You don’t get to be as successful as Urban Meyer without taking a few risks. But there’s a certain point at which those risks might not have the payoff that Meyer might be hoping for. Like when he moved from the college to the NFL level this spring, leaving behind a successful television career.
But what are some of the steps one takes when starting down a new adventure? Perhaps falling back on training, thinking back to things that have made you successful in the past and getting back to what you know. Perfectly logical things to do, right?
Unfortunately, these components are not ones that necessarily allow a coach to move successfully from the collegiate to the pro level. We have seen examples of outstanding college coaches who haven’t been able to make it in the professional league. Nick Saban comes readily to mind. So does Chip Kelly.
In fact, most of the great (and not so great) professional coaches weren’t head coaches in the college ranks (see Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh, Andy Reid, Sean Payton and others).
As it stands, the list of NFL coaches who came from college programs, especially as head coaches, is somewhat sparse and, in fact, limited to four (excepting Bruce Arians who was head coach at Temple before moving into coordinator positions between college and the pros): Pete Carroll, Kliff Kingsbury, Matt Rhule... and now, Urban Meyer.
The jury is still out on the latter three coaches, which should say something considering just one of 32 coaches in the NFL came from college and has demonstrated sustained success in the pros. Oh and by the way for you youngins out there, Pete Carroll was a head coach at the NFL level (twice) before he found success at USC.
There’s a reason that college coaches haven’t had success in the NFL. It’s a different game where coaches play much different roles — perhaps less the offensive/defensive-minded genius and more the wrangler and channeler of outstanding talent. And perhaps that’s why we haven’t seen the wide success of collegiate head coaches in the NFL the way that we have homegrown NFL coaches (Belichick, Reid, Payton).
What does that mean for Meyer? Like Saban, the former Ohio State coach brings to Jacksonville one of the top track records of any college coach in recent years. Meyer famously brought Utah to national prominence before winning national titles at two schools (yes, including Ohio State). But he’s never — not even as an assistant — coached at the professional level.
That lack of experience may already be having an impact with Meyer’s new organization; already in his short time in Jacksonville, his tactics have been raising eyebrows.
For those coaching in the NFL for the first time, there will obviously be pitfalls. First year coaches have a lot to learn, but one of the biggest challenges is managing the locker room — an area on which Meyer certainly has an advantage as a coach beloved by his players. Of course, those were players Meyer had recruited to join his programs, courting them for years before giving offers and receiving commitments.
Jacksonville’s kerfuffle with free agency was a bizarre set of events. Meyer demonstrated a distinct awkwardness during the free agency period this spring, referring to the whole thing as “not good business,” as he was unable to meet players before signing them. Forget the fact that Meyer hadn’t done it before, and was dumping on an experience he happened to not excel at the first time around, and also the fact that every other NFL team had already figured out how to operate in the midst of the pandemic. “I don’t agree with it, but no one asked my opinion,” he said.
Again, the NFL is a different game, and while Meyer could have struggled through free agency and grown from it, he instead insisted that the rules shouldn’t be the way they are.
But there are also things that will tend to get folks in trouble even off of the football field, like hiring old faces and vouching for them because he has known them forever. Case in point: Chris Doyle.
For starters, hiring someone who was literally JUST dismissed from the position he’d held for decades because of allegations of racist behavior is a bad move. It was such a bizarre hire that naturally garnered backlash and set a bad tone as Meyer built his staff.
Additionally, hiring Doyle fed into a common issue that many up-and-coming coaches don’t get opportunities because they weren’t culled from a coaching tree. Doyle and Meyer apparently go way back, which meant that other, potentially better coaches (who, perhaps, haven’t been cited for their role in perpetuating systemic racism) didn’t get a shot on Meyer’s staff.
We saw this multiple times during Meyer’s time in Columbus, from hiring the best man at his wedding to coach linebackers to bringing the grandson of his mentor on to coach wide receivers; and then keeping both on far longer than he should have.
And then there’s the players Meyer’s chosen to bring on. All credit goes to Jacksonville for making the widely regarded right move and taking Trevor Lawrence No. 1 overall in the draft. But then there were the other offseason signings.
For instance, Meyer brought on now-30-year-old running back Carlos Hyde, who played under Meyer at Ohio State.
More recently, Meyer has been getting inquiries about his possible signing of former Florida star Tim Tebow as a tight end. Yes, the 33-year old quarterback who started exactly 16 games over three seasons for the Denver Broncos and New York Jets from 2010-12, and who hasn’t been in the NFL since 2015. Like Doyle, this move shows Meyer’s desire to stick with what he knows rather than to explore different and better options — like players who have actually played tight end ever before in their entire lives.
And then there was the turn of events with Jacksonville’s other first round pick from Clemson, running back Travis Etienne. Meyer has a history of recruiting players for potential and pure athleticism (see: Dontre Wilson). He is also obsessed with the halfback position and leveraging athletes in weird ways. In some ways, it’s worked out for him (see: Percy Harvin).
Now, Meyer has stated that Etienne will spend all of his rookie mini camp at... wide receiver? Yes, the second running back taken in the draft, who Jacksonville moved up to get, will be spending his early NFL days at a position he has not played before.
#Jaguars coach Urban Meyer told reporters that first-round RB Travis Etienne will take all of his minicamp reps at WR. “Worst case scenario you have a running back that's elite with receiver skills,” Meyer said. Similar, it seems, to Le’Veon Bell in his prime.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) May 15, 2021
Etienne left college as one of the greatest running backs in the history of the ACC. Asking him to switch to a new role and compete alongside receivers who have refined their craft by being outstanding at playing wide receivers is not setting Etienne up for success. Further, it ultimately means Jacksonville doesn’t have the best players playing at their optimal positions.
Meyer’s now been through his first set of firsts in the NFL, from his first staff build to his first free agency experience to his first draft and now his first rookie minicamp. It’s natural that there will be some bumps along the road, but there seem to be some larger issues at play that Meyer will need to get a handle on if he wants to make the challenging transition to the NFL level, and unfortunately it seems like he’s falling back into some old habits that might not translate well to the next level.