Inside Urban Meyer's life after football at Ohio State

Former Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer is now an assistant athletics director for athletics initiatives and relations at OSU, helping to "coach the coaches." Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is here, in this office half the size of his old one, in large part because of where he was in 2018. The season began with Meyer's highly publicized three-game suspension. And his career was questioned again when he dropped to one knee on the sideline, his left hand bracing his head, his play sheet falling to the ground during Ohio State's game against Indiana.

The scene spurred Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith to call Meyer into his office the following week, where he met with Smith and those closest to the head coach on game day, including the head athletic trainer, team doctor and director of football operations. Smith wanted a "management plan" for Meyer.

The sideline incident was the product of years of issues Meyer had suffered due to an abnormally large arachnoid cyst on his brain. Doctors diagnosed it in 1998, when Meyer was at Notre Dame, and drained it of spinal fluid in 2014 through a surgery that required two holes in his head. Meyer said the intense pain began against Penn State last year and worsened against Indiana.

Smith asked the team assembled in his office to watch Meyer closely during games. Whenever he looked like he was ready to rip his headset off, "all of the people were responsible for just touching him" as a signal to keep it on. It helped keep the crowd noise down, but it also was a tangible reminder to temper his intensity. "Because he loses himself," Smith said.

And so he's here, on the 10th floor of the Fawcett Center, home to the administrative side of Ohio State athletics.

As the Buckeyes prepare for their first season under 40-year-old coach Ryan Day, this is where Meyer reports to work. Technically, he now is an assistant athletics director for athletics initiatives and relations -- a fancy way of saying his new role focuses on imparting leadership lessons to all 36 sports, their team captains and head coaches, along with participating in typical fundraising and speaking engagements.

It's a postscript to a successful yet controversial career. And while it might seem to some like an unlikely -- or even temporary -- retirement plan for a 55-year-old coach who finished 83-9 with one national title in seven seasons at Ohio State, it's a decision that had been discussed for almost two years.

Almost every Sunday last year, Smith and Meyer would discuss Meyer's possible retirement, with Smith calling them "old souls, sitting around talking about it." After the medical scare against Indiana, "It got more serious," Smith said.

"As the doctor said, 'Coach, it's not your ankle we're talking about,'" Meyer said. "It just makes you think, you have grandkids, you start thinking about the next 25 years of your life and it certainly played a little bit of a role."

Smith tried to get Meyer to take some time off, but he began his new job immediately after he punctuated his retirement announcement with a 28-23 win over Washington in the Rose Bowl.

It was a quantum leap for a man who was once on the campus pedestal and made national headlines for what he did -- and sometimes failed to do. Meyer's coaching legacy varies by whom you ask, and what part of the country they're from, but his work at Ohio State isn't done.

The question is how long will the new role fulfill him.

"It's a different world over here," Meyer said, taking a seat in his black leather office chair with the red block "O" on it, behind his new C-shaped desk.

At 7:30 a.m. on a Tuesday during fall camp, just after plopping his car keys on his desk and flipping his office light on in an otherwise mostly dark and quiet floor, Meyer noted that the football staff had probably been at work for at least an hour already.

"I'm retraining my whole life," he said. "I'm retraining everything. That's probably been the hardest. Mornings are the hardest. I'm an early riser. I want to go attack something, and sometimes there's nothing to attack."

Meyer still carries considerable influence within the athletic department as he continues to learn more about its inner workings and other sports. He is still adjusting to life outside Ohio State football and the Woody Hayes Athletic Center -- all while continuing the delicate balance of mentoring Day and maintaining relationships across the street without overstepping into the overbearing.

His office is across the hall from that of Smith, his boss and good friend. Their deeply personal discussions over the past few years about Meyer's pending retirement plans drew them closer, and together they followed Oklahoma's blueprint of how to replace one iconic coach with a rising rookie star.

Meyer has retired before, in 2009 from Florida, so speculation naturally still swirls that he will return to coaching. (Some fans already have hired him at Southern California.) But before making any flippant predictions, it is important to understand what he is doing now, and to remember the myriad of issues that led to his retirement, including last season's three-game suspension, his family and his health.

Meyer made a fist.

That, he said, is how big the cyst on his brain is.

"People say it's stress," he said. "Well, it's not stress. It's the intensity, the bear-down, those things that happen during the course of a game or practice. It's something I'm going to have to watch the rest of my life."

If it weren't for the plethora of family photos, trophies, helmets, footballs, commemorative watches, his collection of seven pins in the shape of gold pants for beating rival Michigan, and other keepsakes Meyer has crammed into his new office, it could otherwise be described as mundane -- like most offices.

He is now helping impart programs he developed within football across all sports, specifically the "Real Life Wednesdays," which aims to prepare athletes for life after sports by teaching them about fiscal responsibility and entering the workforce, and "Live Life Wednesdays," which focuses on the social issues athletes deal with.

"Now he's like, 'Oh, my God, we have a rowing team? Oh, my God, we have a synchronized swimming team? And they've won three national championships in the last six years? You're kidding me,'" Smith said. "All of those things, it's really cool to watch. He had to understand our tennis program has won 11 straight Big Ten championships. 'Our tennis program is that good?' Yeah. There's a novelty, and he's a curious human being anyway; there's a novelty that he's enjoyed learning the administrative side.

"Who knows how long this will be inquisitive enough for him or of interest to ultimately keep him going long term," Smith said. "I just don't know that."

Smith has asked Meyer to "coach the coaches," and Meyer has been available to his peers unlike ever before. When Meyer moved into his new position, an email was sent out to every coach offering an open invitation to meet with him.

"I was like, 'Hell yeah, I'm getting in that line,'" said Ohio State women's rowing coach Andy Teitelbaum, who is entering his 25th season and has won three national championships and nine Big Ten titles of his own. "If you're a coach and you're trying to master your craft, you'd be crazy not to go in and try and see what somebody like Urban, who had amazing success everywhere he's been, to try and see what he's done and what his perspective is on things.

"Having the opportunity to sit down with Urban and just be like, 'Dude, how did you do it at Bowling Green?' Those are the interesting stories. 'When you got to Bowling Green, what were you walking into, and how did you get it from where it was to where it was when you left?' The same thing at Utah. It's incredibly valuable."

Meyer now works next to Carey Fagan, the associate athletic director for sport administration and student athlete development. On Meyer's first day, she sensed he seemed a little lost and invited him to come to a women's basketball practice with her.

They bonded immediately, as Fagan coached Ohio State gymnasts for 13 years before transitioning into an administrative role like Meyer. (She also married a former Penn State football player, Ryan Fagan.)

Fagan said Meyer's help with the Eugene D. Smith Leadership Institute has been critical.

"It's really good to have him over here because everybody ups their game," she said. "If he asks you a question [in a meeting] -- which he does -- he's very engaged, and you better be ready to have a solid answer. He has zero patience for bumbling and BS. That's just not who he is. We schedule meetings with him, very aware of the type of personality that I will have him sit with and for how long."

Fagan recently took Meyer to meet some young gymnasts at an Ohio State camp, and she said she saw everyone's eyes light up when he walked in.

"There were a couple of young out-of-state girls just chatting with him after a rotation, and Urban said, 'Is there anybody who doesn't know who I am?' And there were two little girls, and he was like, 'Thank you! I'm so happy right now.' It was really cute," she said.

"He totally undervalues what he brings to the table for our 36 other sports. It blows my mind, because our head coaches can literally sit at a table across from him for 10 minutes and pick up something that will change their program."

Ryan Day is no exception to that.

Ohio State has had 11 practices heading into this season, and Meyer has been to two of them, just chatting and observing. At the most recent one, he showed up in khaki shorts and a red and white striped polo shirt, dressed for the golf round he would later play. He spent more time shaking hands and talking to guests than actually watching practice, stopping briefly to sign an autograph for the wrestling coach and again to do a TV interview with the local ABC affiliate in the indoor facility.

"He's just always keeping an eye on things," Day said. "I'll talk to him afterwards, see what he saw. It's always good to have an extra set of eyes, especially seasoned eyes."

Frequent visitors to practice say they've noticed a little more country music and classic rock on the playlist, but some things haven't changed. The Buckeyes still blasted LL Cool J's "Going to War" at a recent August practice as they did their routine "Team Up North" period, focusing on Michigan.

Day has made the program his in different ways, including hiring some new assistants, including co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison from Michigan. And Meyer's old office has been renovated for Day, who added a gas fireplace and a couch with an ornamental rug in front of his desk to give it more of a living room-type feel.

"There's a shadow over Ohio State, whether it's Woody Hayes, Jim Tressel, John Cooper or Urban Meyer," Day said. "The bottom line is you've gotta win. I don't look at it like that at all. He's a friend, he's a colleague, he's a brother, he's all those things. At the end of the day, all that matters is if you win."

Meyer said he frequently hears from the players and their families, all of whom he recruited, but he tries "not to meddle too much."

"I check on him," Meyer said of Day. "I'll get a phone call at so-and-so time of day. I'll send a text. We'll talk about practice schedules, we'll talk about team meetings, we'll talk about staff. I go over there maybe once or twice a week, but I try not to, unless requested. You can't have a better relationship than between Ryan and I."

There is now a literal distance between them, though. Fall camp is when Meyer used to move into the local hotel with the players.

"I'm going to miss everything," Meyer said. "I'd be a fool not to. I think the answer is to stay as busy as you can."

Mission accomplished.

In August, Meyer had guest-speaking appearances at West Point, Boston College, Bowling Green and Toledo -- all in a span of four days. While the Buckeyes were at a 9 a.m. practice preparing to play in the stadium, he was working in the stadium -- at a three-hour administrative meeting with Smith and the staff.

When the season begins, Meyer will again co-teach a class, "Leadership and Character," in Ohio State's Fisher College of Business. He also will fly to Los Angeles every weekend to work as a studio analyst for Fox Sports.

"I don't need to be in that stadium right now," he said.

Meyer is no longer on daily medication for the cyst, and he said he is living pain-free now; but if it causes an episode like it did last fall, his doctor gives him steroids and it takes a month or two for the pain to dissipate. He has three grown children -- daughters Nicki and Gigi, and son, Nate, who is playing baseball at Cincinnati. Meyer also has two grandsons. Yes, he said, his health played a role in his decision to retire, but so did the changing game.

He and Smith had agreed that if Meyer was going to retire, he needed to do it after the Michigan game. Meyer gave former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops a call to talk about Stoops' decision and the timing of handing over the Sooners job to Lincoln Riley.

"I thought it was the perfect transition, the way they did it," Meyer said. "No one loses their jobs. You have people over there that won a bunch of games and did it the right way. That's not fair to the strength coach, the director of ops, the player personnel director, the player development guy. Those are four people who are absolutely critical to the success, and they're all still there. It was like a dream to be able to do that."

Much like Riley at Oklahoma, Day had other offers and could have gone elsewhere, but without any guarantees, there were conversations about future possibilities. Unlike at Oklahoma, Day had a three-game audition after the highly publicized Zach Smith story last summer.

Meyer was suspended without pay through the first three games of 2018 for his handling of domestic abuse allegations against Smith and how he represented his awareness of the allegations to the media last July. Smith was then fired as Ohio State's wide receivers coach after a pretrial hearing on a charge of criminal trespassing and a report detailing domestic violence allegations from his then-wife, Courtney Smith, in 2009 and 2015.

"Most people focus on the three games, but people forget he also had the preseason," Gene Smith said of Day. "He ran all of August camp last year. In a transition like that, with such an iconic coach, when you have to step in and take over like that at that time, teams can become fragmented. Individuals on the team can become disenfranchised and leave. The way he handled that was masterful.

"And then of course you get to the games, win the way we won, he handled new players the way he did, and things were run excellently. I had an opportunity to witness that and witness how he managed to live when Urban came back. Watching him transition back to his role when Urban came back and how he dealt with that was important."

On Dec. 4, Meyer and Smith were going to tell the team together of his decision to retire at a meeting scheduled for 7 a.m.

It was 6:50 a.m.

"Are you sure? We can cancel this right now," Smith said he asked Meyer with a laugh before they walked in. "You can meet with the team and tell them something else."

Meyer was sure.

He said he has had no regrets or second-guessing, even as the season opener quickly approaches.

"Not when I see how good it is," he said.

OK, so -- just to clarify -- is this really it?

"I think it is," Meyer said. "I know people get tired of hearing that, but I think it is.

"I knew when I stepped away [from Florida] pretty quickly that I had made a mistake, that I wasn't ready to step away, but I think this one's different."

Smith offered his take.

"He's relaxed now," Smith said. "I don't know what that means if he goes back to coaching. People were discarding that. Maybe over time it's not an issue, but that's something people shouldn't discard because that was serious. ... There's nothing he is doing now that would cause that level of intensity and give him those types of headaches."

When it came time to pack up his old, sprawling office in January, though, Meyer couldn't do it. He said it was too emotional. Instead, his longtime administrative assistant, Amy Nicol, boxed up roughly 25 packages of memorabilia that were shipped from Ohio State to Meyer's retirement home in Florida.

He hasn't unpacked them yet.

Most of what Meyer had accumulated -- old jerseys and autographed pictures, dozens of Buckeye trinkets that littered his desk, military coins he wouldn't throw away, trophies, championship rings and even a green beret -- wouldn't fit when he "downsized."

It was a quiet morning when the old office was finally empty, and the two of them sat down on the couch "and went straight down memory lane."

"It was the end of an era," said Nicol, who had been hired by Meyer at Florida.

"He's got the grandbabies now and both his daughters -- Gigi is getting married -- everybody is moving on to that next phase," she said. "You want to hold on to the past, but time is moving."

Meyer is moving with it, just without the intensity that brought him to his knees.