Urban Meyer will be back at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, where he used to coach Ohio State, this time for his current job as an analyst on Fox’s "Big Noon Kickoff" pregame show.
There is nothing strange about that, on the surface. But in fact, like most things about 2020, the circumstances are strange, indeed.
The show will be followed by the Buckeyes’ Big Ten opener, against Nebraska. On Oct. 24.
After announcing in August there would be no Big Ten football season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Big Ten reversed course in September and planned a delayed, shortened season that begins this weekend.
"I’m so ecstatic that these guys are going to get to play," said Meyer, who coached Ohio State from 2012-18 and won the 2014 national championship. "It was a handful of coaches and the parents and most importantly [Ohio State quarterback] Justin Fields and the other players who said, ‘We want to play.’
"Even when they were told to stand down, they very respectfully said, ‘No, we’re not standing down; we’re going to keep pushing.’ So it’s hard for me to remember a time when I’ve been more happy for a group of student-athletes to go do what they love to do."
The question now is what the truncated season will look like. This is new ground for everyone. But Meyer said he expects the Big Ten — and Pac-12, which opens on Nov. 7 — to follow the patterns seen elsewhere this season.
"Leadership and culture get exposed in adverse, difficult times, and that’s exactly what you see," he said. "There are some teams that have done extremely well, and that’s not by surprise. The teams with the strongest culture, the best leaders on the team, are thriving.
"The ones that probably there’s something going on, they’re not thriving. So after a loss, after a good player gets hurt, some teams are stronger and some teams fall apart. It’s not the talent, it’s not the play calls, it’s not the lucky T-shirt you wear. It’s what goes on behind the scenes that is the difference-maker."
On the set
Meyer, 56, would not close the door on coaching again, but he said he is enjoying TV work and sees himself doing it "for a long, long time."
After leaving Ohio State, he joined Fox last year with fellow analysts Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Brady Quinn on a show the network has cultivated as an alternative to ESPN’s popular "College GameDay."
"I’d like to think we do a good job, because we have some very relevant talent with Reggie, Matt and Brady," Meyer said. "They’re very intelligent guys who work hard at their jobs, so I actually love it."
Meyer said he studied Fox’s Sunday NFL pregame show and got advice from its long-running analysts. "They’ve been the best for 25 years," he said. "We had incredible role models, and I’ve tried to pattern myself after that."
That show is known for its on-set yuks. But Meyer is not known to be a yuk-it-up kind of guy. Leinart said he has seen progress on that front, though.
"I would say every week that went by last year he got a little more and more comfortable," Leinart said. "He opened up a little more and told a few more stories and laughed a little more, just bits and pieces, pulling back the layers of Coach and really figuring out what’s inside."
Leinart insisted Meyer can be funny.
"He actually has a good personality," Leinart said. "All of those [early] things, we laugh about now. This season we know what to expect from each other."
Asked whether he feels more like a TV guy now than a coach, Meyer said, "We joke around about that. I do. I know I take it very seriously. We all do."
The challenge now will be navigating two months of uncertainty amid the ongoing pandemic.
Leinart, who won a Heisman Trophy as Southern Cal’s quarterback, said the Big Ten and Pac-12 should benefit from observing other leagues that started before them.
"You always feel like every day you wake up and hope you get through that day," Leinart said. "It’s the world we live in, and college sports are dealing with that . . . But it’s an exciting time. USC guys, you can just hear in their voices: Oh, man, I want to work."
Said Meyer, "We don’t work for [college] presidents. We don’t work for commissioners. We don’t work for conferences. We work for these student-athletes, who are 17 to 22 years old. And that’s all that matters in this game, and I’m so happy to see it happen for them."
Bullish on the 'Beast'
Meyer expects Ohio State to be the best Big Ten team. But he is bullish about the future of Rutgers under his former defensive coordinator, Greg Schiano, who begins his second stint there against Michigan State on Saturday.
Asked what Rutgers must do to compete in the Big Ten, Meyer said, "They have to hire a beast as a coach, and they did that when they hired Greg Schiano."
Meyer added, "When Greg had that thing going [at Rutgers in the 2000s] he actually beat us on some players when I was at Florida. New Jersey high school football is as good as any in America — really, really good players.
"If Greg can somehow convince some of that great talent to stay home, play in front of their families, represent their home state, that’s when the needle moves. That’s when you say, wait a minute, this can become legit. This will be tall task, but there is no one better in the business to do it."