On the day before the NFL draft last spring, Urban Meyer stood on the deck of a naval vessel and spoke to a group of young sailors about what he called the misery of greatness, the staring-at-the-ceiling-fan-at-midnight obsession and agony that drives champions.
The irony of that moment is pretty rich right now. Meyer delivered plenty of misery in his 11 months in Jacksonville and absolutely no greatness. His spectacularly failed and embarrassing tenure, which ended in the early morning hours Thursday, not only failed to elevate the Jaguars, it somehow, in just 13 games and a series of awful decisions, dragged them into the muck with him. Meyer didn't drive champions. He drove his team as far away from a championship as it has ever been.
The owner, Shad Khan, said he was bitterly disappointed to realize he had to fire Meyer immediately. Khan had once believed he had engineered a transformational moment -- Khan's words -- by hiring Meyer, to draft Trevor Lawrence, to overhaul his franchise. The mandate for Meyer -- change everything about a franchise culture that was stuck in mediocrity, bring the team into the current era with everything from sports science to social media -- was the correct one. The man chosen for the job, it turned out, was all wrong.
The warning signs that this might be a debacle of the Bobby Petrino variety popped up almost immediately. Meyer hired a strength coach despite the fact that the University of Iowa parted ways with him months earlier amid allegations that he mistreated players based on their race. The assistant coach had to resign. Meyer signed his good friend Tim Tebow to give him a chance to become a tight end -- the news of that interest leaked hours before the team was to select Lawrence in the draft, a misguided and laughable personal favor stepping all over one of the most hopeful moments in franchise history. He drafted a running back, Travis Etienne, in the first round and then had him line up as a receiver in camp.
There were violations of offseason practice rules and the embarrassment of being caught on video with a woman who was not his wife dancing near his lap at a bar after he decided not to fly back with his team following a Week 4 loss to the Bengals. Meyer's team had played just four games and already he had drawn a sharp public rebuke from Khan, who warned he had to regain their trust and respect. The common thread was obvious and familiar -- Meyer, like so many former college coaches, was used to being unquestioned and untouchable, their every word and action embraced blindly by teenagers who need their scholarships and boosters who crave nothing more than championships and being with the cool kids.
Back in the spring, I asked Meyer why he thought he would not join that long list of successful college coaches who could not win in the NFL. Meyer pointed to all the NFL coaches who didn't come from the college ranks who fail, too. He was right about that, of course. He also wasn't answering the question, perhaps because he had no good reason beyond his own hubris to think he would avoid the stumbles so many others had made.
Meyer might have survived all of that because the NFL is the ultimate bottom-line business. Victories buy grace where even money and power cannot. In Washington, a team owner survives allegations that he lorded over and perhaps participated in a toxic and sexist workplace culture because he can pay for very good lawyers and public relations specialists. But the primary reason infuriated fans want him to sell is not because women were harassed but because the team hasn't won in years. Like Dan Snyder, Meyer might never have been loved, but more than two wins would have at least bought a veneer of respectability.
Instead, in Jacksonville, the losses mounted, the team sometimes looked unprepared and, worst of all, Meyer often looked disinterested and sounded alarmingly detached. There were times in interviews when Meyer seemed not to know how his players were being used. NFL.com's Tom Pelissero reported last week that he called his assistant coaches "losers" and argued with veteran receiver Marvin Jones. On Wednesday, former Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo alleged in comments to the Tampa Bay Times that Meyer kicked him, something the team's lawyer was apparently told about months ago. It was all wildly unprofessional and indefensible and any one of the incidents would have made a good final straw. Khan did not specify in his midnight statement what pushed him to act now.
To any close observer, though, Meyer might have reached the point of no return a week ago. That was when Lawrence, who is polished and mature and well aware of his role as face of the franchise, questioned publicly why running back James Robinson, one of the Jaguars' best players, was not on the field in the loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Robinson had been benched after a fumble.
Lawrence's break with Meyer seems telling in retrospect -- Lawrence had an up-close seat to the dysfunction inside the building and he had apparently had enough, well aware that Meyer's decision-making was affecting the team's ability to compete. When Lawrence bemoaned the constant drama surrounding the Jaguars this week, it was hard to imagine how Meyer could repair the damage that had been done.
When he was hired, Meyer got some advice from his friend, basketball coach Billy Donovan, about making the leap from college to professional sports.
"Don't undervalue the intelligence of a professional athlete," Meyer reported Donovan telling him. "They're going to measure everything you say, they'll measure everything you do. So just make sure you and your staff are on point, because if you lose trust, it's over."
Meyer liked telling that story, but he didn't seem to learn any of it. He lost trust quickly and now it's over, the Jaguars needing a culture change more than ever.
A new state-of-the-art team facility is under construction, and there are good players, most importantly the jewel of a quarterback, on the roster. The pieces are in place for a rebirth, as they were when Meyer arrived. What is needed -- then, and still -- is the right coach.
Meyer's mantra in Jacksonville implored everyone to be accountable. "Own It" was painted on the walls, and stitched onto golf shirts. That just about sums up Meyer's tenure. He was very good at talking about the things that made for a successful team, but it was leadership by platitude, pulled from any business book on the best-seller list, as flimsy as the paper they are printed on.
It is easy to paint over and restitch the evidence of Meyer's brief visit to the NFL. Khan realized what a terrible mistake he made and he pulled the plug -- that is accountability, painful as it is. It is Khan's responsibility now to make sure the damage Meyer did can be erased as quickly.