It was announced Tuesday that Urban Meyer will step down as head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes following his team’s Rose Bowl appearance against Washington.
Over seven seasons in Columbus, Meyer went 82-9, earning three Big Ten championships as well as the 2014 national title. Having emerged victorious in more than 90 percent of his total games, he’ll depart with the best winning percentage in program history. When he hangs up his headset, he’ll rank third in career win percentage among all college coaches who served at least 10 seasons.
Seemingly everywhere Meyer went, on-field success followed. During his first stint as a head college football coach in 2001, Meyer inherited a Bowling Green State program with seven combined wins in the previous two seasons. Seemingly overnight, he turned them into the most dominant team in the Mid-American Conference, winning at least eight games in both seasons at the helm. At Utah, he went 22-2 over two seasons, launching the Utes into unfamiliar national title contention. Before his arrival, Utah had just once won 10-plus games; Meyer accomplished the feat in both seasons. Parlaying that success into a head coaching job at Florida, Meyer cleaned up the mess left by Ron Zook and whipped the Gators into a juggernaut, going 65-15 over six seasons. That stint included two national championships, as well.
To be sure, Meyer’s track record is shrouded by controversy, but at least a portion of his legacy will be defined by how quickly and indisputably he found success on the field at each of his stops. Using College Football Reference’s Simple Rating System, we can quantify how many points above or below average a team is in a given season and decipher how much a coach altered on-field performance in a given tenure. And as you will see, Meyer indeed made a career as the fixer-upper of college football, but when he left, so did a sizable chunk of his program’s strong performance.
So how does Meyer compare to other successful head college football coaches who have had to turn around at least two programs? For comparison, let’s look at the two most successful active coaches outside of Meyer: Nick Saban and Mark Richt.
Saban’s accomplishments are largely unparalleled in the annals of coaching history. He’s turned the Alabama Crimson Tide into the stuff of nightmares for opponents and legends for fans. But before he could turn Tuscaloosa into Valhalla, the 67-year-old first cut his teeth at Toledo, Michigan State and LSU.
The Simple Rating System shows two notable instances with Saban. At LSU, the following coach, Les Miles, outproduced what Saban achieved there before he left for the NFL. And in Toledo, Saban never matched the achievements of his predecessor. However, it’s worth noting that Gary Pinkel had a decade to establish a culture and on-field blueprint, while Saban effectively stopped at the school for a cup of coffee, only staying through the 1990 season.
Richt spent 15 years in Athens, Georgia, turning the Bulldogs into a program that routinely churned out double-digit win totals. Under Richt, Georgia averaged an SRS of 13, meaning they were around two touchdowns better than the average team in any given season, an improvement over the team’s performance under Jim Donnan. However, Kirby Smart has elevated the Bulldogs to even greater heights, having turned Georgia into a team that’s considered around 16 points better than the average outfit. At Miami, Richt has proven successful in turning around the Hurricanes, having more than doubled the team’s SRS over his three seasons compared to the team’s performance under former coach Al Golden.
Meyer made a career as college football’s fixer-upper. His track record is historic and he certainly stacks up well compared to active greats, like Saban and Richt, who have been fruitful at more than one program. But it bares repeating that when Meyer leaves, his program tends to regress significantly — even at a blueblood program like Florida. Glowing reviews of soon-to-be head coach Ryan Day notwithstanding, the Buckeyes' new coach certainly has a lot to live up to.
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