Urban Meyer and the complicated question of a coach's legacy

Will Urban Meyer's legacy be tarnished by suspension? (2:04)

Ryan McGee takes a look at Urban Meyer's legacy and questions how and if it will change now that he has been suspended for three games. (2:04)

Legacy is a complicated proposition.

It's a word and an idea that Urban Meyer has no doubt wrestled with in recent weeks and won't stop wrestling with in the weeks to come.

We all work as hard as we can, and walk every line we feel as though we must, with the hopes of departing this mortal coil with our reputation intact. For most of us, legacy means little more than leaving behind a good family made up of decent people with a name that we can engrave on a tombstone without too much embarrassment.

But for those among us who spend their lifetime standing on much larger stages in much brighter spotlights making much larger sums of money -- say, the sidelines of The Swamp and The Horseshoe while pulling down upward of $7.8 million annually -- the work is a little harder and the walking lines are a little tougher to follow. The idea of a legacy is more complicated for them than it is for us. And it should be. That's the gig.

That means being held accountable not only for your win-loss record, but also for your actions, your inactions, your morals, your honesty, and the company you keep.

As the late Dale Earnhardt once said to me, "If you're gonna let them sell T-shirts and hats with your face and name on them, then you better not complain when people want to get into your business or want to hold you to a higher standard. If you don't want to deal with that, then go find something else to do for a living. But I'm betting the paychecks ain't as good over there, are they?"

As Urban Meyer faces a three-game suspension, he is no doubt taking measure of what his legacy will be. He has always tried to convince us that he doesn't care about such things. He has long repeated that his goal was never about becoming a legend of the game, instead it was about building boys into men and coaching them for life and, well, you know the talk.

All coaches give that speech. And they are all lying.

"Oh, we all want the stuff with our names on it, there's no doubt about that," David Cutcliffe explained in the spring. There's no doubt that when his time at Duke is done, there will be some stuff with Cutcliffe's name on it and a statue in front of Wallace Wade Stadium. But only if he agrees to it first. "Let me rephrase that. You want the opportunity to say yes or no to the stuff with your name on it, because if someone wants to name something for you or hang your picture in the lobby or put your name all over the media guide, well, then, that means you've probably had some success. The trick is to have that success but don't let it go to your head. Don't let it convince you that, 'Hey, these people should be putting my name on some stuff!' That's when you've lost touch."

As Cutcliffe's former boss at Tennessee, Johnny Majors, put it: "You gotta be careful when they start telling you how great you are. They named a street after me and then shortly after told me to hit the road."

For a man like Meyer, it would be easy to say his legacy will simply be tied to those numbers in the media guide. The 177 wins, 11 bowl victories, three national championships and six conference titles spread out over three different leagues. Building winners at Bowling Green and Utah, then restoring pride at Florida and Ohio State.

There is no doubt that had his machine continued undeterred in Columbus, then the named buildings and the statues would have followed. They might still.

But legacy is about what people think when they thumb through those pages in the record book or enter the doors beneath the engraved name or drive past that bronze statue on campus. Will they smile? Will they feel pride? Or will they think instead, "Damn, Coach, why stay so loyal to that guy?"

It has been 40 years since Woody Hayes saw his Ohio State career abruptly terminated after punching a Clemson player on the sideline of the Gator Bowl, yet to many that is still the last, lingering impression of the Hall of Fame coach. It has been nearly a decade since Jim Tressel coached the Buckeyes to a stunning run of success, but people are still less likely to mention eight BCS bowl games in 10 years and more likely to mutter "tattoos" under their breath.

Only time will tell us what people will ultimately think when they hear Urban Meyer's name. There will always be those who immediately flash back to confetti and trophies. But there will also always be those who eternally see him standing at the podium during 2018 Big Ten media days, lying to our collective faces.

The night that the news first broke that Meyer did, indeed, know about the domestic violence-pocked past of dismissed assistant coach Zach Smith, I found myself in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, standing across the street from a towering statue of Jerry Richardson, once the pride of the Carolinas for bringing the NFL's Panthers to town. Now he is in exile, pushed there after revelations of racial slurs and disrespectful conduct toward female employees. Forced to sell his beloved franchise, he managed to work language into the contract that this statue, defiantly pointing a football toward the city, could not be removed. Only a few months ago, people eagerly lined up to take selfies with the statue of "Mister Richardson." Now I watched a group of women take a photo of themselves flipping it off.

Now the stories flow out of Charlotte about years of Richardson's misbehavior, how we should have all been appalled long ago but chose to ignore it because, you know, Super Bowls and all of that. Just as Meyer's explanation of his efforts to counsel Smith into becoming a better person suddenly makes us go: Wait, isn't that the same thing he said about Aaron Hernandez?

One day Richardson's statue will rust. One day the pages of the Ohio State college football record book will yellow and wither. The paint on the "Urban Meyer Way" street sign in Dublin, Ohio, will fade.

One day, everything will feel like it has started moving on and at the surface will appear healed. But deep down, the scars will remain. The ugly truth will pop up when it needs to, or, more accurately, when it has to. Certain keywords will always sting. Certain images will always cause involuntary wincing. Every room entered comes with side-eye glances and whispers. The guard can never fully be let down. The hurt of what happened won't ever go away.

Not for the coach hoping to preserve his name. Not for his bosses, charged with policing and protecting not only the football program, but everyone connected to that program, whether by payroll or bloodline. And certainly not for the people they stepped over -- intentionally or not -- while trying to do all the above.