JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The pictures crowd the shelves, cram the available open spaces and clutter up Urban Meyer’s windowless office in Jacksonville. It’s as if the memories and mementos from a lifetime of coaching have been crammed into a basement dorm room.
In college football, the world Meyer dominated and helped define for much of the last generation, the head coach’s office doubled as an ideal. It needed to sparkle for recruiting, as every picture was part of a pitch – family, winning and fun.
Those same images are jammed around Meyer’s new NFL office, but crowded together to give off the feel of a giant collage. Meyer greets a visitor with a smile on a recent afternoon and chuckles with a hint of embarrassment at a space that’s about a quarter of the size of his Ohio State dwelling. “No one really comes in here, anyway,” he said with a shrug.
Urban Meyer, 57, is the rare millionaire who moves to Florida in his late 50s to start completely over. Instead of relishing his twilight, commentating on television and basking in the aura he has developed, Meyer is a rookie head coach in the NFL. It’s the sport’s most fascinating experiment of this and perhaps most seasons, a relentless winner for nearly two decades attempting to lead a 1-15 franchise out of the NFL wilderness.
“I prayed hard on it and it had to be right,” Meyer said of his choice to leave Fox and return to the sideline in a new league. “Some college things showed up and just, this is the last mountain to try to climb a little bit. And it had to be perfect.”
The tentpoles for the future look close to perfect. They are images of those to the right of Meyer’s desk — the presence of Trevor Lawrence on the over-sized depth chart and the artists' renderings of the Jaguars’ new $120 million practice facility.
Meyer came to Jacksonville because of the duality of the recruiting pitch from billionaire owner Shahid Khan and the promise of Lawrence, the former Clemson star who is regarded in scouting circles as a potential generational quarterback. Khan wanted a culture changer and Lawrence’s presence was a franchise changer. And now the world waits and wonders how Meyer will change to turn around a franchise regarded as one of the worst in the league.
The coach who became accustomed to perfection as a standard is facing a league that’s relentlessly designed through its draft, salary cap and free agency rules to produce imperfection. The coach who went 83-9 at Ohio State in seven years could lose that many games this season — and it would be considered a rousing success.
The changes in Meyer from the spread innovator who led Utah to an undefeated 2004 season to the one who has largely removed himself from the day-to-day Xs and Os are evident. White scruff peaks out from his chin. The voice that offered clear and authoritative declarations and hyperbole all those years in college is a few octaves quieter. The words are more measured.
Through 17 seasons of being a head coach in college, Meyer defiantly delivered results. He broke through the BCS glass ceiling at Utah with Alex Smith, guided Florida to a pair of national championships and rejuvenated Ohio State with such a recruiting jolt that the Big Ten grew along with the Buckeyes. He’s now adjusting to completely different surroundings — new player acquisition rules, new players and new schemes. He’s figuring out how to keep his edge on an even playing field. “You’re playing Alabamas every week,” he said.
As he reflects on the modest early expectations of his new job, Meyer recalls being asked what it’s like to be considered a failure if his team didn't go undefeated at SEC media days in 2009 while the head coach at Florida. “And I'm looking at him saying, 'You're right,'” Meyer recalled with a laugh. “That's, to me, much more difficult than this.” He pauses and smiles. “At least I'm training my mind to be that way.”
“This is a 1-15 team. They didn’t play very good offensively, defensively or in the kicking game last year. I didn’t say the players were bad, but we didn’t play well. So, it’s a reality, and I’ll be honest with you, a little refreshing.”
Familiar Buckeye blueprint for Urban Meyer in Jacksonville
After the Cleveland Browns waxed the Jaguars, 23-13, in the first preseason game, Meyer looked pensive afterward. Center Brandon Linder grabbed his coach by the shoulders and politely advised him to relax. It was, after all, only the preseason.
Relaxation has never been a Meyer specialty, as the balance he’s facing early in his tenure will be process and progress over results.
“When you lose a game from my experience it's devastation for five months and you can't eat solid food for four of them,” he said. “You're certainly not sleeping.”
A reporter lets out an untimely chuckle. “You laugh, but it's true. Can count the minutes tick by on my alarm clock. But no, it's been rewired because it is what it is.”
The fundamental tension Meyer confronts in the early years of his rebuild will be how to endure and evolve from losing without overtly accepting it. No one is expecting the Jaguars to make the playoffs in 2021, but there needs to be hope and evolution.
Meyer’s career arc has seen many reincarnations — from spread wizard to recruiting dynamo to culture warrior. And in what he says definitively is his final head coaching job, Meyer is facing one last reinvention.
“Shahid's not expecting me to coach 15 years,” Meyer said. “If he was, he wouldn't hire me. But you're gonna get everything I got for however long it takes to build a really good [infrastructure]. We built Ohio State into the best infrastructure in college football, I think, history. There's none better. And I found the right coach [in Ryan Day]. Eight years from now, if I find the right coach ... "
What’s struck those around Meyer is the humility with which he has approached his initial steps internally. And how he has leaned into what he knows and what the franchise needs. In Khan’s recruiting pitch to Meyer, he valued culture over everything. And that has meant Meyer letting go of intricate control of scheme, continuing a trend from later in his years at Ohio State.
Meyer has two coaches in charge of special teams, an offensive coordinator (Darrell Bevell) and a pass game coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer) and defensive staff that includes veteran NFL coaches Joe Cullen and Bob Sutton.
“For 20 years, it was my offense, it was my special teams,” he said. “I'd actually coordinate the special teams. I'd be up late at night drawing cards. I'm not doing that here. I'm in charge of the culture, in charge of the roster with the GM.”
Those around Meyer say that he has done an impressive job in knowing what he doesn’t know. “He's not afraid to speak up and say, 'Hey, I don't quite understand this or how does this work?'” said Fernando Lovo, the Jaguars’ chief of staff who worked with Meyer at Florida and Ohio State. “There's a ton of people in there with an immense amount of NFL experience that he really, really, genuinely listens to people and takes their opinion and their thoughts and their advice to heart and puts it into action.”
Khan hired general manager Trent Baalke the week after Meyer came aboard, with the idea of a pairing that could work in lockstep. (Neither Baalke nor Meyer will have Jim Harbaugh on their Christmas card list, as Meyer was rivals with Harbaugh at Michigan and Baalke worked with Harbaugh in San Francisco.)
Meyer and Baalke have formed a tight bond, according to Meyer and those in the building. The two are close enough that they’ll frequently discuss team decisions at Julep, a local bourbon bar. Meyer has become an eager student as he learns roster building.
One of Meyer’s organizational ideals upon arrival was empowering the assistant coaches as part of the draft process. Meyer said he has discussed with Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney what NFL franchises best evaluate their players. One of Meyer’s ideals for Jacksonville is being sure that players aren’t picked that the coaching staff doesn’t think is a fit.
“We work together,” Meyer said of he and Baalke. “I don't report to the GM, and he doesn't report to me. We are in staff meetings, he's in every one of my staff meetings. We're in every one of his. We will not force a coach to take somebody he doesn't want in a room. We would just hear these stories about they're drafting people that the coaches don't want.”
One of Meyer’s most trusted Ohio State lieutenants, Ryan Stamper, came with him as director of player assessment to gauge the mindset of players. Stamper’s job is to interview prospective talent to figure out competitive spirit, toughness, leadership, intelligence and adaptability. Meyer feels like these determinations can be difference makers in the evaluation process in the draft and free agency. “Every player has to go through a mindset grade that he's in charge of,” Meyer said of Stamper. “He's also got his hands all over the locker room, which is a strength, but I don't want him to be just player development. I want him to someday be a GM. He’s very talented.”
It impressed those on the coaching staff that Baalke allowed assistant coaches to have a large role in the draft process. The saying that keeps showing up around the team's facility is "Own It," and that transcends to position coaches having a say in who ends up in their rooms.
Can Meyer make Jacksonville a desired destination, player friendly franchise?
There’s time in Meyer’s office when he sounds like his old self — confident, clear vision and a glean in his voice that dictates pride in gaining an edge.
So far, in his job in changing the Jaguars' culture, Meyer’s most aggressive work has been making the players feel more welcome. In many ways, jumping into the NFL for Meyer began with offering players the comforts of college. Meyer polled many of his former players about their NFL experience and was shocked at how much of their own training, care and body maintenance they’d need to pay for. Immediately upon his arrival, Jacksonville invested $1.5 million in body recovery systems like cryogenic and float tanks.
He forced team athletic trainers to become “experts” in dry cupping, deep tissue massage and flexibility to better assist players.
“These players come from a place like an Ohio State, a Florida, where they have the best weight room, the best coaches, the best food, the best nutrition, the best training, the best sports performance models where there's no sparing no expense,” Meyer said. “And they would call me and say, 'I have to go pay for my own massage.'”
Meyer is giddy to relay that Lawrence bought a house 10 minutes away from the team's facility and appears prepared to plant his year-round roots there. On a recent off day, Meyer said that more than 60 players came into the facility when none were obligated to. He hired Anthony Schlegel, a former assistant strength coach at Ohio State, to bring energy to the strength and conditioning program.
Meyer really sees player development as an edge. Especially with Jacksonville as an attractive place for players to stick around in the offseason to come in voluntarily and not have to pay income taxes. “If they’re not here,” Meyer said of his players, “that means we’re not doing a good job.”
The NFL experience for Meyer hasn’t been perfect. The franchise hired and then quickly un-hired strength coach Chris Doyle after an avalanche of criticism. Meyer has experienced a learning curve to some league rules, as he and the franchise were fined for an offseason practice violation. Meyer also had to walk back a statement in a news conference that a player’s vaccination status played into the team’s roster decisions.
But those on the staff who know Meyer best have noticed an evolution. Former Texas coach Charlie Strong goes back with Meyer to the mid-1990s, and Meyer and his wife, Shelley, actually lived with Strong in Mishawaka, Indiana, when they were assistant coaches at Notre Dame in 1996.
Strong sees the same strong leader, just giving different guidance: “He's talking about just adding value to their career. How we're gonna work and how we're gonna practice, and just how he's gonna run the program. And he is the leader, so he sets the standard, and this is the standard, and we're not gonna deviate from the standard because it's a standard of excellence.”
Meyer said that coaching players at a program like Ohio State, Alabama or Clemson isn’t really much different than coaching in the NFL. A vast majority of the players in those programs are destined to be professionals. “Those are basically NFL teams,” Meyer said.
At Ohio State, Meyer’s goal was to develop players to get them on a three-and-out path to the NFL. Here, it’s a second contract or the next contract. Meyer’s focus is concise — how can he help that player maximize his talent and value. “That's it,” he said. “Very simple.”
Former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who was on Meyer’s title winning staff in 2014, has appreciated Meyer transitioning from the daily fourth-and-inches ethos he carried at Ohio State. “It's gonna be fourth-and-goal a lot of days,” Ash said, “but it doesn't have to be every day.”
Ash is pleased that Meyer has highlighted two of the elite skills he brought as a college coach. The first is his ability to provide energy to an organization. At Ohio State, Meyer would plead with coaches to bring “juicy juice” to motivate players. Here, it’s evolved. “He's trying to make sure that the players and everybody in the organization understand the standards, but enjoy trying to live to those standards,” Ash said.
Ash added that Meyer’s ability to motivate, connect and relate to players remains a strength that’s permeated through the organization. Meyer the psychologist is something Ash says is a defining strength. “That's what's made him who he is,” Ash said. “It's not your third-down calls, it's not your up-tempo offense. It's the psychology of the game, the mindset of the player and getting to the head space of that individual is what he's a master of.”
What Meyer and the coaches who know him best can’t answer will be how he’s going to endure the losing that’s inherent to a rebuild. Meyer says that he’s “not gonna play someone for next year” and that he’s committed to the veteran players on the team to “do the very best we can now.” He adds: “What does that mean? I don’t know. I don’t know how good we are yet.”
Meyer is hoping by caring for the players, committing to their development and keeping them motivated they can fight through adversity. (This story that NBC’s Peter King unearthed about Meyer calling a local hospital CEO to help the wife of star defensive end Josh Allen is a prime example of that.)
But the re-wiring of Meyer will be judged, ultimately, by how he can endure, stay an energy giver and continue to motivate through some losing.
“Obviously that's what everybody wants to know,” Lovo said. “But the key is to not get used to losing [because] you get used to losing and apathy sets in and then it becomes just this vicious cycle where it's hard to break if you don't set it early on. And so he's been really cognizant about telling the roster of the team that we've had: 'Guys, we don't accept losing. I hate to lose, but I also understand that we need to find the good in losing.'”