The Silly Season is upon the college football landscape, but it’s hard to imagine Urban Meyer is laughing a whole lot.
The Ohio State job is in good hands, there’s no doubt, but the head coach who just finished his first season in Columbus with a 12-0 record knows that the more jobs that open across the college football landscape, the more chances members of his nine-man staff of assistant coaches might have to leave OSU.
Upon Bret Bielema's decision to leave Wisconsin, speculation occurred that Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst could return to Madison, which could have made Ohio State defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell a candidate for the Panthers’ job. Fickell interviewed with Pittsburgh last offseason but chose to stay in Columbus.
Though Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said he won't pursue Chryst, the whole situation just shows how quickly the dominoes can fall in college football coaching circles.
As more and more coaches are relieved of their duties, move on or retire – 20 FBS head coaching jobs have already opened this offseason – the possibility remains that something could happen, and Meyer is no stranger to that type of turnover. A number of his best Florida assistants left to take on higher-profile jobs, leading in part to the strain that eventually pushed him out of the job.
When discussing the subject last week, Meyer understood both sides of the equation.
“One negative thing about success and hiring good coaches is that they are hot items,” Meyer said. “If I have guys and people never call me and want to hire them, that means I probably have bad coaches. I had a turnstile down at Florida with guys leaving, becoming head coaches.
“Staff continuity is a high priority. I also understand the profession. Guys have to take care of their families. That part of the game is a business, and I certainly understand that.”
Meyer himself doesn’t plan to make any changes to a staff that includes Fickell; offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman; running backs coach Stan Drayton; wideouts coach Zach Smith; tight ends and fullbacks coach Tim Hinton; offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner; assistant head coach, co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Everett Withers; defensive line coach Mike Vrabel; and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs.
That staff came together in a fairly mishmash way upon Meyer’s hiring, as he had worked only with Smith and Drayton before, but the system obviously worked as the Buckeyes posted a 12-0 campaign.
Now, the trick becomes getting that staff to stay together, something that didn’t happen when Meyer was a Gator. Take, for example, the staff that helped Meyer win the 2006 national championship at Florida, one the coach has called “the best coaching staff, group of assistant coaches maybe in college football history.”
From that team, only Steve Addazio and Chuck Heater stayed with Meyer throughout his Florida tenure, with Addazio rising from tackles and tight ends coach in 2006 to offensive coordinator in 2010. Heater was the recruiting coordinator and cornerbacks coach for the title team before moving up to co-defensive coordinator.
Meyer was able to keep the staff together for the 2007 season, but there were changes after that campaign. Drayton, defensive coordinator and line coach Greg Mattison and associate head coach/safeties coach Doc Holliday left after that campaign for Tennessee, the Baltimore Ravens and West Virginia, respectively.
After the Gators won another national championship in 2008, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen took the top job at SEC rival Mississippi State and took centers/guards coach John Hevesy with him. Associate head coach/co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Charlie Strong became Louisville’s head man in 2010, while wideouts coach Billy Gonzales went to LSU the same year, leaving just Addazio and Heater from the 2006 staff.
Meyer went about trying to fill those holes as the years went by, but it seems clear he struggled reaching the same level of comfort. When speaking to Sports Illustrated in 2010 about his health issues that nearly caused him to resign the previous offseason, he said, “I’ve got to trust our staff, empower people and give them opportunities to grow.”
The coach has admitted to trying to take on too many responsibilities in his later days with the Gators. That stretched into national issues about agents, recruiting and other topics, but those close to Meyer also said there were also in-house things that arose.
“He was able to delegate early at Florida,” his wife, Shelley, told reporters the day Meyer was hired at Ohio State. “He had a great staff that he could do that with, and just some things happened and he just took on too much on his own.
"You lose some of your great coaches that went and became head coaches themselves. You know, when your core staff, that great staff, started to pull apart, then you don't have the trust with maybe some new guys that you have to hire. It was just a whole lot of things.”
Meyer has tried to be better prepared for the potential of coaches leaving this time around. He has said he hired Warinner, a candidate for this year’s Broyles Award for the best assistant coach in the sport, in part because his nine years of work as a coordinator makes him an attractive candidate to take over for Herman should he move on.
Withers also has nine years of experience as a coordinator and also served as an interim head coach at North Carolina last season and could be due a promotion if Fickell moves on.
Again, Meyer understands the landscape and asks only that his assistants keep him in the loop as jobs open across the country. But when it comes to keeping his coaches on staff, the head coach believes the pull of Ohio State is a strong help.
“I like to think at a place like Ohio State, you’re not going to leave here to become anything but a head football coach,” Meyer said. “If guys leave here to become an assistant somewhere, I’m like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ But I get it.”