If Fired, Could Meyer Get a Second Chance?

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Fifteen years as a head coach, from his humble beginnings at Salem College and Samford through the big time at Auburn, then β€” poof β€” gone, vanished, banished to the broadcast booth. Terry Bowden wasn't resigned to this fate, as "a spokesperson for the sport rather than one school," but he had come to accept it.

"At that point of my life, at 42, I had such a great job that it was what I was kind of moving toward," he said. "I was going to be a broadcaster."

What broadcasting couldn't do, however, is scratch that itch: Bowden wanted back in. By 2005, Bowden had made a "full commitment to get back into coaching." Two years later, he publicly campaigned for the open job at his alma mater, West Virginia, after Rich Rodriguez's departure for Michigan, calling it his "dream job." The position was eventually filled by a former Rodriguez assistant, Bill Stewart.

While part of the broadcast team for the Division II national championship in 2008, Bowden met with officials from North Alabama. It wasn't West Virginia, nor even a lower-level Football Bowl Subdivision job, but it was an entry point.

"I wanted to finish my career in life doing what I loved to do, which is coaching," Bowden said. "So I made the decision to get back in."

Three years later, Bowden was hired at Akron, where he's led the Zips to two bowl berths and a division title in the past three seasons. For Bowden, and roughly 20 percent of active FBS head coaches, there was a second act.

Of the 130 head coaches in the FBS, 25 were fired, dismissed or chose to resign from a previous stop. Four coaches on this list are currently in the Pac-12. Four β€” Arizona State's Herm Edwards, UCLA's Chip Kelly, Michigan's Jim Harbaugh and Illinois' Lovie Smith β€” were ousted from the NFL before resurfacing on the college level. One, Randy Edsall at Connecticut, is back for a second stint where his career as a head coach began.

"There are a lot of different scenarios because people are fired for so many different reasons," said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who previously held the same position at Mississippi before being let go after the 2004 season. "You've got to be good. You don't become someone's best choice by not being good. So whether you've been fired or not may be the unimportant part. It's the confidence that you're going to do well."

Several active head coaches were hired with varying degrees of baggage. Washington State hired Mike Leach after his contentious departure from Texas Tech, which included allegations of player mistreatment. UCLA hired Kelly despite his drawing a "failure to monitor" charge from the NCAA stemming from recruiting violations that occurred during his tenure at Oregon. Florida International coach Butch Davis was fired at North Carolina in the summer of 2011 amid an NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits and academic misconduct.

These examples provide a potential case study for the recent developments at Ohio State, where an independent investigation into a timeline of Urban Meyer's handling of allegations of domestic abuse against a former assistant has the three-time national champion's position in doubt. The investigation, which is set to conclude at the end of next week, might produce a seismic change at Ohio State and across all of college sports, impacting how universities handle matters of personal conduct involving not just a head coach but also handpicked members of his staff.

Should Meyer be fired, the inevitable question that follows β€” perhaps as soon as this coming December or January β€” asks whether he'd be a viable option on the coaching market.

Coaches who spoke on the topic of second chances with USA TODAY echoed an important point as it relates to Meyer's future: Getting fired comes with its inherent lessons, but getting another shot demands being able to prove that those lessons can produce different results if given the opportunity.

In other words, Meyer wouldn't need to address questions on his coaching acumen, which is unimpeachable. Instead, he'd need to illustrate the steps he's taken to ensure no future repeat of the missteps that have dotted his otherwise spotless tenures at Florida and Ohio State β€” that he's learned from those mistakes.

"You learn a lot, period, every year that you're a head coach," Cutcliffe said. "Unfortunately, that learning curve often comes with being fired."

Bowden's time away from coaching led to a shift away from the "tunnel vision" that came to define his tenure at Auburn.

"When I had a chance to get back in, it became more about the players than it had ever been," Bowden said. "When you're 26 or 30 and you're trying to move up in this business, it's almost like, 'What can they do to help me reach their goals?' And now it's about what I can do to help them reach their goals."

Now, Bowden added, "I consider myself the very best I've ever been as a coach."

For South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, the "football side of it hasn't changed" since his tenure at Florida, though the Gators' failures on offense have impacted his views on that side of the ball with the Gamecocks. Certain other themes have remained constant, whether in South Carolina's practice style, his recruiting blueprint or how his staff evaluates talent.

But like other second-chance head coaches, Muschamp has evolved. The trick to getting another shot was to prove it, to show how his time at Florida would inform how he'd run another program in the same conference, let alone the same division. Should he and Ohio State part ways, Meyer's future would hinge on the inevitable question: What have you learned?

"The more you do this, the more you've got a good feel," Muschamp said. "I think that as much as anything has helped me to be able to anticipate issues, to handle them before they arise. That, to me, has been the one thing I'm doing a much better job of."

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August 13, 2018


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