Commentary

Meyer's quest against the odds

Originally Published: August 15, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Urban Meyer left Florida in December 2010 and searched his soul to determine if he could return to coaching without ruining his life.

He asked his peers, men such as Mack Brown and Bob Stoops, how they coached at a national championship level and maintained their relationship with the real world of wife and family. As my colleague Wright Thompson reported last week, now that Meyer has returned to his home state to take over the Ohio State Buckeyes, the coach keeps a rock on his office bookshelf on which is etched the word, "Balance."

In his search to achieve that balance, however, Meyer overlooked one piece of the task before him. If he's going to win his third national championship, this time while coaching in the Horseshoe, Meyer must dislodge the rock in his way called "History."

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer is trying to equal Nick Saban in winning another title at a second school.

Of the 11 men before him who left the school where they finished No. 1 and returned to college football as a head coach, only one won another national championship. Nick Saban, who won at LSU in 2003, has held up the crystal football twice at Alabama, most recently in January.

"Wow," Meyer responded when asked about the precedent. "I never even thought about that. It's probably true. Obviously, off the top of my head, who else has done it? That's interesting.

"Wow," Meyer repeated. "That doesn't give me a lot of assurance right there."

It gets worse. Of those 11 coaches, only Saban and three others took a subsequent team to finish in the top 10.

The itinerant national championship coach is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the postwar era before 1976, only two coaches finished No. 1 and left that school. Jim Tatum, who led Maryland to the 1953 national championship, returned to his alma mater, North Carolina, in 1956. Tatum died suddenly three years later.

Paul Dietzel coached LSU to the 1958 title and left three years later for Army. That's right, boys and girls -- Army. Dietzel, not yet 40 at the time, had grown up as an assistant coach at West Point under Red Blaik and had visions of returning the Black Knights to the national prominence they enjoyed after World War II. It didn't work out there, or subsequently, at South Carolina.

But it took another 15 years before a national championship coach left his school and surfaced at another. The winning coaches in the interim, men such as Darrell Royal of Texas and Ara Parseghian of Notre Dame became icons at their universities. Legends such as Bear Bryant of Alabama, John McKay of USC and Woody Hayes of Ohio State didn't want to coach anywhere else.

After the 1976 season, that began to change. Johnny Majors left Pittsburgh, which he had just coached to No. 1, for his alma mater, Tennessee. Of the eight coaches who followed in Majors' footsteps, six took on the challenge and/or the lucre of pro football. All six found their way back to campus. One, John Robinson, even returned to the same campus, USC. Not all returned to a program of equal strength, with the same tradition and resources that helped the coaches to finish No. 1 at their earlier stop.

"What it comes down to is," Meyer said, "are you at a place where you can get the players and afford the staff? … The good thing is, at Ohio State you can recruit very good players and you can hire good coaches. That's the bottom line."

Robinson returned USC to the Rose Bowl but not to national championship contention. Danny Ford, who, at age 34, coached Clemson to the 1981 national title, won an SEC West championship at Arkansas in 1995. Lou Holtz took South Carolina from 0-11 in 1999 to 8-4 in 2000. They discovered how difficult it is to climb those last couple of rungs.

Steve Spurrier, who succeeded Holtz with the Gamecocks, needed six seasons to win the SEC East, South Carolina's first division championship, in 2010. Last season, Spurrier took the Gamecocks to an 11-2 record and a No. 9 finish (see chart).

When asked about the methodical, patient climb to national relevance, Spurrier, chuckling as answered, said he didn't want to be methodical or patient.

"We just didn't quite put the pieces together as well as we have now, for whatever reason," he said. "I just really believe I've got an excellent group of assistant coaches. Our recruiting has been much, much better than before. The commitment level of the players has been much better. It just got better as we went along."

Spurrier, who won his national title at Florida in 1996, a decade before Meyer won his first in Gainesville, doesn't believe it will take Meyer long to contend for a championship.

"Urban's going to be fine because he's got ballplayers up there," Spurrier said. "Ohio State might not have won big last year [6-7] but when [Jim] Tressel was there they recruited top five, top 10 in the country every year."

Meyer and Spurrier repeated the same recipe for success: recruiting and a good staff. Meyer, in discussing his assistants, said he didn't feel about them the way he did his first staff at Florida.

"One thing about my first [championship]," Meyer said, "the head coach was a little overrated. I had a group of players that will go down as some of the greatest in college football history at Florida. I had some coaches who are all doing great things. I think five of them have gone on to be head coaches. The 2005 staff was the model -- the recruiters, the quality of teachers, quality people. That was the model."

If Meyer wanted to reassemble that old staff, he couldn't do it. Not only are four running their own programs -- Steve Addazio of Temple, Doc Holliday of Marshall, Dan Mullen of Mississippi State, and Charlie Strong of Louisville -- but Greg Mattison is the defensive coordinator at Michigan, Ohio State's archrival.

"I didn't even try," Meyer said of trying to lure Mattison to Columbus. "If I could, I would have."

Times changes. Coaches move on. The game evolves. Meyer looks at the task of winning big at Ohio State and wonders aloud if the coaches he hired will meet his standard. Meyer, who became a head coach at Bowling Green in 2001 at age 36, said his assistant coaching career wasn't long or varied enough to develop a big network.

"A lot of the guys I wanted [for Ohio State] were gone," Meyer said. "There's a little bit of risk involved. Some of these guys here I hadn't worked with before. A couple I didn't even know. I've never done that."

Meyer won't win any championships in 2012. Ohio State is ineligible because of NCAA sanctions. National championships are not easy to win. No one knows that better than the coaches who have won one. That is the burden they bring upon themselves. Once they win one, they are expected to win another.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com