Published November 29, 2011 - 9:18am
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Urban Meyer has accepted four head coaching jobs in the past ten years. This history strongly suggests he won’t last substantially longer at Ohio State than he did with Florida (six seasons), Utah or Bowling Green (two seasons each). During his introductory press conference on Monday in Columbus, one questioner noted Meyer had the “good fortune” to “inherit a good quarterback or great quarterback” at his previous three jobs and that OSU’s Braxton Miller fell into that category. Meyer concurred and offered this telling comment:
Miller is right there, by the way. I’d like to think that — I kind of — that’s not why you select a job. However, when you are getting ready to make a decision, you do look at that, because you don’t have time to really build a program nowadays. You need to get going and find a way to win.
Meyer may best be described as a coaching thrill seeker. He takes jobs where he’s confident of winning right away, proceeds to do so, then quickly exits for his next job. He values the thrill of quick success over the long-term satisfaction of building an elite program.
For their part, Ohio State management probably realizes this. They hired Meyer at the first available opportunity in order to change the short-term perception of the program, which was damaged by Jim Tressel’s ouster and the subsequent 6-6 campaign under interim coach Luke Fickell. This hiring reminds me of a scene in The Simpsons Movie where Tom Hanks says in a propaganda commercial, “The US Government has lost its credibility, so it’s borrowing some of mine.” Ohio State’s brand was tarnished so it rented the Urban Meyer brand to temporarily restore the luster.
Coaches at Meyer’s level are in fact brands that exist independently of the traditions at the schools where they happen to coach. This is a function of two things. The first is the media, which builds coaches up and, as Meyer’s ESPN sabbatical demonstrated, provides a halfway house between high-profile jobs. The second is the highly competitive nature of college recruiting, where campus tradition simply isn’t enough. Florida and SEC fans may bristle at the idea Meyer left them for Ohio State and the Big 10, but the truth is every major school and conference (except the Big East) has some degree of tradition. An effective coaching brand is what helps one Ivy-covered campus distinguish itself from another.
That’s not to say you need a branded coach to succeed. Look at Gene Chizik at Auburn. Players still matter more than anything. Thus, the value of a coach’s brand is directly proportional to the quality of talent he can recruit, which includes not just players but assistant coaches.
The main reason that coaches like Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier and Bobby Petrino failed in the NFL is because they were brands in a league where that held little value. They were hired by NFL owners desperate to resuscitate their short-term marketing by hiring a familiar face. But that means almost nothing when it comes to assembling a winning NFL team. There’s no recruiting in the NFL, which has a relatively closed labor system, and to the extent there is player movement, it’s dictated almost exclusively by price — who offers the highest contract.
In college football, coaching brand can make the difference between a marginal 7-5 bowl team and a national championship contender. The flip side of that is that because college football’s labor market is so competitive, even the strongest coaching brand faces constant pressure to innovate and adapt.
Urban Meyer’s success at Florida did not allow him to corner the market — to the contrary, it produced even stronger competition from the likes of Nick Saban and Les Miles. That’s when Meyer faced an economic choice: Do you stay at Florida, where you’ll have to invest even more just to get back to the level you were at when you won two national titles — a diminishing return-on-investment if ever there was one — or do you take a year off and wait to see what new thrill is just around the corner?
In this modern era of coaching brands, you’re not going to see many tenures of more than ten years. Remember, the icons of previous eras who stayed for decades — Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, et al. — did so at a time when most of the major powers were either independents or played in small conferences. In the televised age of the 12-plus member conferences, the internal competition alone shortens the average coaching life cycle. Keep in mind, the SEC’s longest tenured coach is Mark Richt, who began at Georgia the same year Urban Meyer got his first head coaching job at Bowling Green.
It’s almost a sure bet then that Meyer, who is just 47, will not finish his collegiate coaching career in Columbus. Heck, when Hall of Fame basketball coach Larry Brown was Meyer’s age, he’d already had six head coaching jobs en route to a career total of 13 (to date). Meyer probably won’t top that, but he may have more head coaching jobs than there were popes named Urban (eight).