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Meyer hire brings new face, new challenge to The Game

Terry Gilliam/AP
Urban Meyer was hired by Ohio State on Monday to take the helm of the football program. Buy this photo

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 28, 2011

It took him 23 years, but Urban Meyer finally found his way back to Columbus.

This time, Meyer isn’t the Ohio State football team’s wide receivers coach and graduate student, he’s the head man. Meyer signed a six-year contract to replace Luke Fickell as the Buckeyes’ head coach on Monday.

Meyer returns to Columbus as a bona fide commodity, having captured two BCS national championships in six seasons at Florida, his last coaching stop. He boasts an overall 104–23 record and has gone 7-1 in bowl games. Meyer's only bowl loss came to Michigan in the 2008 Capital One Bowl, the only time he faced the Wolverines.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke, coming off a 40-34 victory over Ohio State, sees Meyer’s arrival as a welcomed challenge.

“He's not going to play a down and neither am I,” Hoke said. “Me, knowing Urban, he's a good football coach, good guy, going to welcome him in.

“But this is still Michigan and Ohio, and it's still going to be that rivalry and neither one of us is going to play a game.”

Hoke and Meyer have never faced each other or coached in the same conference before, but both are Ohio natives that began their head coaching careers in the Mid-American Conference — Meyer at Bowling Green in 2001 and Hoke at Ball State in 2003.

But as a native Ohioan, Meyer understands the magnitude of The Game.

“That’s the game of games, and the one I grew up watching,” Meyer said. “It’s also true that the next game is 362 days away, so I understand the significance of it.

“The one thing I know about that game (is that) as much as there is dislike and hatred across college football rivalries, there’s a share of that, but there’s also a lot of respect in that rivalry. I’m really looking forward to coaching in it.”

It was a short reign for Fickell. After taking over as head coach when former coach Jim Tressel was dismissed on May 30, Fickell was tasked with monitoring a program already hindered by pending NCAA sanctions and allegations.

A week later, starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor withdrew from the university and began training for the NFL’s Supplemental Draft. Fickell was left with a tattered program headlined by a promising young freshman quarterback, Braxton Miller.

The resulting season wasn’t pretty. After losing to the Wolverines for this first time since 2003 on Saturday, Ohio State crawled to the finish line at 6-6 for a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten Leaders division.

The end was ominous for Fickell — Hoke sensed that. When he came to midfield after Saturday’s victory, Hoke gave the first-year coach a few words of support.

“I just thought he did a heck of a job all year,” Hoke said. “Tough situation.”

Fickell will coach the Buckeyes in their bowl game, after which he will remain on staff at Ohio State. His job description has not been determined.

The three head coaching changes between Michigan and Ohio State in less than a calendar year qualify as the most in the rivalry’s history.

Meyer’s last game was a 37-24 win over Penn State in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, 2011. He stepped away from Florida citing health and family concerns and spent the past season as a college football commentator for ESPN.

At one point this spring, Meyer toured the country visiting major college football programs for ESPN. He took in a Michigan practice on March 30 on the sidelines at Schembechler Hall.

Does Hoke regret letting Meyer inside the walls?

“No,” Hoke said. “Nope.”

A month later, rumors swirled about Meyer as a replacement for Tressel. His daughter, Nicki, quickly quelled those rumors.

“HE IS NOT repeat NOT, GOING TO OHIO STATE,” she tweeted on April 26.

Seven months later, her father stood at the podium in Columbus as Ohio State’s new head coach.

As for the effect the hiring has on Michigan, Hoke says his singular focus is on recruiting. That focus won’t waver.

“Recruiting is the lifeblood of the program,” Hoke said.

The ability to close Ohio’s borders to outside recruiting was a point of emphasis for Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith in his coaching search.

“We wanted a football coach who … will create an environment here with an aspiration for every single football player in the state of Ohio is to be a Buckeye and come to the Ohio State University and have no other thoughts,” Smith said.

Michigan’s 2012 recruiting class of 23 commits includes nine players poached from the state of Ohio.