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Urban Meyer returns to coaching, jumps to NFL with hiring by Jacksonville Jaguars

Urban Meyer looks on during a College Football Playoff semifinal between Ohio State and the Clemson in 2019. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Urban Meyer returned to coaching, making the leap from college football to the NFL. The three-time national champion, most recently at Ohio State, accepted the Jacksonville Jaguars’ coaching job.

The Jaguars announced the hiring Thursday evening. Meyer becomes a first-time NFL head coach at age 56. He spent 17 seasons in the college ranks at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State, securing two national titles at Florida and another at Ohio State.

"This is a great day for Jacksonville and Jaguars fans everywhere,” said Shad Khan, the team’s owner, in a written statement. “Urban Meyer is who we want and need, a leader, winner and champion who demands excellence and produces results. While Urban already enjoys a legacy in the game of football that few will ever match, his passion for the opportunity in front of him here in Jacksonville is powerful and unmistakable.”

Meyer stepped aside at Ohio State in December 2018, citing health concerns among the issues as he headed into what was supposed to be a retirement from coaching.

“I believe I will not coach again,” Meyer said then.

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Instead, he is back to try to revive the on-field fortunes of a Jaguars franchise that could be poised for vastly improved results, coming off a one-win 2020 season but with the top overall selection in the NFL draft this spring and abundant salary cap space. Meyer replaces Doug Marrone, who was fired after a 1-15 season that ended with 15 straight losses, and presumably will have sweeping powers over the team’s roster-construction decisions.

“I’m ready to coach the Jacksonville Jaguars,” Meyer said in a written statement. “Jacksonville has an enthusiastic fan base, and the fans deserve a winning team. With upcoming opportunities in the NFL Draft, and strong support from ownership, the Jaguars are well-positioned to become competitive. I’ve analyzed this decision from every angle — the time is right in Jacksonville, and the time is right for me to return to coaching. I’m excited about the future of this organization and our long term prospect for success.”

The Jaguars also interviewed a list of candidates that included Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, Atlanta Falcons interim head coach Raheem Morris and Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. But it became increasingly clear that the team was focused on attempting to lure Meyer back to coaching and into the NFL, and the only issue was whether Meyer would accept the job. There also were reports of recent interest in Meyer by the Los Angeles Chargers.

His name had come up in speculation linking him to previous NFL head coaching vacancies, including those of the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Football Team a year ago. Meyer attended a Washington game in December 2019 at FedEx Field against the Philadelphia Eagles. But Washington wide receiver Terry McLaurin said at the time that Meyer was on hand to support him and another former Ohio State player, quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Washington hired Ron Rivera, and the Cowboys hired Mike McCarthy.

The Jaguars must hope that Meyer’s jump from the college coaching ranks to the NFL will be more like that of Pete Carroll, a Super Bowl winner with the Seattle Seahawks after winning one national title and splitting another in college at Southern Cal, than those of Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban and Chip Kelly, who are among the prominent college coaches whose success did not translate into pro-football prosperity.

Meyer’s 2018 decision to step away from coaching was related to his health issues and the demands of coaching. He coped for two decades with headaches caused by an arachnoid cyst in his brain. Meyer also dealt with several controversies that included scrutiny of his handling of the employment and firing of assistant coach Zach Smith, who was accused of domestic violence. Following a university investigation, Meyer was suspended without pay for the first three games of the 2018 season.

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At least 31 Florida football players were arrested during Meyer’s coaching tenure at the school between 2005 and 2010, according to multiple reports. Former Florida and New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was serving a life sentence for murder when department of corrections officials said he killed himself by hanging in his prison cell in 2017. Police reportedly questioned Hernandez about a 2007 shooting while he was at Florida but later cleared him.

Meyer also cited health concerns when he stepped down at Florida in December 2009. He had been admitted to a hospital because of chest pains following the SEC championship game. He changed his mind and made it a leave of absence, then resigned after the following season.

He won 85.4 percent of his games as a college head coach, going 187-32. His Ohio State teams went 83-9, a 90.2 winning percentage.

Meyer faces a rebuilding project in Jacksonville. Marrone had the Jaguars in the AFC championship game at the end of the 2017 season. But they lost that game to the Patriots and had a combined record of 12-36 in the three seasons since. The Jaguars began this season with a triumph over the Indianapolis Colts, then didn’t win again. The team also fired Dave Caldwell as its general manager.

The quarterback situation is unsettled. A major free agent expenditure for Nick Foles before the 2019 season didn’t work out. Foles lasted only one season with the Jaguars after he signed a four-year, $88 million contract, then was traded to the Chicago Bears last offseason. Gardner Minshew II had some promising moments over the past two seasons but failed to show that he is the long-term solution at the position.

Even so, the job opening was considered attractive. Khan is regarded within the sport as a patient and accommodating boss. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is thought to be in line to be the top pick in the draft and is, in the eyes of many talent evaluators, a likely franchise-centerpiece player in the NFL.

But Meyer’s arrival in Jacksonville raises the issue of whether the Jaguars might opt for Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. It’s also conceivable that Meyer could attempt to salvage Haskins’s NFL career. The former first-round choice was released less than two full seasons into his tenure in Washington after his on-field struggles and off-field issues related to his failure to comply with this season’s coronavirus protocols.