Big 10

Why Urban Meyer Is the LeBron James of College Football

June 21, 2016

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Like many in Ohio on Monday, Urban Meyer spent his day basking in the reflected glory of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA championship.

So when the Ohio State head coach addressed his own team before an offseason workout, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he drew on the Cavs‘ title run for inspiration.

“Why do we do what we do? To win championships,” Meyer said in a video released on the Buckeyes’ official Twitter account. “You have to look in the face of some of these athletes who gave their life to their teammates. That’s what I saw. I saw a guy that backed up what he said.”

At this point, Meyer didn’t need to say the name for his players to understand who he was referencing.

After all, there may not be anybody in the Buckeye State who can more closely relate to what LeBron James just accomplished than the three-time national champion coach.

By now, the unlikely relationship between Meyer and James has been well-documented. As an assistant at Notre Dame in the late-’90s, Meyer unsuccessfully recruited the high school basketball phenom for a role on the gridiron before intertwined paths led the Ohio natives back to their home state, Meyer a fan of the Cavs and James one of the Buckeyes’ biggest supporters.

But the similarities between Meyer and James don’t stop at their appreciation for one another, each being at the top of their respective professions, or even their chance recruiting encounter 15 years ago.

Having grown up separated by 20 years and 80 miles on Interstate 90, the careers of Meyer and James have followed paralleled paths, with each having needed to first deliver championships elsewhere before doing so back home.


While the four-time NBA MVP told ESPN’s College GameDay in 2008 that had he attended college, he would have done so as a Buckeye, it took taking his talents to South Beach for James to capture his first two NBA championships—a four-year stint with the Miami Heat he’s famously referred to as his own college experience.

Having spent the first seven years of his career in Cleveland before leaving to chase championships in Miami, the Akron, Ohio, native found himself a polarizing figure in even his own hometown—something Meyer, who grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio, never understood.

“I love LeBron James. A competitor, a good person,” Meyer said unapologetically at Big Ten media days in 2012, his first as Ohio State’s head coach and a month removed from James’ first NBA title with the Heat. “You never hear about anything off the field with him.”

A year later, James—still a member of the Heat—was delivering a pregame speech to the Buckeyes and standing on the sidelines of Ohio Stadium for one of Ohio State’s prime-time battles.

If there’s anybody who understands the value that can be found in leaving home—or awkward professional breakups—it’s Meyer, who, after a pair of two-year stints as the head coach at Bowling Green and Utah, also won his first two championships in the Sunshine State as the head coach at Florida. Much like James, Meyer’s accomplishments never seemed to be appreciated by his own fanbases for long, as his messy departure from the Gators remains a sore spot in Gainesville to this day.

James knows the feeling. Four years after he angered Cavs fans with The Decision, it was Heat fans who found themselves stung by “The Return” to Cleveland in 2014.

But regardless of how they arrived here, both Meyer and James find themselves back in Ohio and their kinship has never been stronger.

For Meyer, James has been a useful recruiting tool, an unofficial Buckeye who is usually good for one sideline appearance and a handful of pro-Ohio State tweets each season. James’ presence at a game may not directly impact the college decisions of many prospects—but it sure doesn’t hurt to have him on your side either.

“He means a lot in recruiting,” Meyer said of 2014. “You can’t measure the positive feeling of him standing on the sideline for an Ohio State game. He truly loves Ohio State.”

Thanks in large part to his impressive recruiting prowess, Meyer’s returned to the top of the college football world—a place some doubted he’d be capable of reaching after health issues brought his Florida tenure to an end. Since arriving at Ohio State in 2012, he lays claim to a 50-4 record, including a playoff run in 2014 that saw him capture his third national title—his first for his home state.

“In this great state’s history, I can’t remember momentum like this,” Meyer said last summer. “To see the energy in the state of Ohio is fantastic.”

James is obviously a big part of that—not just with the Cavs, but in the way he’s embraced all of Ohio since returning two years ago. When the Buckeyes won their first national title under Meyer, James was on the sideline, taking to Bleacher Report’s UNINTERRUPTED series afterwards to celebrate.

“This is for everyone in Ohio, man, because we’re always counted out,” an emotional James said. “Being from Ohio, in support of you guys, I love you. It’s unbelievable.”

This past month, the roles have been reversed as James has once again asserted himself as the NBA’s top star. And even though Meyer witnessed the Cavs lose Game 4 of the NBA Finals from his courtside view in Cleveland, that didn’t stop him from finding a way to relate to James and Ohio’s latest championship.

“God bless it did they play hard,” Meyer told his team. “I know you might say, ‘Well I’m not a Cavs guy,’ but get something out of that. I know what I got out of that: I can’t wait to do that again with a group of players.”

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report’s Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting class rankings courtesy of 247Sports‘ composite.

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