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“It’s A Wonderful Ohio State Football Life”

What would the state of the program be if 2018 had played out much differently? This is a bizarro version of one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made.

Just like George and Clarence, let’s see how life would have played out if...
Photo by CBS via Getty Images

When former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was placed on administrative leave during the 2018 season (foreshadowing), it set in motion a series of events that would eventually lead to Ryan Day taking the OSU job and winning 33 of his first 37 games — including his 3-0 record as the acting head coach. Day led the Buckeyes to back-to-back CFP appearances, had them in position to compete in a third, and has generally been… awesome, for lack of a better word.

Despite not winning a National Championship under Day, I think it is fair to say that the Ohio State football program and its fans are living a wonderful life.

Well, what if Meyer was never placed on leave? What if Greg Schiano or Larry Johnson had been named the acting head coach for those three games? Is Day still with the program? Is Urban? We will never know the answer, but it’s fun to play “what if” from time to time. So, in honor of one of the greatest Christmas movies ever, I am going to play my own game of “what if” — focused on the Meyer situation that impacted Ohio State in 2018 and beyond. Consider me your Clarence.

In the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, main character George Bailey gets an opportunity to see what the world around him would be like if he had never been born. A guardian angel named Clarence falls to Earth, and shows George the current state of his beloved hometown (Bedford Falls) sans Bailey. This takes place after a buzzkill of an opening, which for some, makes the movie a tough sell. I know for me personally, I could not embrace It’s A Wonderful Life for years, because the beginning of the film is far from joyous. But at the risk of playing spoiler 75 years later, I’ll just say that the ending is perfect.

Bringing it back to Ohio State football: What if 2018 had transpired differently (AKA, what if the Zach Smith scandal had never been born)? Where is everyone now, and what is the current state of the program? We’re going to take a look at the key figures and major hypotheticals, and make a few wild guesses along the way. It’s A Wonderful Ohio State Football Life.

Urban Meyer: 2018 – Head Coach at Ohio State/Present – Four-time National Championship winner and highest paid football analyst in television history

Look at the sparkle in Meyer’s eye, this is where he belongs now
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Whew boy. I bet Meyer has a few regrets from the last handful of years. In 2018, he was riding high as the Buckeyes’ coach and had already cemented himself as a legend in Columbus. Unfortunately, his handling of the Zach Smith situation – or perhaps his failure to address it – resulted in a three-game absence, and his eventual “retirement” from coaching. I used parentheses, because we all know the retirement was a mutually beneficial ending for both the coach and the program.

Meyer transitioned to television, where he was great, before ultimately returning to the sidelines in 2021 — this time as an NFL head coach. The Jacksonville situation was a nightmare from the beginning, and it ended with him becoming the first ever NFL head coach to be fired before the completion of his first season. Personnel decisions were questionable, game management was poor, and most found his lack of personal accountability to be egregious. Other than that though…

So what if the Zach Smith situation was handled differently? Well, I believe Meyer was close to retirement, but he obviously would have wanted to do so on his own terms. I think the man who led Ohio State to the 2014 National Championship would have stuck around long enough to win one more in 2019, before riding off into the sunset (television studio). Meyer was a ferocious competitor, and clearly still had the itch when he walked away from the college game. A fourth title could have given him some closure and finality, while also allowing him to retire as a winner and a champion. That’s a good way to go out.

This hypothetical is all pending good health, but I believe that the headaches would have been fewer and far between, if the same thing could have been said about the controversies that followed Meyer. Winning has a way of funny way of curing what ails you. In 2021, the head ball coach could have been kicking his feet up on a television desk, instead of kicking… uh, kickers (allegedly). This George Bailey-esque dream sequence would have worked out very well for Meyer.

After his retirement from coaching, Fox made a substantial investment in Meyer, making him the highest paid personality on Big Noon Kickoff just ahead of the 2020 season. Despite a pandemic, the former coach turned BNK into must-see programming, and carried the show through an awkward season. Meyer’s salary was tripled for 2021, and he turned in yet another stellar performance. There are now rumors that Disney is looking to buy out the man who has a new statue in Columbus, and they are willing to give him his own ESPN channel. ESPUrbaN could be on the programming schedule by fall of 2022.

Ryan Day: 2018 – Offensive Coordinator at Ohio State/Present – Head Coach for the Cincinnati Bengals

Day has since moved on, but he still lives in the Buckeye state
Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The sliding doors moment of Meyer being caught up in scandal could have gone any number of ways for Day. The current head coach of the Buckeyes had joined the OSU staff in 2017, before quickly being promoted to offensive coordinator and primary play caller ahead the 2018 season. He turned out to be a bit of a quarterback whisperer, helping to develop Dwayne Haskins, Justin Fields, and C.J. Stroud thus far.

Due to his work with the offense and the fact that his name was in high demand, Ohio State risked losing Day if they did not essentially name him the coach-in-waiting. That came to fruition much quicker than anticipated, as he was given the temporary nod in Meyer’s absence — over a guy like Schiano, who had years of head coaching experience. He was named as the permanent successor on Dec. 4, 2018.

All in all, it has worked out pretty well for OSU. Fans and former players can lament the fact that the Buckeyes lost to TTUN for the first time in a decade, but it was bound to happen at some point. Day has kept talent funneling into the program, coached in two CFP’s, and maintained the standard that Meyer set during his time in Columbus. If you want to nitpick, then I think you deserve coal in your stocking for Christmas.

If the negative events of 2018 never took place, maybe Day waits one more year and succeeds Meyer after the 2019 season. Instead of just being the QB whisperer, he also comes in with the pedigree of a National Championship-winning offensive coordinator. 2020 would have made for a very awkward first year as a head coach, but the end result is likely very similar.

But what if Day lacked patience and didn’t want to wait for his opportunity? The list of college openings in 2019 was not great. Miami filled its vacancy with Manny Diaz, and Day doesn’t seem like a Florida guy. Louisville could have been interesting, but it clearly doesn’t have the prestige of an Ohio State. North Carolina or West Virginia? Same as Louisville, in my opinion. So I don’t think Day would have stuck around the college game. I think he takes his talents to the next level.

Call this wishful thinking, but what if Day never left Ohio after 2018? A certain professional team in southern Ohio also named a young, offensive-minded coordinator as its new head coach prior to the 2019 season, and that team was none other than my Cincinnati Bengals! Who dey!

After a few successful seasons with Ohio State, Day’s name became a hot commodity in coaching circles. Looking to make a splash, Cincinnati brought in a guy whose biggest coaching accomplishment was far superior to that of being Sean McVay’s personal assistant. Day did not have to move out of the state he had grown to love, and he could even stay in touch with his former peers — or poach them in the near future (looking at you, Hartline). After a rough first season, the Bengals still select Joe Burrow, with whom Day has some familiarity, and they are perennial Super Bowl contenders almost immediately. Bengal fans are in year three of a decades-long dynasty, and all of our football dreams are coming true. What a time to be alive!

Luke Fickell: 2018 – Head Coach at Cincinnati/Present – Head Coach at Ohio State

Look who’s home!

Talk about having the stars align! This fake scenario is full of positives, which is not exactly what George witnessed in the movie. But I’m not one for downers, so let’s keep the happy train rolling…

In 2017, Fickell took the Cincinnati job, perhaps after seeing the writing on the wall at Ohio State. He was a sacrificial lamb during the 2011 season, but his performance as the interim head coach was not indicative of what he could (and would) eventually be. He stuck around for a few seasons, waiting for his next real opportunity.

I believe Fickell did, or does eventually, want to be the permanent head coach at Ohio State — but it hasn’t happened yet. Instead, he made the short drive down I-71. The Bearcats struggled in Fickell’s first year, going 4-8. Since then, he has compiled a record of 44-6 and has his team in the CFP! Talk about a turnaround. But it took until 2021, with all the lunacy this college football season provided, for Cincinnati and its coach to finally earn a shot. Fickell could be a shoe-in for annual consideration as the BMOC at his alma mater.

After initiating a quick rebuild of UC football, Fick was also in high demand after the 2019 season (remember: Meyer won a natty without Day on the staff, who has since moved on). Established as a proven winner, OSU brought him back home to coach the Buckeyes. He was able to retain most of the staff due to their familiarity and level of comfort with the program, but Fickell and Gene Smith wanted to bring in a known commodity to run the offense. Enter: Mike Leach.

While Leach was coming off a tumultuous end to his head coaching career at Washington State, Ohio State saw an opportunity for him to mentor Fickell, while also implementing the Air Raid offense in Columbus. It turned out to be pretty successful, as C.J. Stroud set an NCAA record with 7,046 passing this season (ongoing). Leach now seems to be grooming Brian Hartline to take over the offense sooner than later.

On the strength of a record-setting offense and a stingy, disciplined defense, the Buckeyes finished the 2021 regular season undefeated. With a bitter taste still in his mouth from 2011, Fickell also moved to 2-0 against TTUN, after promising to never lose to them again during his introductory press conference. The Buckeyes took care of business in Indianapolis, and are once again in the CFP. I cannot wait for their matchup with this year’s non-Power 5 darling, Coastal Carolina.

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Zach Smith: 2018 – WR Coach at Ohio State/Present – Podcaster

This is not an investigate piece, nor am I the right person to write one. I’ll just say this: Menace2Sports seemed like an eventual outcome, regardless of what transpired in 2018. Moving on…

Greg Schiano: 2018 — Defensive Coordinator at Ohio State/Present – Defensive Coordinator for the New England Patriots

Schiano was plucked from obscurity by Meyer, following a post-NFL odyssey that led him to Berkeley Prep, a K-12 prep school in the Tampa, Florida area. The former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Bucs coach restored his good name by leading the Ohio State defense for a few seasons, and would have been welcome to stay in Columbus as long as Meyer was around. No scandal means Schiano leads the defense in 2019, and leaves the college game with a ring.

Fresh off a championship, the fire is still burning for Schiano, but he can only coach for a winner. After almost accepting a job with the New England Patriots in 2019, he circles back around and takes their DC position prior to the 2020 season. He is essentially a puppeteer for Bill Belichick, but has earned a reputation as a solid NFL coach. He will soon have his choice of jobs, in college or the pros.

Bonus: we as NFL fans are not subjected to Steve Belichick’s weird mullet.

Brian Hartline: 2018 – Interim WR Coach at Ohio State/Present – WR Coach & Co-OC at OSU, as well as best damn recruiter in the country

Hartline ascended from GA to interim coach after Smith was fired. He has been a huge asset for OSU, and who knows where we’d be without him (probably fine, but I’m not eager to find out). Fortunately, Clarence (me) is here to deliver more good news in this football-themed version of It’s A Wonderful Life: Hartline is still here, and he’s still the man.

Hartline returned to Ohio State because he had ties to the program. He was never tied to Meyer or Day, they simply hired/retained him. In this scenario, he kept his position on the staff until Fickell took over, and it was only natural that Luke retained him as well. His recruiting prowess has been a boost for the Buckeyes, and he seems to be a willing pupil under Leach. Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njiba have each gone for over 1,500 yards in the Air Raid, on their way to sweeping the top three spots in the Biletnikoff Award voting. Hartline was instrumental in their success.

Kerry Coombs: 2018 – Defensive Backs coach for the Tennessee Titans/Present – Defensive Coordinator at Ohio State

Hold on a second… before you get out the pitchforks. Remember, It’s A Wonderful Life has a happy ending. Coombs is a great dude, so give the man a break. Also, it is important to point out that in the context of this story, Luke Fickell is the head coach for the Buckeyes! Coombs worked for his close friend, Mike Vrabel.

Fickell brought in Coombs to boost morale and also to act as a proxy for the head coach. Coombs can focus on DB’s while having the title of DC, and Fick can call the plays. Ohio State’s defense prospers as a result, and everyone goes home happy.

Jim Harbaugh: 2018 – Head Coach at TTUN/Present – Quarterbacks Coach for the Baltimore Ravens

Captain Khaki lost to Fickell in 2019, dodged him in 2020, and ended up being fired as a result. In an act of mercy, Jim’s brother John hired the former Wolverine player and coach to work with Lamar Jackson. In an unfortunate turn of events, Jackson regressed as a passer and lost his job to Tyler Huntley… wait, did I just predict part of the future!?

So there it is, folks. A happy ending for all but the man in blue. If the scandal and controversies that impacted Ohio State football in 2018 never happened, the program is still in a great place. Meyer is a television mogul, Day coaches the best professional football team in Ohio, and Fickell returns home. This joyous series of events is a stark contrast to what my man George Bailey saw during his trip with Clarence, but the premise remains the same.

So what do you think? Is this how things would have played out?