COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – As Urban Meyer walked off the field after Ohio State routed Michigan, he was pondering his future and when to make a decision about when to call it quits.
The 54-year-old Meyer, in fact, had been thinking about retiring since the middle of last season.
The pain from headaches caused by an arachnoid cyst in his brain had grown worse this season. Off-the-field issues, including a three-game suspension for mismanagement of an assistant coach accused of domestic violence, had worn on him. And an ideal successor just happened to already be in place in the person of Ryan Day, his 39-year-old offensive coordinator.
On Tuesday, two days after the Buckeyes beat Northwestern to earn a second consecutive Big Ten championship, Meyer announced he was stepping down after the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 and likely would never coach again.
“The decision was a result of cumulative events,” Meyer said during a packed news conference. “And health number one. 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.”
Meyer is leaving at the top of his profession after three national championships in a career spanning three decades, the last seven years at Ohio State, where he has an 82-9 record.
He had shown obvious effects of being in pain on the sideline this season, leading to questions about his future. Meyer explained that the headaches became severe last season during Ohio State’s game at Penn State and have become a persistent problem this season.
Meyer said he believed he could no longer coach the way he has from the early days at Bowling Green to Utah, Florida and, finally, with the Buckeyes.
“The style of coaching I’ve done for 33 years is very intense, very demanding. I tried to delegate more and CEO more and the product started to feel …,” he said, not finishing his thought. “I didn’t feel I was doing right by our players and by Gene (Smith, the athletic director).”
Meyer said leaving would have been more difficult if the program wasn’t healthy. The Buckeyes are 12-1 and Meyer said he felt good about his replacement. Day will take over as the 25th coach of the storied program where Meyer won a national title in 2014 after two at Florida (2006, 2008).
“You want to hand it off to someone who could make it stronger,” Meyer said.
It was Day who led the Buckeyes when Meyer was suspended before the season opener over his role in the handling of now-fired assistant Zach Smith, who was accused by his ex-wife of domestic abuse. Meyer said he knew about the allegations against Smith – grandson of former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce – but wasn’t sure they were true and kept Smith on staff because no criminal charges were filed. The university cited that lapse in suspending Meyer after an investigation.
A report issued by an investigative committee left a stain, detailing behavior by Meyer that could have taken down a coach of lesser stature. The investigation showed he tolerated bad behavior for years from Smith, including domestic-violence accusations, drug addiction, lies and other acts that directly clash with the values Meyer touts publicly.
Meyer acknowledged the investigation was among the reasons for stepping down, and he was asked if the suspension will affect his legacy.
“I’m sure it will,” he said. “I can lie to you and say it is not important to me.”
The announcement came as the Buckeyes begin preparations for the bowl game against Washington and less than three weeks before schools can sign a fresh batch of recruits. Meyer said his decision had to come before the early signing period opens Dec. 19.
The Buckeyes’ strong finish this season belied on-the-field problems that made for a stressful season for Meyer and his staff. He lost star defensive end Nick Bosa to an early season-ending injury, and the defense never fully recovered.
The team alternated expected blowout wins with puzzling play that included a pair of one-point wins (Penn State, Maryland) and a closer-than-expected win over a struggling Nebraska team. A startling blowout loss at unranked Purdue on Oct. 20 pushed Ohio State to the fringe of the national championship chase and prompted questions about Meyer’s future. He was forced to address speculation that he would step down and Oct. 29 said he definitely planned to return next season.
Ohio State followed that with five straight wins, including a rout of archrival Michigan that gave the Buckeyes another division title and then pulled away for the easy win over Northwestern.
The success was nothing new for Meyer, who was a standout coach at Utah before he left for Florida in 2005 and rocketed to the top of the college football coaching ranks, a peer of Alabama coach Nick Saban in terms of respect and ability. Critics noted that his success with the Gators was marred by a series of legal issues for his players, with more than two dozen arrests.
Almost exactly nine years ago, Meyer shocked college football by resigning at Florida after five seasons amid what he called stress-related health concerns that came to light when he suffered chest pains following the SEC championship game. He quickly changed his mind, returned for another season and then stepped down in December 2010, saying he wanted to spend more time with family.
He was 46 then. And he wasn’t gone long: He took the Ohio State job before the 2012 season after Jim Tressel was forced out for lying to the NCAA amid a memorabilia-for-tattoos scandal.
It appeared to be a dream job for the Toledo native. His contract was extended in April by two years through 2022, increasing Meyer’s salary to $7.6 million in 2018 with annual 6 percent raises. Meyer has about $38 million left on his contract.
Ohio State will now turn to Day, a second-year Ohio State assistant who had never before been a head coach before he stepped in during Meyers’ suspension. Gene Smith said transitioning immediately to Day made more sense than conducting a national coaching search.
“Our program does not need disruption,” Smith said. “It does not need to blow up and have people come in and try and adapt to our standards of operation and try and change the infrastructure that we’ve put in place for the student-athlete.”
Former players and fellow coaches were full of praise for Meyer. As former Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde gushed about Meyer in the Jacksonville Jaguars locker room, former Florida defensive end Lerentee McCray walked by and shouted “Urban Legend! Urban Legend!”
“He’s definitely one of the best coaches I’ve been around,” Hyde said. “That’s one thing I’m going to always remember about him: We won so much.”