And yet — and yet! — amid an Ohio State season that stands at 10-1 but hasn’t felt like it, and amid all the strange and disturbing baggage strewn along it and before it, here’s a belief that won’t budge: If Urban Meyer does leave college football anytime soon or even somewhat later than soon, college football as a sport will spend awhile as diminished.
It will lose a reference point, a looming presence, a Rushmore figure, a rare sort and a mainstay hovering above Columbus. A chunk of its identity will go missing, and it takes time to reconstruct such chunks.
They would keep playing the sport, of course. Alabama will continue to thrive. Ohio State will continue to thrive. The Pacific-12 will continue to thrive somewhat less but in superior climates.
Without Meyer, the former Utah coach, the sport would be without a rare aura, and not just one of those occasional auras that fills a room with such power that you swear you can feel it even when you’re not looking at it. It would be without one of those presences that forges its way above the college football map, the way certain men always have across the 149 years of this oddball human behavior, and the way Meyer has in four parts of the big geography: Bowling Green, Ohio; Salt Lake City; Gainesville, Florida; and Columbus, Ohio.
It's the kind of outsized presence that goes missed even to those who deem it villainous, the kind that makes even this Michigan-Ohio State game coming Saturday into something largely about Meyer: about his 6-0 record as an underdog in Columbus, about his future, about what commotion might occupy his head.
Of course, peculiar sights and thoughts have marked this particular season and preseason. Chatter about Meyer has shifted from a national discussion in late summer about his fitness for office to, in the fall, matters of his health. It has been jarring to see him doubled over in pain on the sideline amid the revelations, made to Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports, about the congenital cranial cyst that has caused Meyer decades of headaches even with improvements in recent years. He stated his intent to coach as long he can handle.
That managed to follow upon a September in which he served a three-game suspension related to a baffling, self-made thicket, his handling of the domestic-violence allegations against his former receivers coach, Zach Smith. In July and August, Meyer drew widespread criticism by forgetting one of his utmost attributes: his capacity to call things on himself, born partly of a towering confidence.
The same impressive person who had grown to self-critique his maniacal Florida days, who took the heat when running back Ezekiel Elliott up and blasted the play-calling after the Michigan State flash point of November 2015, couldn't find his way to sustain that skill in July. He couldn't begin straightway by lamenting his own deficiencies in handling an issue of such complexity and seriousness. Maybe this reiterated how it can be unhealthy to live too long in the immediate company of the word "yes."
He's not evil and not even close, even when factoring in the arrest totals of his players at Florida or the comparatively smoother seven seasons at Ohio State. He's more in line with the names of the past like Blaik and Hayes and Osborne and Switzer and McKay and Bowden and Jones and Bryant, men with unusual presences in the grubby vein of sports who existed somewhere between angelic and diabolical while well clear of both, men whose former players tend to speak of with a certain singular regard.
Go back to 2000 and see the kind of rare being America tends to value, a 36-year-old, first-time head coach with a Bowling Green team in the locker room, about to open against Missouri. The university president came in to express pride and say that in the end, the scoreboard didn't matter, and then moments later, alone with his players, Meyer reminded them with tart terminology that the scoreboard did matter.
Go back to 2016 and the run-up to the Fiesta Bowl, when Meyer fielded a question about withstanding a missed bunny of a field goal in the fourth quarter of a three-point game and said: "If you only knew. I'm telling you, someday they're going to do an autopsy and someone is going to say, 'Who you got?' 'This Urban Meyer guy.' They're going to open me up and go, 'What is that? What is that?' 'That's the loss against Michigan State. That's the one against Alabama.' "
Go back to Monday when a reporter asked about one of the things that has just seemed off even in a 10-1 season: Ohio State's woeful defense, 85th nationally in yards per play allowed.
"Have a saying around here: Win the moment," Meyer said. "The moment is to get ready for this next one, not to worry about what happened against Oregon State or even the last one [the 52-51 escape of Maryland]. And that's hard to do. Your question is legit and very uncomfortable to discuss but our players deserve our best and that's to focus on today and what's up next."
There’s something in all that — the drive, the singularity, the rarefied skill, the ability to see a painful question as legit, and, yes, the celestial record and the three national titles" — that, if absent, would make a void.