As rumors began to bubble to the surface that this season could be Urban Meyer’s final season as Ohio State’s head football coach, it was reasonable to think that such a departure would be a direct result of what happened this summer, when Meyer was placed on paid administrative leave and ultimately suspended three games following an investigation into how he handled domestic violence allegations and other misconduct against former assistant coach Zach Smith.
While that played a part in the decision Meyer made this week, however, he said Tuesday that he has actually been contemplating retirement for more than a year.
"I've had to deal with the headaches for many years and it came to a head in 2014 and then again last year and this year as well," Meyer said. "So as difficult a time as that was, that didn't have an impact as much on the headaches."
Thoughts of retirement started to come into his head after last year’s 39-38 win over Penn State, during which Meyer was “hit real hard” with a flare-up of the headaches that had previously affected him in 2014 before he had surgery, and have continued to affect him ever since, due to an enlarged arachnoid cyst in his brain.
“In 2014, I had that surgery. And it recurred last year, I started dealing with some issues last year,” Meyer said on Tuesday. “But we had conversations back then about longevity and the seriousness of it.”
Meyer said he actually “went through the whole scenario” of potentially retiring in 2014 – the year Ohio State won the national championship under his leadership – but felt better in 2015 and 2016 after undergoing the surgery. 2017, however, “was a tough one,” and his health continued to be an issue this year.
That, most prominently among other reasons, was why he officially decided that it was time to step away from being Ohio State’s coach on Tuesday, announcing his retirement in a press conference at the Fawcett Center.
“The decision was a result of cumulative events. And health number one,” Meyer said. “The fact that we have an elite coach on our staff, the fact that our program is very healthy, we've recruited very well, all played a significant role in this. And I can't say ‘This is the reason, this is the reason.’ But there's cumulative reasons that we're at this point.”
While Meyer was told that he needed to make a decision about his future on Sunday, and Meyer did not officially make up his mind until early Tuesday morning, Tuesday’s decision didn’t come as a shock to athletic director Gene Smith or new head coach Ryan Day.
Smith said he and Meyer, who talk with each other every Sunday during the football season, had been talking about the potential for his departure over the past month. And within those discussions, Smith came to the conclusion that if Meyer opted to retire, Day – who serves as the Buckeyes’ acting head coach for the three games that Meyer was suspended – would be his choice to take over the program.
“We had deep conversations about that,” Smith said Tuesday. “So a few weeks ago I kind of felt, okay, I needed to kind of lock in here as we had our conversations. But I knew that ultimately Urban had to make a decision this past Sunday or yesterday, and I was going to have to move one way or the other.”
Meyer said that the presence of Day on his staff – who he considers to be an “elite coach and person,” and who was receiving interest for other head coaching jobs – made his decision to step down easier.
“I think in trying to build the most comprehensive premier program in America, you also want to hand it off to someone at some point, so it can even get stronger,” Meyer said. “And my witnessing of the work Ryan has done, made this decision not as difficult as I thought, because I know the infrastructure, like Gene talked about, is going to be secure with (director of sports performance Mickey) Marotti and the rest of the staff. I think it's very healthy.”
Meyer said he started to think it might be the right time to retire two Saturdays ago after improving to 7-0 against Ohio State’s archrival with a 62-39 win over Michigan, which he described as “one of the greatest moments in our life” for he and his wife Shelley. He had even more thoughts this past weekend in Indianapolis. But what really pushed him to decide that it was time to hand the reins over to Day was when recruits started asking whether he would be around for the next four to five years.
“I didn't want to mislead recruits,” Meyer said. “Gene and I both felt we had the right guy (Day) – not felt, we knew – and that's what made it now, the decision now.”
Asked whether he would have thought going into this season that it would be his last season coaching the Buckeyes, Meyer said no. But he said he did know that the end was coming sooner than later.
“There was conversation before this year,” Meyer said. “I met with Gene, and I knew that this isn't something I'm going to do for the next 15 years, 10 years. I knew after the experiences I had on the sideline again and in 2014, just dealing with the headaches, that I wanted to do Ohio State right and Gene Smith right. So I would have probably thought not this year, but it was within the next few.”
“Gene and I both felt we had the right guy – not felt, we knew – and that's what made it now, the decision now.”– Urban Meyer on retiring and Ryan Day becoming Ohio State's next coach
Both Meyer and Smith said Tuesday that they hope for Meyer to continue to be involved with Ohio State and the football program in a non-coaching capacity, though they did not specify what that capacity could be.
“God has a plan,” Meyer said. “I'm not quite sure what it is. Gene and I are extremely close, and we discussed that. And I hope to stay involved.
“My relationship with Gene Smith is as real as it can get. And I hope to somehow have an impact on our student-athletes and be involved in this athletic department and this great university.”
Day made it clear that whether that capacity might be, he will welcome Meyer to be involved in what will now become Day’s program as much as he wants to be.
“Coach Meyer is always going to be a resource for me personally because how many people can say they've walked in these shoes. He's always going to be a resource that way,” Day said. “And then depending on how much he wants to be involved, the door's always going to be open there.”
Of course, speculation will linger for at least the next couple years about whether Meyer could return to coaching elsewhere, considering that he previously said he was retiring when he left Florida in 2010, only to take the head coaching job at Ohio State just a year later. Meyer said Tuesday, though, that is not the cards as of now.
“I believe I will not coach again,” Meyer said, adding that he was “certain” when asked whether he was “fairly certain” he would not coach again.
Meyer said he tried to change the way he coached in order to preserve his health and extend his career. Ultimately, however, Meyer realized he couldn’t coach in a way different than he always had nor could he continue coach the way he does.
“The style of coaching that I've done for 33 years is a very intense, very demanding ... I've tried to delegate more and CEO-ish more, and the product started to fail,” Meyer said. “I didn't feel like I was doing right by our players and by Gene. And the challenge was can I continue to do that in that style.”