Commentary

Great expectations greet Urban Meyer

Originally Published: November 28, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Urban Meyer isn't going to Ohio State to add to his legacy. If he never coached another down, Meyer would be a shoo-in for the College Football Hall of Fame. He has coached the exact Hall-required minimum of 10 seasons, going 104-23 (.819) at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. The two national championships the Gators won in his six seasons in Gainesville put Meyer in a very small fraternity.

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James Lang/US PresswireBy leaving Florida and resurfacing at Ohio State, Urban Meyer joined a small fraternity of coaches who left successful jobs to return to their hometown school.

Meyer left Florida a year ago with a chronic case of burnout. He isn't the first coach to leave a marquee job for health reasons. Usually, though, it's the program that's sick of the coach. That's been the case at Ohio State, where every head coach has been fired or forced out going back to the 1940s.

That doesn't turn Meyer's head in the slightest. After sitting out a year, the Ohio native and former Buckeyes assistant is returning to Columbus because Ohio State is his dream job. That Meyer is going from one marquee program to another -- even with a year-long hiatus in between -- puts him in another small fraternity.

If history teaches us anything, it is that coaches don't leave the top programs of their own volition. But when they do, it is often to satisfy a personal yen.

Bear Bryant had taken Texas A&M to No. 1 in the polls in 1957 when word leaked that he had begun talking to his alma mater, Alabama. When he took the job, Bryant explained, "Mama called."

Bryant is the primary example of a coach leaving a top job to make a successful return home. He won six national championships in 25 seasons in Tuscaloosa.

Bernie Bierman had made Tulane -- yes, Tulane -- the class of the South, going 28-2 from 1929 to 1931, including a Rose Bowl trip in '31. But Bierman, a Minnesota native who played for the Golden Gophers, went home to coach Minnesota and won five national championships in the next 10 years.

Tommy Prothro took Oregon State to two Rose Bowls in 10 seasons. After the second one, in the 1964 season, Prothro returned to UCLA, where he had been the top assistant to Red Sanders in the early 1950s, and returned to the Rose Bowl in 1965 with a different team. In six seasons with the Bruins, Prothro went 41-18-3 (.685) but suffered in comparison with the crosstown dynasty of John McKay at USC. Prothro left UCLA after the 1970 season to become an NFL head coach.

Bryant, Bierman and Prothro are the exceptions rather than the rule. In most cases, the return home has raised expectations that few coaches could meet.

Johnny Majors took Pittsburgh to a 12-0 record and the 1976 national championship. But when that regular season ended, Majors agreed to return to Tennessee, where he had been an All-American 20 years earlier. He said he did not go because Mama called.

"Basically," he wrote in his 1986 autobiography, "I think it was ego, a challenge, an 'I'll show them' kind of thing. I wanted to prove something, and on looking back it seems downright silly to me today. I didn't have to prove anything, to me or anyone else."

Seven years earlier, in 1969, Tennessee had been the school left behind. Doug Dickey took the Volunteers to play Florida in the Gator Bowl, and shortly after the Gators won 14-13, the winning team hired the losing coach.

Dickey had grown up in Gainesville, the son of a professor, and played three sports for Florida.

"I had a real strong feeling that was a place I could do something that hadn't been done before," Dickey told author Buddy Martin for his 2006 book, "Inside Gator Nation." "Whatever I did at Tennessee, (Gen. Robert) Neyland had already done."

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Bernard Troncale/US PresswireBear Bryant is perhaps the most famous example of a coach leaving a well-established program (Texas A&M) for more familiar pastures (Alabama).

In six seasons in Knoxville, Dickey went 46-15-4 (.738) and won two SEC championships. In nine seasons in Gainesville, Dickey went 58-43-2 (.573). He took over a 9-1-1 team that resented his being there. He had the poor timing to arrive at Florida one year before Bryant began the Wishbone-fueled renaissance at Alabama. Once he struggled at the outset, he never quite made the transformation to dominance.

After Dickey left Florida -- his alma mater and his hometown -- he returned to Tennessee in 1985 as athletic director, a job he held for 17 years. Perhaps Dickey proved you can go (to your adopted) home again.

There is no indication that Meyer's experience at Ohio State will resemble what Dickey went through at Florida. Meyer won at three different schools in three different conferences. But on the day that Ohio State introduced Meyer, UCLA announced the firing of its once-favorite son, Rick Neuheisel.

Neuheisel once left one marquee job for another and succeeded. After winning at Colorado (33-14, .702) and at Washington (33-16, .673), Neuheisel lost more than he won (21-28, .429) at his alma mater. Neuheisel failed to accomplish as a head coach what he was able to do as a player -- take the Bruins to the Rose Bowl.

Funny -- that's what Ohio State will demand of Meyer.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com