COLUMBUS, Ohio — Urban Meyer is returning to coaching — and to his roots.
The former Florida coach and native Buckeye will take over at Ohio State, a program with a glittering past that has suffered through a difficult year of NCAA violations, suspensions and a 6-6 record.
The university scheduled a 5:15 p.m. EST news conference to introduce its new coach. But it did not mention Meyer, even though there are numerous reports that Meyer has already agreed on a multiyear contract that could pay him almost $6 million a year.
After wild speculation for weeks about Meyer and Ohio State, ESPN reported on Monday morning that the two sides had reached an agreement. Meyer has been a game analyst for the network for the past year.
Meyer won two national championships in six years as the coach at Florida. He left the Gators a year ago, citing health concerns and a desire to spend more time with his family. Now, the 47-year-old will return to the place where his college coaching career began in 1986.
Earle Bruce, the head coach at Ohio State when Meyer was a graduate assistant, has remained a close friend and confidant of Meyer through the years. He said he had no concerns about Meyer's health issues.
"Well, if he'd had a heart attack and his heart was bad, I'd be worried about that," the 80-year-old Bruce said on Monday. "I'm not worried that he was stressed out over the game of football because he was thinking too much and not doing some things (exercising) that would have kept him straight. I think he got everything back under control by sitting out a year. I think he missed football. And he's good at it."
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and other university officials did not respond to requests for comment.
A team meeting set for Sunday night was moved to Monday afternoon before the news conference to allow Meyer to meet his players.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, who played at Kent State and coached at Toledo in the Buckeye state, said he was happy for Meyer.
"I'm sure he's excited about it, and I'm excited for him that he has an opportunity to go back to his home state and be the head coach here," Saban said. "I think it's a wonderful opportunity and I think he'll do a great job."
Meyer takes over a program that is likely facing NCAA sanctions and was crippled by the forced resignation of coach Jim Tressel. The Buckeyes completed their only season under interim Luke Fickell with a 40-34 loss to Michigan on Saturday that snapped a seven-game winning streak to their rivals.
Wolverines coach Brady Hoke underplayed the role of the head coaches in the rivalry.
"I've known Urban, he's a good football coach, a good guy and I welcome him in," Hoke said on Monday. "But it's still Michigan and Ohio and neither one of us is going to play the game."
In 10 seasons as a head coach — two at Bowling Green, two at Utah and six at Florida — Meyer has a 104-23 record. His teams are 7-1 in bowl games, including the Gators' 41-14 victory over unbeaten and top-ranked Ohio State in the 2007 Bowl Championship Series title game.
Meyer had persistently denied all the talk surrounding him and Ohio State. Soon after Tressel stepped down, Meyer said he wasn't interested in leaving ESPN, where he was a college football analyst.
"I am committed to ESPN and will not pursue any coaching opportunities this fall," he said in a statement released the day after Tressel lost his job. Just last week he said no job had been offered to him nor was he pursuing one.
One of Meyer's broadcast partners and close friends is former Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman.
"He enjoyed what he was doing, but I think he also had the bug to start coaching again," said Spielman, who added he would not be an assistant coach under Meyer as some have speculated. "We just kind of talked about the pros and cons of both throughout the year. He weighed all the options and there were jobs out there that definitely captured his interest and certainly Ohio State was one of them. He decided that it was the best move. This was just an opportunity that he couldn't pass up."
Meyer inherits a program still facing NCAA sanctions. But he also inherits a young team led by a freshman quarterback, Braxton Miller, who would seem to be a perfect fit for his spread offense.
A native of Ashtabula, Ohio, Meyer becomes the 24th head coach at Ohio State. He succeeds Fickell, who took over last spring when Tressel's 10-year reign came crashing down. Tressel was forced out for knowing but not telling his superiors that Buckeyes players had most likely broken NCAA rules by taking cash and free or discounted tattoos from the subject of a federal drug-trafficking investigation.
Missing several top players because of NCAA suspensions stemming from the tattoo mess, the Buckeyes were hit with more suspensions when three players accepted $200 in cash for attending a charity event and others were forced to sit out or had their existing suspensions extended for being overpaid for summer jobs.
Ohio State's .500 record marked the most losses at Ohio State since John Cooper's 1999 team also went 6-6 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes had already lost their string of six Big Ten titles when the school was forced to vacate the 2010 season for the NCAA violations. The school has also self-imposed two years of NCAA probation, offered to return $339,000 in bowl revenue from 2010 and to give up five scholarships over the next three seasons.
Ohio State is awaiting final word from the NCAA's committee on infractions. The committee tagged Ohio State with a "failure to monitor" label — second only to a lack of institutional control on the list of most egregious charges against a university. The school could still be hit with a bowl ban, a loss of more scholarships, or other penalties.
Meyer, who spent two years playing minor-league baseball as a shortstop in the Atlanta Braves system, also served as an assistant at Illinois State, Colorado State and Notre Dame.
At the urging of Bruce, he took his first head coaching job at Bowling Green (2001-2002) where he led the Falcons to records of 8-3 and 9-3 before jumping to Utah. Using a spread offense featuring quarterback Alex Smith, the Utes went 10-2 in his first year. In 2004, he led Utah to an 11-0 season and a Bowl Championship Series berth — making the Utes the first team to ever qualify for a BCS bowl from a conference (the Mountain West) that was not an automatic qualifier. After a bowl win over Pittsburgh to cap the 12-0 season, he was the top candidate for the jobs at both Notre Dame and Florida. He surprised many by becoming a Gator.
In his second season with the Gators, No. 2-ranked Florida beat unbeaten Ohio State, coached by Tressel, 41-14 to win his first national title.
Two years later, the Gators won another national title, beating Oklahoma 24-14 behind Tim Tebow.
The next year Florida contended for a repeat, but after losing the SEC title game to Alabama, Meyer said he was retiring from coaching, citing health problems. He changed his mind and was back the next day, saying he would only take a leave of absence.
After the 2010 season, he stepped down again.
"I fully grasp the sacrifices my 24/7 profession has demanded of me, and I know it is time to put my focus on my family and life away from the field," he said at the time. "The decision to step down was a difficult one."
The year respite must have done him good.
"It will be exciting to see what happens," Tebow said last week. "I know, more than anything, he wants to be right by his family and have their support in anything he does. Most of when we've talked it's been about that. When he comes back, he's going to be a great coach, and I'm excited to see what happens."
Meyer is expected to retain Fickell, who was paid $775,000 to be interim coach for a year — about $3 million a year less than Tressel made a year ago, on his staff.
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