The Precarious Position of Urban Meyer
Commentary: Ohio State coach’s huge contract and expectations seem to run against his quest for personal contentment
Roger M. Groves, Professor of Law, Florida Coastal School of Law
November 30, 2011Your name is Urban Meyer. You are only 47 years old and already more successful as a big time college coach than 99% of college coaches will experience in a lifetime. You have won two national championships at Florida. You have one of the best records over a decade of coaching: 104 wins, 23 losses. You have never lost on the most profitable and prestigious stage–the Bowl Championship Series, where you are 4 -0. I could go on, but you would blush because you are an understated soft spoken sort from the bustling metropolis of Ashtabula, Ohio.
As a haloed future hall of famer you’ve had more options after quitting Florida than Heffner had bunnies. So you smartly decided to sit back and scout every team you would have to play if you decided to coach again–and got paid for doing it. You became a TV announcer for the Big Ten Network, as you contemplated a return to coaching at Ohio State. As soon as the 2011 OSU season was mercifully laid to rest, you decided to take the job when it was offered. This entire scenario is a coach’s dream for every football coach in America, except you. For you, it is dangerous.
What’s not to like about this deal? My answer is: “Have you ever heard the phrase that the two hardest things to handle are failure … and success?” You have been so successful you can command as much money as an academic institution will pay. So you say, “Why not?” A coach sacrifices all for the job – his own health and an unrecoverable amount of family time and affection. The problem is your success allows a win-at-whatever-cost OSU administration to pay you three times as much as the school president.
The OSU president is E. Gordon Gee. In 2010 he made $1.32 million. You are not only going to triple his income that per year, you have various incentives so that over 6 years you will make more than $26 million. Again you ask, “And the problem is?” Here’s a few.
The bigger the dollars, the bigger the expectations. You said you left Florida for health reasons. You said you learned that perfection is not attainable and is too much and too injurious to expect. Well, perfection is going 13-0 in a season and winning the national championship. I dare say the OSU stakeholders say they have $26 million reasons to expect a national championship. That is a precarious position for you. Disappointment, in my opinion, is a function of unrealistic expectations. And at least from my viewpoint, the chances of disappointment—i.e. not winning every single game—are greater than hoisting the trophy.
I should also refresh your memory. You are now an “employee” of the university headed by a president who was among the most outspoken presidents in America: He has claimed that football pay needs to be reformed. In August of this year, President Gee said, “College athletics has gotten beyond itself. Do I think it’s broken? Yes.” Let me reiterate for effect: You make three times as much as a person who says college coaches make too much money—and you report to that person. What’s worse, the media can easily make you the poster child for all big time college head coaches, who have had an average salary increase of a nearly 55 percent in just six years. Gee railed against it and now he has to see you every day. Resentment is a real possibility with adverse consequences to you if you do not win at your highest level every year. You want to report to a shepherd, not a wolf, and pride sometimes trumps compassion.
I would also have you recall that President Gee, the OSU Board of Trustees, and Athletic Director Gene Smith took tremendous abuse for letting former coach Jim Tressel rule over them without repercussion until the sordid details of NCAA violations started to be revealed. That was arguably the most embarrassing period in OSU football history, and it was just last year. Typically, administrations cure the coaching problem by hiring a person who is the opposite of whoever got them in trouble. In this case, that means hiring a squeaky-clean disciplinarian. Anyone who looks at the recent issues of Florida players would not put disciplinarian and you in the same sentence. Thus, you are in a precarious position.
And I should remind you that there was once a very good OSU head coach who won more than 80% of his games. His name was Earle Bruce. He followed legendary coach Woody Hayes but did not endear himself to the stakeholders at OSU. He was dumped, never to coach at that level again. By the way, Bruce made $87,000 a year when you were cutting your coaching teeth as an OSU graduate assistant.
Lastly, you and me and everyone else should ask: “What’s more important, my job or my health?” Then we should ask: “What’s more important, my job or my family?” We all know what the answer should be, but most of us do not actually face the choice of one or the other. Can you suddenly in one year do what you have not accomplished during over a decade of coaching – achieve a work-life balance? That too is a high-risk game, a game more important than anything the teenagers do for you on the field. As a human, I hope you get it. Athletic Director Smith, bless his heart, said he will endeavor to help you achieve that balance as a personal part of his job. But Smith cannot direct your internal clocks and definitions of success in life. Good luck in the prosperous yet precarious return to coaching college football.