Far afield: What do we expect?

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Jason Kelly

Urban Meyer violated one of the terms of his Ohio State coaching contract on the first day the football team gathered this summer. Not his contract with the university, the six-year deal worth $26-plus million. Meyer breached the agreement he made with his family.

Clause No. 4, as written by his college-age daughter, Nikki, on a contract signed by Meyer before he accepted the job, now framed above his desk: “I will not go more than nine hours a day at the office.” By the time the Buckeyes gathered for a team meeting, ESPN The Magazine’s Wright Thompson reports in a profile of the new Ohio State coach, Meyer had been at work 12 hours and counting.

Thompson follows a regretful and reflective Meyer through a soul-searching return to coaching. Back at Florida he had become a joyless perfectionist and a distant father, estranged from himself, or at least from the person he wanted to be. He swears he knows better now. Two years off, reading and consulting with coaches, has restored his sense of balance.

“Urban Meyer will be home for dinner,” the ESPN headline reads, and he promises not to bring work with him. Which, in the course of the story, comes to sound like the equivalent of a fan’s puffed up preseason expectations, usually punctured before the first leaf falls. Even his wife seems dubious.

Meyer appears to have a genuine interest in reducing his professional baggage, but to make that happen will require more than changing his own approach — which will be challenge enough. Even if his obsessive constitution can stand relinquishing the slightest competitive advantage in the name of perspective, will his public? His sense of balance isn’t the only one in question.

It’s a chicken-and-egg question: Does football attract coaches who make garden-variety type-A personalities look like Deadheads, or does the pressure make them that way? Meyer’s most revered Ohio State predecessor, Woody Hayes, took to shoving around cameramen and, ultimately, an opposing player. “I think you ought to take into consideration the enormous pressure of coaching football today,” Michigan’s Bo Schemebechler, a Hayes protégé, testified in his defense.

That was 1979, but the same thing could have been said for decades before then, more or less since college football’s opening kickoff. It’s been true forever, everywhere that aspires to national championships. Francis Schmidt, Ohio State’s coach from 1934 to 1940, once stayed in his car while it was hoisted on a lift for an oil change. Scribbling plays into a notebook as he waited, Schmidt came up with an idea he couldn’t wait to share, remembering where he was only after he stepped out of the car and fell to the ground.

A lot of coaches operate in that Wile E. Coyote reality. They can stay airborne as long as they keep their legs churning and don’t look down. Meyer ended up unresponsive on the floor of his Florida home, suffering what he feared was a heart attack. It turned out to be esophageal spams, cured with medication and resignation, from his job, yes, but first, to the reality of its unsustainable demands — internal and external.

Now he’s subjecting himself to them again, despite two national championships, enough money to retire, and children so hurt by his absence and fearful for his health that he had to make promises to them in writing. There’s an irreconcilable tension built into the terms of both his contracts. “He wants peace and wins,” Thompson writes, “which is a short walk from thinking they are the same.”

I wish Meyer luck, but I doubt his family will be able to drown out an entire stadium, an entire state, to which peace and wins absolutely are the same. There will be no support group for his personal growth, only open hostility toward anything that interferes with winning. Coaches like Meyer burn like forest fires and the fans’ expectations add gasoline. Only a Gatorade bath can extinguish that kind of blaze.

At that team meeting, already three hours into family-contract overtime, Meyer’s rhetoric reinforces how inseparable the personal and professional really are in his mind. Players from championship teams, he says, come back to campus all the time, forever reveling together. A 4-7 team? “You never see ’em.” Relationships depend on wins.

I doubt anybody in Ohio with designs on beating Michigan read those words and worried about whether Meyer’s dinner would be cold when he got home.

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at jasonkelly545@gmail.com.