JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The move to the NFL was something Urban Meyer had been contemplating for a decade and seriously considering for the past year.
Meyer -- who spent a total of 17 seasons in the college ranks as head coach of Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State -- did significant research. He talked with former players about the culture in NFL locker rooms, about what motivates players, and what the grind of the season is like. How are the relationships between coaches and players? What is a typical NFL work week like?
He also spoke with coaches, executives and personnel people about building a roster, navigating free agency and the draft, and managing the salary cap.
What he learned convinced him he wanted to coach in the NFL and he believed, if given the chance to do it the way he wanted, he would be successful.
It’s not going to be easy, however. College coaches making the jump to the NFL for the first time have not exactly thrived during the past decade. Jim Harbaugh led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl and 49 wins (including playoffs) in four seasons, but Bill O’Brien, Doug Marrone, Kliff Kingsbury, Matt Rhule, Greg Schiano and Chip Kelly have combined for just four playoff victories.
Still, some of Meyer’s former players who have NFL experience believe he will be able to successfully make the transition. He may have to alter the way he delivers his message and motivates players -- what works on 18- and 19-year-olds won’t have the same impact on players in their 20s and 30s earning millions -- but if Meyer does that, he will thrive.
“I think Coach Meyer’s success in the NFL really depends on whether or not he will be able to get the locker room to buy into what he’s coaching,” said Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa, who played for Meyer at Ohio State from 2013 to '15. “That’s what he did at Ohio State. He brought in a culture of excellence and we either had to buy in or we weren’t going to play. I think it really depends on that, because what he’s bringing is great and it will be successful if you have a team of players that put in a lot of effort and believe in the system and believe in the culture.”
Meyer did a lot of things to establish the culture he wanted at every stop. He formed a Champions Club, which players earned by practicing hard, playing hard, and doing the right things on and off the field. Those who were in it literally dined on steak and lobster while those who weren’t would eat hot dogs. He encouraged competitions within the team, whether it was during conditioning or on-field drills, and the winners were rewarded.
He also kicked players out of the locker room and they had to dress for workouts somewhere else. He wouldn’t let them wear team apparel at workouts. Or they had to turn their shirts inside out. At Florida, he took away the Gator head that was just inside the door leading to Florida Field. Players had to earn the right to have those things.
These tactics wouldn’t work in the NFL, but what he was trying to get the players to understand was that sacrifice, hard work, commitment and personal responsibility are critical to winning.
That does translate.
“Urban’s smart enough to know he’s going to have to switch up his approach among NFL players a little bit than the one he uses with college players,” said Michael Bennett, who played defensive tackle at Ohio State from 2011 to 2014 and played 14 games over two seasons with the Jaguars. “One of his big mottos was: Do your job. I expect that will resonate with NFL players more than 18-, 19-year-olds.”
Meyer may not have to switch it up that much, though. Dallas Baker, who played wide receiver at Florida from 2003 to '06 (the final two seasons under Meyer) and played briefly in the NFL with the Steelers, said Meyer ran his programs in Gainesville and Columbus similar to the way it is done in the NFL.
Baker said Meyer essentially treated Gators players as professionals, telling them that if they wanted to be great he shouldn’t have to force them to watch extra film, go to class, get good grades, not miss workouts or meetings, and practice hard every day. If you did that, Baker said, you were treated with respect and earned his admiration.
However, he didn’t have time for those who didn’t. And those guys didn’t play much, if at all, Baker said.
“As far as him motivating guys, he’s not going to have a problem,” said Baker, who has spent the past four years as Marshall’s receivers coach. “He was a college coach who ran his program like the NFL. Everyone says he treats the good players like kings and bad players horribly. Let me clear this up, because this is actually how I coach, and the players I coach love it. Here’s why you don’t treat everyone the same: If you have a player that’s going to class, staying out of trouble, doing things to take the program to the next level and making his future better, then he’s going to treat that guy better than the guy getting in trouble, embarrassing his family, embarrassing the program. Why would I treat those guys the same? Treat everyone like human beings and treat everyone fair, but you never treat those guys the same. That’s the NFL right there.”
However Meyer adjusts his delivery, he should find a receptive audience in Jacksonville. The Jaguars have lost 10 or more games nine times in the past 10 seasons and are currently riding a 15-game losing streak. The franchise is desperate for success and Meyer’s résumé proves he has delivered that wherever he’s been.
It also helps that the Jaguars were the youngest team in the NFL in 2020, because they may be more eager to accept a culture change since they’re not that far removed from college. Depending on which players are re-signed or added in free agency, the Jaguars could have only two or three players 30 or older on the roster.
“Guys, they get to the NFL to provide for their family and to make a lot of money, but [Meyer] made a good point [during his introductory news conference] saying guys want to win, and Urban’s well-documented as a winner, so I think there’s going to be a level of buy-in there,” said Jack Mewhort, an offensive lineman at Ohio State from 2010 to '13 who spent four seasons with Indianapolis. “I’m sure Urban is who he is because of the way he ran his programs at the college level and I’m sure some of that will be implemented.”
One of the biggest questions about Meyer, which relates to his health, is whether he can adjust to losing multiple games every season. The Jaguars have 36 losses in the past three seasons. They’ve won more than five games just twice in the past 10 years: 10 in 2017 and six in 2019.
Losing absolutely tore Meyer apart in college. But it also was one of the things that made him such a good coach. And he didn’t lose much. Just 32 times in 17 years and he lost more than three games in a season just twice: 2007 (four) and 2010 (five) at Florida. Considering the state of the Jaguars, Meyer may very well post the first losing season of his career in 2021.
“Losing for him is a visceral reaction,” Bennett said. “It’s not just for the cameras. It hurts him personally to lose.”
It may be the toughest part of his transition.
It’s not an insurmountable adjustment. Others have made it with no problem, but no one knows for sure how Meyer will handle it until it happens.
“We won 24 straight games at Ohio State when Urban got there because we wanted to win, but also because I don’t think anybody really wanted to see what would happen to Coach Meyer if we lost a game,” Mewhort said. “As much as we were motivated to win, we really didn’t want to lose for this guy, either, because we know he doesn’t like to lose.
“It’s going to be an adjustment, but I think those are all things he had to have analyzed before he took this job. He’s not going to go 16-0 for two years before he loses his first game. I trust that he’s smart enough that he did that research. It’s going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to those losses.”
Mewhort has spent some time with Meyer at charity events in the past several years and he says that, believe it or not -- and most of his former players are likely in the “not” category -- Meyer has mellowed since he retired after the 2018 season.
Mewhort expected Meyer to be different away from the game, but he said he got the sense that Meyer wouldn’t be the same coach he was at Florida and Ohio State if he ever did get back into coaching. Hearing Meyer say during his introductory news conference that he wasn’t going to be running around like a nut on the practice field reinforced that feeling he got at a charity event.
“I think he’s at that point in his life now where he’s not interested in screaming and yelling and making guys do mat drills and mopping the floor if they’re late for a meeting,” Mewhort said. “I can’t picture him doing that just being in touch with him the past couple years and how relaxed he’s become and how well-adjusted he was in retirement. I just don’t see him stepping back into that crazy -- not that he was ever a yeller and screamer -- but the way he was in college. I see him being a different guy in the NFL, which I think is going to translate really well.”
Morgan Scalley, who played safety at Utah from 2001 to 2004 (the final two years under Meyer) and is now the Utes’ defensive coordinator, says he has no doubts about Meyer as an NFL coach. He’ll do what he has done at every other stop: figure out how to adapt.
“He’s gone from Bowling Green, went to Utah where he had to adapt to the culture there, the Polynesians, the Mormons, to go to Florida and the SEC and adapted there and won,” said Scalley, the Mountain West’s co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. “Then to Ohio State where that’s his home. Urban Meyer is a very smart individual. He got his degree in psychology and understands people. The sucker is smart and a great motivator, one of the best I’ve ever been around.
“He’s just done an amazing job of adapting wherever he’s gone. He surrounds himself with very bright minds and has done a great job throughout his career of hiring people, a great supporting cast. I know people are questioning him -- I’m just not one of them.”
In the end, Meyer’s transition from college to pro coach boils down to what it always does in the NFL: winning games. If Meyer wins, then whatever he does and however he delivers his message and motivates players will be fine.
“You have leeway coming into a losing squad to burn the house down,” Bennett said. “All he does is talk about winning. That’ll resonate with guys. Guys don’t like losing. ... That’s a message that I think will resonate with a group of competitors.
“If you’re successful, you can do whatever you want when you’re coming into a team that’s not successful. Everyone’s grabbing straws. If you do that stuff and you don’t win, you lose the team quickly.”