who won a national title and five national coaching awards in 1998, places Meyer's performance among the best ever, if not at the top. Like many, Fulmer had serious doubts about Ohio State's season after a Week 2 home loss to Virginia Tech.
"You just watched the team continue to improve," Fulmer said. "And then to beat Alabama. Who has a third-team quarterback that can do that? That’s incredible. Great job of managing his team, great job of overcoming adversity with injuries, a tough loss and close games."
Not surprisingly, the coaches were most impressed by Meyer's quarterback management. Mack Brown, who won national coaching honors in both 2005 and 2008 at Texas, visited Ohio State with ESPN's bus tour shortly before Braxton Miller re-injured his shoulder. Miller, a two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year, didn't throw during the practices Brown attended, and reserve quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones both struggled.
Brown saw an offensive line searching for the right combination and a young defense that needed work in the secondary. Bottom line: "They didn’t look very good as a football team," Brown said.
Ohio State overcame not only the loss of Miller, but also the loss of Barrett, who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and was named Big Ten quarterback of the year. Jones eclipsed 240 pass yards in each of his first three career starts to help Ohio State win the title.
When a quarterback goes down, Curry said a coach immediately files through a set of questions about the next guy: What’s he comfortable with? How much pressure can he tolerate? How do we handle him when he goes out and throws two interceptions?
Curry was most struck by how Jones responded to mistakes.
"It's hands-down one of the best. To bring them through against those opponents with your third quarterback, especially since he didn't play until the chips were down, it's almost unthinkable."
Former Alabama coach Bill Curry
"He had been prepared," Curry said. "He goes to the sideline, and he’s over there smiling. He’s not hanging his head. He’s ready to go back. As a coach, you’re constantly pushing your backups, 'Expect to be in the game next play.' That’s easy to talk about and hard to do. But they did it, not once but twice."
Tom Osborne had to play his third-string quarterback at Nebraska during the 1994 season after he lost Tommie Frazier (blood clots) and Brook Berringer (collapsed lung). Walk-on Matt Turman directed wins against Oklahoma State and Kansas State before Berringer and, eventually, Frazier returned.
The Huskers went on to win the national championship.
"I’ve never seen it where you lose your top two guys like Ohio State did and still have a No. 3 guy come in and play at the level [Jones] did," said Osborne, a two-time national coach of the year. "It was pretty remarkable. It was obviously a great coaching job but also a great recruiting job because they obviously have very good players."
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who won five national coaching honors in 2012, said the quarterback attrition allowed Meyer to unite his players, as he had at past stops.
"You take Utah. It’s a situation where they were the underdog and a non-BCS team," Kelly said. "At Florida, they were supposed to win. At Ohio State, they were injured. He’s always been able to take his situation and create 'us against them.' He's a master of doing it because he builds great relationships with his players."
Delivering an encore
Few professions carry stronger demand for an encore than college coaching. Gene Chizik won a national title with Auburn on Jan. 10, 2011. He was fired Nov. 25, 2012, after Auburn went 3-9 and 0-8 in the SEC.
How does a coach stay at the top?
"I’m going to cop out on that one," Curry said with a laugh. "Ask Urban. How do you follow that, big boy?"
"It's just hard to win two in a row. Everybody's after you, so you're going to get their best game every week. And you usually are not able to play your best game every Saturday."
Former FSU coach Bobby Bowden
Meyer doesn't have to worry about his job, but he faces pressure to win another title at Ohio State this season. The Buckeyes almost certainly will enter the season ranked No. 1.
For that reason, he likely won't get nearly as much credit if the Buckeyes repeat. But perhaps he should.
"It's just hard to win two in a row," said former FSU coach Bobby Bowden, who fell shy of repeating at Florida State in both 1994 and 2000. "Everybody’s after you, so you're going to get their best game every week. And you usually are not able to play your best game every Saturday."
Alabama's Nick Saban is the last coach to win back-to-back titles (2011 and 2012). Before that, no coach has won consecutive titles since Osborne in 1994 and 1995.
"It’s how focused those guys are going to be and how hungry they are," Osborne said. "You've got a different team. The chemistry's different. The mind-set can be different. It's a fragile thing. It's never automatic."
Convincing the 2015 Buckeyes they are a different team could be challenging. Ohio State lost only eight senior starters and returns core pieces at quarterback, running back, linebacker, defensive back and along both lines.
Many Buckeyes are enjoying the post-championship glow in Columbus while beginning preparations for the 2015 season.
"You saw some of this at Florida State this year, but one of the things is: Do you keep your team’s attention as much?" Brown said. "That’s a difficult thing. You’re usually headed to the White House in the spring, when you should be talking about next year. Then, at the end of spring practice, your national championship rings come, and kids are wearing the rings. They get around positive feedback all year, where last year people questioned them.
"When Braxton went down, they questioned them. When J.T. went down, they questioned them. They had a chip on their shoulder last year, and it was easier to do because they had enough things they had to overcome."
Ohio State had to overcome injured quarterbacks in 2014. Meyer's next challenge likely will be managing three healthy, accomplished ones. The Buckeyes have the most unique -- and likely most scrutinized -- quarterback situation in recent college football history.
It's a situation many coaches would love, but one that could create divisions if not handled correctly.
"This business is still centered around the quarterback," Kelly said. "Their quarterback [Jones] outperformed Marcus Mariota in that game. Now, other players had something to do with it, clearly, but their quarterback still had to perform at a high level. So what’s next for [Meyer] is: Who is the quarterback?”
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, who won multiple national coaching awards in 1998 and 2011, thinks Meyer has to strike a balance between acknowledging the past and "staying in the moment." Like many coaches, Snyder thinks you learn more from adversity but can draw from success, "if you're willing to learn."
"I know Urban is certainly proud of them, but that performance level will have no impact on the coming season," Synder said. "You have to get that message across. He’s gone through it, and he, as much as anyone, has a very strong feeling about how to approach it because he went through the same thing at Florida."
"This business is still centered around the quarterback. Their quarterback [Jones] outperformed Marcus Mariota in that game. Now, other players had something to do with it, clearly, but their quarterback still had to perform at a high level. So what's next for [Meyer] is: Who is the quarterback?"
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly
Other coaches agree Meyer's previous repeat attempts at Florida, though unsuccessful, will serve him well this time. Florida followed the 2006 title with a 9-4 mark in 2007. The Gators came closer to repeating in 2009 but lost to Alabama in the SEC title game and finished 13-1 and No. 3 in the polls.
Brown and Meyer have talked extensively about the challenge of repeating. Brown's Texas team entered 2006 at No. 2 but lost in Week 2 to Ohio State and finished 10-3.
"You absolutely have to start over, like it's your first year," Brown said. "Some of the things that he felt like he might have done at Florida that didn't work as well after one of those national championships, he’ll tweak all of that and change it. I can promise you he started this immediately."
Meyer has a reputation for tough, competitive practices, but coaches think he'll ratchet things up more after the title. Fulmer said Meyer must be especially hard on the returning players, which impacts how their younger teammates prepare.
Any coach can be demanding, but only a handful get the desired outcome from their demands.
"What did John Wooden have with his guys? What is it that Bobby Dodd did with his Georgia Tech guys?" said Curry, who played center for Dodd at Georgia Tech and Vince Lombardi with the Green Bay Packers. "It was a magic connection, so that when that great leader walks in the room, the room changes. When Vince Lombardi walked in a room, nothing stayed the same in there. It was just a different atmosphere.
"All the great ones have that, and certainly, Urban's one of those."
If Meyer follows arguably the best college coaching performance with another championship, he could cement himself as the greatest.