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- 12/04/18--09:48: The Urban Meyer cycle continues
- 12/11/18--06:30: Atlanta United were flashy champions in a fickle sports city
The three-time national champion has retired again.
1. The minute Ohio State suspended Urban Meyer on August 22nd, this was over. It was over because Meyer and the university could no longer fully trust each other, and because Meyer was dragged through the humiliation of being subservient to a school, rather than to football itself. Once the coach’s football interests became secondary to the institution’s, Meyer’s departure was set in motion.
2. That much should have been clear on Oct. 30, when Meyer began to talk publicly about his headaches caused by the arachnoid cyst on his brain. It should have been clear when the trial balloon of offensive coordinator Ryan Day becoming head coach was floated during the season or when the cameras caught Meyer bent over on the sidelines during tense moments.
This wasn’t exactly managed and scripted — but it wasn’t exactly unmanaged and unscripted, was it? We all got enough deliberate peeks behind the backdrop to see what was coming and how it would happen.
3. So now, rather than take a scandalous firing in August, Meyer gets to retire. (Again.)
The summary: Meyer took over a big program and did brilliantly on the field. (Again.) He recruited gifted players at an astonishing rate, won a championship within his first three years, and turned his coaching staff into a launching pad for assistants looking for head coaching jobs. (Again.) His teams dominated their conference, consistently competed for top five finishes, and — litmus test of litmus tests — straight up beat the standard bearer for the sport, Alabama. (Again, but don’t look at what happened the second time Meyer and Saban met at Florida.)
4. With one game left, Meyer’s seven years in Columbus produced an 82-9 record. His win percentage is better than Woody Hayes’, his resume deeper and better than Jim Tressel’s, and his ability to recruit talent is unsurpassed by anyone who’s ever held the OSU job.
Football-wise, he is the best coach Ohio State has ever had, and equaling his run there would mean hiring Nick Saban or the next Meyer to succeed him. (Again.)
5. Poor Ryan Day won’t equal him. He just won’t, and expecting him to would do a massive disservice to the elevated offensive coordinator’s prospects.
Nearly all coaching greats are followed by merely goods, because there are so few greats, period. Getting two in a row is lottery winner territory, and having any other expectations is to misunderstand basic probability. Consider how lucky Ohio State’s already been in getting Tressel and Meyer back to back.
6. No one will listen to this, and Day will be under insane pressure three hours into his tenure on Jan. 2. Get the contracts double-signed and make sure that buyout can’t budge with the weight of 10 law firms pushing on it, Ryan.
7. Meyer is a rare, rare talent — one reason he’s been allowed to do things other coaches might not be allowed to even consider.
8. For instance, Meyer was allowed to continue coaching after apparently lying about the Zach Smith case at Big Ten Media Days. Meyer would later say he misspoke and did not knowingly lie, but beating Michigan every year had to help his case with his superiors.
Meyer got a three-game suspension early in the season and was allowed to hold deeply unhelpful press conferences regarding his suspension, free rein other coaches wouldn’t have gotten. He was effectively allowed to choose his own exit, another rarity in coaching, especially at Ohio State.
9. Meyer had seemingly left Florida better than he’d found it — but then the roof caved in, and it became apparent just how much dry rot was in the walls of the place. At Florida, Meyer struggled to fill positions after staffers left for their own head coaching gigs.
At Ohio State, that attrition has been less obviously harmful to the team’s win percentage, but Meyer still struggled to replace coaching talent well. This year’s scapegoat: Greg Schiano, the coordinator whose defense allowed 55 points to Iowa in a baffling 2017 loss, repeated that with 49 to Purdue in 2018, and finished 113th in the nation in long plays allowed.
10. There was also this management issue: the time Meyer kept a documentedly ineffective staffer on because he was the grandson of a mentor, AKA Zach Smith. That staffer, repeatedly accused of domestic violence, later helped unravel Meyer’s tenure.
11. The question of whether Ohio State is in better shape going forward, rather than when he got there, has a tricky answer: give it two years, and we’ll see. The facilities, talent, and skill base at Ohio State are all undeniably better, but that was seemingly the case at Florida, too. Holding off on grand gestures about how much Meyer changed Ohio State makes sense because a.) Ohio State has been successful historically without him, and b.) making any lasting claims about a culture in college football is hard anyway, much less with a team about to shed a workaholic manager known for delegating too little.
12. There’s also the health issues (again), the bizarre inability to message anything not having to do with football (again), and the feeling that Meyer, for all his gifts, could not be a lifer at any program, and that all his success came with that price.
13. Overclocking is the word for it, when a computer is made to run faster than it was designed to run. It’s how Meyer makes a program work. Things happen fast, sometimes too fast for their own good. Coaches come and go quickly, titles fly in the window, and after five or six years, the parts start to wear down, make unforced errors, to write checks against that success, checks that will begin to bounce.
14. A difference this time: Meyer leaves after a hugely embarrassing scandal for the university, which sent a horrendous and confused message about domestic violence to the school and community beyond it. The timing of Meyer’s departure distances him from that as a story, but it shouldn’t diminish his role in the least.
15. The timing does allow for certain things. Meyer will likely return to commentary, which he’s very good at, and give him some time to sort out whatever health issues he has. It gives Ohio State a fresh start, and reminds everyone that the school is — for the moment, at least — one of the few places bigger than any one coach.
16. It also gives time for this completely hypothetical but very believable situation to unfold: Notre Dame bombs out of the postseason again, and pressure mounts on Brian Kelly as fans and analysts say he’s “taken the program as far as he can.” That might take a few years, but when it reaches a boiling point, Meyer will be right there for one of the few jobs he used to have written into this contract as buyout-free destinations: the Notre Dame head coach.
17. And when he gets there, Notre Dame will run a little too fast for its own good. It will glow and burn out like it did under the last master of overclocking a football program and immediately moving on to the next program, one of Meyer’s mentors: Lou Holtz. It’s a cycle, and like any cycle, its end is apparent from the first minute.
In the slapstick history of Atlanta sports, no one has illustrated the city’s transient beauty better than Miguel Almiron and United.
Miguel Almiron is not “undersized.” Almiron is downright little — a 5’9 attacking midfielder for Atlanta United so slight and unassuming, and lacking marquee soccer star hair, that he can be easily lost in a crowd. If I had to tell someone to find him, I’d only be able to suggest looking for the dude with:
a.) a truly awe-inspiring set of eyebrows, and
b.) the dark-haired guy who looks like the world’s oldest fourteen-year-old.
Almiron is almost sheepish in profile.
This might explain why he was so hard to see in the postgame commotion Saturday night. Atlanta United had just defeated the Portland Timbers 2-0 to win the MLS Cup, marking the first championship by any team in the city since the Atlanta Braves won the World Series in 1995. There was Arthur Blank, the Home Depot baron and team owner, hoisting the championship trophy over his head with some effort. (It was touch-and-go for a minute, but he got it there.) There was shock-blonde Josef Martinez, the Venezuelan striker whose goal in the thirty-fifth minute broke the game open, cradling a baby who clearly wanted to be somewhere much quieter than a stadium full of fans.
Brad Guzan, the hairless 6’4” American goalie, couldn’t hide from anyone, much less the chants from the supporters’ section:
He’s a motherfucking wall
It took a minute to spot Almiron. He was standing with his dad, looking around and wide-eyed in the best possible sense of the word. He looked like a mildly surprised and maximally elated adolescent, not shocked but still not entirely expectant of what was a complete and certain victory.
Almiron plays for Atlanta United, a club in its second year of existence as a full-fledged soccer team. It plays in Atlanta, an often fickle, sometimes downright indifferent, and always tricky city for its major sports teams. There are tons of transplant residents who turn State Farm Arena into a home game for visiting NBA teams, and college football fans from all over who treat the Falcons as a pleasant but not obsessive follow on Sundays.
Even the Braves — the most consistent of all of Atlanta’s teams — had to move to Cobb County “to ensure attendance.”*
*Siphon the most taxpayer dollars off a willing county government
Atlanta, in turn, has to watch sports teams who even at their most successful have failed to win titles, display much consistency, or operate competently. Each franchise has had long fainting spells when they muddled along half-consciously. (See: Most of the Hawks history.) Some have served as little more than dark comedy vehicles until recently, and even then the highs have been marred by the lowest of lows.
Good sports things do not happen here, at least not without teeth-gnashing, or an eventual comeuppance, or maybe a biblical disaster. The first Super Bowl here happened the week of an ice storm, and Ray Lewis got tangled up in a stabbing, for instance. The Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl and lost their best player ever to a dogfighting ring. The city lost not one, but two NHL franchises due to neglect. The Hawks are the Hawks.
ATL United hit a slipstream in history and skipped all that.
The team sold well from the beginning, packing houses even when they were playing in Georgia Tech’s stadium to start. The brand took root with ease, and with some savvy help from the marketing department. They left United flags on doors, got Archie Eversole to record a United-themed hype video for “We Ready”, and developed a raucous bunch of supporters clubs with astonishing speed.
United’s brand off the field and presence in the city is somehow more definite and developed right now than the Falcons or Hawks might have ever been — this, despite both of those teams creeping up on a combined century of professional residence in the city.
On the field, United had Almiron. His unassuming manner off the field was a direct contrast to his hellbent pace, left-footed volleys at goal, and his startling ability to hit a full blazing gallop from a dead still start. Playing in former Barcelona manager Tata Martino’s attacking style, Almiron had free rein to create from midfield, collapsing defenses with both change of direction and outright speed.
Coltish: The word for how he moves with the ball is coltish, like a young horse just discovering just how much grass it can cover with just a few strides. Almiron’s best plays combined all that pace and vision with the willingness to barrel into defenders, and a deft enough foot to put the ball wherever it needed to be once he’d tiptoed through them.
He wasn’t perfect for United, but there were easy ways around that. Almiron didn’t always finish beautifully, but that’s what Martinez and a freewheeling green light from the manager were for. Even with his minor imperfections, Almiron still scored 12 goals in the regular season, including this stunner of a free kick against New York City a few weeks ago. In short: If the Atlanta attack was a grease fire, then Almiron was the grease.
That’s a metaphor the home of Waffle House should be able to live with forever. What’s next for United will be harder to stomach. Almiron is likely gone in a hurry, seemingly playing his way into a bid from Newcastle in the Premier League. Manager Tata Martino accepted a four-year contract to coach the Mexican national team back in mid-November. Striker and local demigod Martinez may leave, too.
Almiron sat next to Martinez during the victory parade in Atlanta on Monday morning. He was a little easier to find this time, smiling and waving and filming the crowd with his phone. He stood atop the open bus in the back with Martinez as the team threw little soccer balls out into the crowd, and hoisted the cup up for fans sitting in misting rain. Martinez gave a thumbs-up to the crowd and nodded at chants of “M-V-P.” Almiron, in contrast, looked more like a guest of the team just happy to be there.
Someone bobbed in front of the bus carrying a cardboard cutout: Arthur Blank’s head, just visible over the assembled head of the crowd, floated down Marietta Street.
The bus rounded the corner past Centennial Park and then south towards Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This was where the old Omni stood, before it was imploded for something else. Up ahead was the new stadium, a jagged pile of polygons built just next to the space once occupied by the Georgia Dome.
Buildings, like everything else, don’t really last long in Atlanta, a city that thrives on demolition, and whose most notable landmark is the airport. That may be, in part, why United thrived here so quickly. Professional soccer is a game of traffic and turnover, full of impermanence — managers leaving, stars getting transferred, movement up and down tiers, and sometimes across continents. Staying in one place for a whole career is the exception, not the rule. Things inevitably, and often suddenly, change.
The parade may have been the last hurrah of Miguel Almiron and this United team — a team that happened in some blessed, drama-free space existing apart from the rest of Atlanta sports history. Yet even with the full admission that the celebration was also the finale, there’s also every reason to believe that more than any other place, Atlanta will be ready to drive down and meet a whole new crew at the airport to try again.
Oh, and there is an airport, if you haven’t heard. It’s kind of the whole deal here. People and things come and go all the time by design — even Almiron, the teenaged-looking midfielder who helped bring Atlanta its first championship in a long, long time. The hope is to appreciate what he was on the way up, that he thrives wherever he goes, and try to remember what he was largely responsible for — a quicksilver two years of exhilarating team soccer that almost redeemed the entire slagheap of Atlanta’s sports history all by itself. That a hard-to-spot, unassuming guy from Paraguay was an essential part of the most bankable, electric thing in town.
He has to go, and we get that. That kind of mild, fond heartbreak is the standard here.
The cup stays.