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‘What If’ Ohio State never hired Urban Meyer

Here’s a look at who the Buckeyes could have hired instead...

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Ohio State vs Clemson Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2011 football season, Ohio State’s football program was in unfamiliar territory coming off their first losing season since 1988 under John Cooper in his initial season. Luke Fickell’s first season as the Buckeyes’ head coach took a similar route to Cooper’s. There was a lot of learning on the job, and some disappointing results along the way.

This led to a tough decision by Gene Smith. Fickell was let go after one season, and this started one of the most successful runs in Ohio State football history. The long sustained success of Jim Tressel with one national title, three national championship appearances, six Big Ten titles, and a long list of players with end of season accolades. Following in the footsteps of Tressel was not a small task, especially with the sanctions Ohio State was facing due to “Tat-Gate.”

Fickell did not fail; He struggled under the weight of instability and in the end probably ended up better off in the long run. But the one year under Fickell showed Ohio State’s leadership that they needed someone that could immediately reignite the Buckeye football program. That guy was Urban Meyer.

There is no need to re-hash the legendary career of Meyer. His 7-0 record against That Team Up North speaks for itself, and he won Ohio State’s most recent championship. He finished 83-9 in his time as the Buckeyes’ head coach — the most successful run in school history. Even with how his tenure ended and his questionable coaching staff decisions he made at the end of his stint, given truth serum no Ohio State fan is trading those seven years.

That takes me to the theme of the article: what if Ohio State never hired Urban Meyer?

Ohio State is 128-15 since the hire of Urban Meyer in 2012. Without Meyer, Ohio State has one less championship, and the trajectory of the program potentially looks very different. As an overall recession-proof program, the Buckeyes have never faced an extended stretch of mediocrity.

What we’ve seen recently with Texas, Nebraska, and Michigan until the past two seasons is how one mistake can turn into a decade of inconsistency. The closest Ohio State has been to this has to be either the end of the Earle Bruce era or more recently the whole John Cooper era, depending on who you ask. If Ohio State did not hire Meyer, this could have been the level the program fell to once again.

Looking at the other once great programs, they could have fallen even lower. Fortunately for the Buckeye faithful, they have 7-0 and a national championship to remember, because looking at the other options, Meyer was the only one.

Who Ohio State could have hired based on the coaching carousel?

This list has a lot of revisionist history, but there were also quite a few candidates who on paper were actually just bad. Seeing some of the other coaches on carousel and seeing how their careers played out shows how hard it is to be a successful high level college football coach. Maybe things would have been different for some of these coaches given the resources of Ohio State, but unfortunately for many of them that was not the case.

Dan Mullen (Mississippi State)

In hindsight this may be a crazy hire, but at the time there was not a better in name in the country for what he was doing at Mississippi State. Mullen led the Bulldogs to their most successful stretch in program history, and led the team to eight consecutive bowl games as well as being ranked No. 1 in the first College Football Playoff rankings. All these accomplishments, and the level of success at a respectfully dormant program are forgotten after taking the job at Florida.

Ohio State was a year removed from receiving sanctions, and I do not know if Mullen has the leadership qualities in him to make the Ohio State seniors stay without the chance to play in a bowl game. If he is able to keep the roster together, there is a much better situation than what he took over at Florida, where he won double digit games in his first two years. If he was able to get Braxton Miller to Ohio State, he showed with Dak Prescott, Chris Leak, and Tim Tebow.

He probably is not able to keep Fickell in the fold due to not having the stature of Meyer, but from an offensive standpoint this might have been the one hire that sneakily made sense. Beating Brady Hoke would be the only threshold in his way between success and failure. If he gets that done, maybe the world is looking at Dan Mullen differently.

Charlie Strong (Louisville)

This one is hilarious in hindsight. Strong has been a terrible coach ever since he left Louisville. This one is interesting because Louisville has never been a powerhouse, but Strong was garnering national interest as a head coach at bigger programs despite back-to-back 7-6 seasons. After not getting a larger opportunity, he caught fire with Teddy Bridgewater, going 23-3 over two seasons and parlaying that into the Texas job.

Maybe Strong jumped too early, but in this what if scenario he jumped too late. Strong’s reputation was built similarly to Mullen and other Urban Meyer assistants due to their relationship with Meyer. As we’ve seen over the last decade, that does not dictate success, and once he got the Texas job we saw what the weight of a major program did to Strong. He was actually an awesome fit at Louisville, but the resources of Texas are hard to say no to.

This to me shows that if he ended up with the resources at Ohio State, he would have imploded under the pressure much like he did at Texas. If he was the head coach at Ohio State, the Buckeyes might look like Texas now — a scary thought.

Tim Beckman (Toledo)

This came in an Athlon article about the Ohio State coaching options at the time. The former Findlay Oiler and Ohio State assistant was cutting his teeth in the MAC like many great coaches before him. Unfortunately for Beckman, his career did not reach the lofty level of the great coaches who went from the MAC to the Big Ten, which can be directly correlated with him never being considered for Ohio State’s coaching job.

Alright, that was kind of mean. Maybe Beckman could have used his local ties to raise the national level of the program. At best though, I think Beckman builds Tressel Ball light, and the Ohio State program fades into the most steady mediocrity they’ve ever experienced. Beckman had no chance at Illinois, but even before he got the Illinois job, the Ohio State one would have just been too massive of an undertaking for Beckman.

Chris Petersen (Boise State)

This was a name available at the time that was not necessarily available. Petersen was steadily successful at Boise State, and had a lore in the college football world few could match. With the “Statue of Liberty” and “hook-and-ladder,” Cardiac Chris had a reputation for beating the big dogs of the sport. Petersen was 147-38 in his career as a coach, not far behind Meyer’s record 187-32. Of all the names at this time I would have wanted, the crazy guy from the blue field would have been my first choice had it not been Meyer.

Reading and hearing stories about Petersen, the culture and commitment to excellence is incredibly similar to Meyer’s mantras, he just did things differently. Petersen went on to reinvigorate Washington in the northwest, leading them to the playoff in 2016. Winning at multiple places shows me that Petersen could have gotten the job done in Columbus. He is also the only coach on this list I feel confident in saying could have matched Meyer’s one championship.

Mark Dantonio (Michigan State)

Continuing on with the Tressel staff, the Buckeyes could have just paid the thorn in their side to coach for them. The interesting thing here, Dantonio was able to win and make the College Football Playoff with a historically downtrodden program in Michigan State. They were built on diamond in the rough, developmental players. This would not work at Ohio State, so the question is could Dantonio reach the national level needed to compete with Alabama, Clemson, and other teams over the decade?

Tressel was not the most national recruiter, but he learned quickly after his national title that if he was not in Florida, Texas, and California he was falling behind. Dantonio was part of that staff, and he also would have innately understood the challenges of the program as well as the importance of beating Michigan. Arguably the least fun hire to talk about, I think Ohio State would have been solid and found a different level of success under Dantonio. They would not have won the championship that Meyer did, in my opinion.

Rewriting history is never an easy task, but there really was point in time that could have turned Ohio State football on its head. Instead, Ohio State made the obvious choice in hiring Urban Meyer, who built the program into the national power it still is today.

Meyer did not come without his baggage — the same baggage that soured the end of his tenure in Columbus. Even with the end, Meyer’s tenure netted the Buckeyes a national title, and as we saw there was likely only one option who could have elevated Ohio State the way Meyer did.

The coaching carousel was not ripe with options. Even though I started off positive with Dan Mullen, I could not imaging saying Ohio State head football coach Dan Mullen. All the coaches listed may have thrived with the resources the Buckeyes have to offer, but many of the same coaches folded under the pressure of bigger programs.

The only name at that time I felt confident in was Petersen, but there’s no guarantee he says yes. That is the only coach at the time I would have made say no, and if it wasn’t Meyer or Petersen, well it better have been Nick Saban. Time showed that Meyer was the correct choice, and regardless of feelings, Ohio State fans are not trading those seven seasons.

What if Ohio State didn’t hire Urban Meyer? They probably would have sucked for a little longer, but they would have gotten it right eventually. Unless they didn’t, then we’d be Nebraska.