Gene Smith didn’t know that 2018 would be Urban Meyer’s final year as Ohio State’s head football coach, but he had expected that Meyer would ultimately join him in Ohio State’s athletic administration once his coaching tenure was done.
When Meyer signed a contract extension with Ohio State last March, it appeared as though he would continue to lead the football program for at least five more years. That contract foretold that Meyer was starting to think about his post-coaching future, though, as it included an addendum stipulating that Meyer would be offered an administrative role with the university at the conclusion of that contract term.
“If Coach remains as head coach of the Team through January 31, 2023 (or such earlier termination date as may be mutually agreed upon by the parties), Ohio State will give Coach an opportunity to be employed at the University in an administrative role with duties related to public relations, fund raising, assisting sports administrators with professional development programing for assistant coaches, lecturing in the Masters of Coaching curriculum, or such or other different duties as mutually agreed upon with the Director of Athletics,” the addendum read.
That termination date came earlier than expected for Smith, who thought Meyer would continue to coach the football team for at least two or three more years. When Meyer decided to retire in December, however, that contract addendum provided the framework for Meyer to move into his new role at Ohio State as assistant athletic director of athletics initiatives and relations.
“That was our intent for him, if he wanted to stay, he’d have an opportunity to stay,” Smith told Eleven Warriors this week. “At the end of the day, yeah, we kind of knew he would stay if he retired from here.”
Less than two months into his new role, Meyer is still getting his feet wet. But Smith says Meyer has been eager to learn the ropes of being an administrator, and he believes Meyer is happier and healthier than he was this past football season, when he battled headaches caused by an enlarged arachnoid cyst in his brain that ultimately led to his decision to stop coaching.
“He’s relaxed, he’s more comfortable, he’s learning a lot,” Smith said. “His eyes are wide open to this side of the house, administrative side. He’s really, really embraced all of our other sports.”
One of Smith’s first required tasks for Meyer in his new role has been to meet with the head coaches for each of Ohio State’s other sports, “because every team has a different culture, and he needed to understand that,” Smith said. Meyer has also been meeting with student-athletes from a wide variety of Ohio State sports. Last weekend, Meyer helped launch the “Lead Like a Buckeye” program, an initiative he is running alongside associate athletic director of sport administration and student-athlete development Carey Fagan, which is focused on helping team captains become better leaders.
While Smith always anticipated that Meyer’s role as an administrator would include fundraising work, which he is participating in as well, he didn’t know how involved Meyer would continue to be with student-athlete development. But he’s glad that’s what Meyer’s role has evolved into.
“He’s bringing unbelievable value and helping develop leadership with our teams. As time goes on, he’ll spend more time with our coaches to help our coaches continue to grow and learn,” Smith said. “I think over time, some of the ideas that he has that he wants to implement that he’ll end up designing and developing with the rest of our staff, I think will help us in that space.”
“He’s really, really embraced all of our other sports.”– Gene Smith on Urban Meyer
As head coach, Meyer already made a lasting impact on student-athlete development for the football team by creating the Real Life Wednesdays program, which works to set up professional development opportunities for players and educate them on life skills and off-field issues. Many of Ohio State’s other sports teams have attempted to replicate that by developing similar programs for their own student-athletes.
Now, Meyer has the opportunity to work with all of those teams and their respective programs himself, while working to develop initiatives that can benefit Ohio State student-athletes across all sports.
“I think the thing will happen most over time is his engagement with the individual sports, helping the coaches with their programs, helping leadership within the individual teams,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of different things embedded. But bringing in a different element to that, and working with the student-athletes, because our mantra is get them from recruitment to career. Graduation is taken for granted; you’re going to do that here. But how do we make sure the 165 graduates that’ll walk this spring, they get a job – or they’re going to grad school, or they’re going pro – but the majority of them, a job.”
New head coach Ryan Day said he expects Meyer to continue to work closely with the football program on off-field initiatives.
“He's still going to be very much involved with Real Life Wednesday programs, our academics and most importantly, be a great resource for me moving forward,” Day said last week.
The challenge now for Meyer and Ohio State is to strike the right balance, so that he can continue to work with the football program without being so involved that he gets in the way of Day’s leadership.
Smith acknowledges that to be a real concern, and says he has candid, ongoing conversations with Meyer – whose new office sits right across the hall from Smith’s office on the top floor of the Fawcett Center – to make sure that does not become an issue. While he expects Meyer to continue to make trips across the street to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, he has instructed Meyer to be careful not to spend too much time in the football facility.
“There’s times when his presence is not in the way or impeding anything, so he’s just got to balance that,” Smith said. “You can’t be over there five days a week. There’s times. It’s OK to go to practice. It’s OK to go watch the players lift. But you can’t just stay.”
Because of the relationships that Smith, Meyer and Day all have with each other, though, Smith is confident that Meyer’s continued presence around Ohio State will be nothing but positive, and that Meyer will not overstep his boundaries.
“If we had egos, it would be a real problem,” Smith said. “But Ryan doesn’t have one, I don’t have one, Urban doesn’t have one. So we can all talk candidly about that, and be honest with one another. So he’s very conscious of that, he knows I’m conscious of it, and so we’ll be fine around that space.”