The last time Ohio State played a football game, the result was arguably the worst loss of coach Urban Meyer's career, a 31-0 demolition at the hands of Clemson in a playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl.
The result wasn't shocking only because it was a 31-point shutout in a playoff game featuring what was supposed to be the No. 3 team in the country. The result was made more shocking by the fact that Meyer's time at Ohio State thus far has featured historic levels of success. The Fiesta Bowl marked the end of Meyer's fifth season in Columbus, and the loss dropped his record with the Buckeyes to 61-6, a remarkable, unparalleled .910 winning percentage.
Every Ohio State loss is a surprise, making a result such as the one we saw on New Year's Eve truly stunning, even if it came at the hands of the national champions.
A few months removed from the playoff disaster, it's a bit easier to step back and appreciate what Meyer has accomplished thus far in Columbus. All five of Meyer's teams have won at least 11 game and finished the season ranked in the AP top 12. All four eligible teams played in major bowl games. The one that wasn't eligible -- because of the mess left by the Jim Tressel era -- went a perfect 12-0 in Meyer's first season but was unable to get a national title shot. After going 12-0, Meyer has gone 12-2, 14-1, 12-1 and 11-2, as Ohio State has again proved to be one of the most reliably great programs in college football.
Meyer, of course, has had similar success before, leading Florida to two national championships in his first five years in Gainesville. At Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State, Meyer is 165-29 in 15 seasons with three national titles, sporting a winning percentage of .851 for his career, making him one of the best coaches in college football history. Our ranking of the top 100 coaches ever last year placed him 15th, with plenty still possible to accomplish at age 52.
That was the big picture. Now that he has completed five years at Ohio State, how does the beginning of Meyer's tenure stack up with other college football coaching greats? There are many different ways to compare. We gathered first-five-years data on all 42 coaches who have been credited with national championships since 1960. Meyer joins Nick Saban in appearing in the research twice, having taken two teams to national championships. The results from different evaluations are below.
Records of coaches in first five years at the school where they have won a national title since 1960.
1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State, .910
2. Barry Switzer, Oklahoma, .897
3. Dennis Erickson, Miami, .883
4. Larry Coker, Miami, .855
4. Bob Devaney, Nebraska, .855
6. Jimmy Johnson, Miami, .852
7. Urban Meyer, Florida, .851
8. John Robinson, USC, .850
9. Pete Carroll, USC, .844
10. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State, .841
11. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma, .833
11. Gene Stallings, Alabama, .833
13. Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame, .830
14. Nick Saban, Alabama, .821
15. Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee, .811
16. Bear Bryant, Alabama, .806
17. Joe Paterno, Penn State, .802
18. Steve Spurrier, Florida, .798
19. Jim Tressel, Ohio State, .794
20. Lloyd Carr, Michigan, .790
21. Danny Ford, Clemson, .789
22. Les Miles, LSU, .773
23. Tom Osborne, Nebraska, .770
24. Lou Holtz, Notre Dame, .767
25. Mack Brown, Texas, .766
No national championship coach since 1960 has gotten off to a better start at a school than Meyer at Ohio State, strictly in terms of wins and losses. Switzer (51-5-2) had one fewer loss, but he had two ties and it came in nine fewer games, thanks to the shorter schedules of the time. At 61-6, Meyer won six more games in his first five seasons at Ohio State than Saban did at Alabama, mostly because of Saban's 7-6 rebuilding debut in 2007. At Florida, Meyer started 57-10, with three 13-1 seasons and two nine-win seasons. Meyer undoubtedly had an advantage at Ohio State in that this was his fourth head coaching stop, and he had already built a national power with two titles at Florida, making the transition to a ready-to-win program like Ohio State easier for a seasoned, established coach.
Of the 44 coaching tenures analyzed, 17 won at least 80 percent of their games in their first five years. (It's four years for Gene Chizik, who was fired two years after winning a national title, and four years for Johnny Majors, who left Pitt for Tennessee). Two had losing records in their first five years: Minnesota's Murray Warmath, who went 21-22-2 from 1954-58 but led the Golden Gophers to a 1960 national title; and Colorado's Bill McCartney, who received a long leash, starting 20-36-1 and winning the championship in his ninth year.
With a .910 winning percentage, Meyer is far ahead of where fellow Buckeyes greats Jim Tressel (50-13) and Woody Hayes (33-11-2) were, although both won a national title in their first five years, too.
Twenty-eight of the 44 coaching tenures compiled here featured at least one national championship in the first five seasons (all according to the NCAA's list of recognized champions). That includes two each for Switzer at Oklahoma, Dennis Erickson at Miami, Pete Carroll at USC (one AP poll, one BCS), Saban at Alabama and Meyer at Florida. At Ohio State, Meyer won the title in his third season. Coaching greats generally win quickly, making Dabo Swinney's 2016 title in his eighth full season sort of unusual.
After inheriting a loaded team from Butch Davis, Larry Coker won the national title in his first season as Miami's head coach in 2001 with one of the greatest teams in college football history. The same thing happened for Erickson in 1989, as he took over from Jimmy Johnson at the height of the Hurricanes' power.
AP top 10 finishes
1. Barry Switzer, Oklahoma, 5
1. Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame, 5
3. Urban Meyer, Ohio State, 4
3. Dennis Erickson, Miami, 4
3. Bob Devaney, Nebraska, 4
3. Jimmy Johnson, Miami, 4
3. Pete Carroll, USC, 4
3. Nick Saban, Alabama, 4
3. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma, 4
3. Bear Bryant, Alabama, 4
3. Steve Spurrier, Florida, 4
3. Tom Osborne, Nebraska, 4
3. Frank Broyles, Arkansas, 4
Two coaches started their tenures with five straight AP top-10 finishes: Switzer at Oklahoma and Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame. Switzer took over a Sooners team that had gone 22-2 the previous two seasons under Chuck Fairbanks, while Parseghian dealt with the opposite: Notre Dame didn't have a single winning season in the five years before he arrived, and yet he finished No. 3, 9, 1, 5 and 5 in the AP poll to start his South Bend career after leaving Northwestern.
Meyer's 4-for-5 mark at Ohio State joins 10 other national championship coaches. Only four of these national championship-winning coaches -- John Vaught, LaVell Edwards, Murray Warmath, Bill McCartney -- didn't have one top-10 team in their first five years. Only Edwards and McCartney didn't have a single top-20 team at the start of their tenures.
First-five-years SRS average
Average Simple Rating System performance of national title coaches during first five years at school where they won the title, via Sports-Reference.
1. Barry Switzer, Oklahoma, 24.95
2. Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame, 23.09
3. John Robinson, USC, 21.45
4. Pete Carroll, USC, 21.38
5. Tom Osborne, Nebraska, 19.89
6. Dennis Erickson, Miami, 19.64
7. Jimmy Johnson, Miami, 19.31
8. Urban Meyer, Florida, 19.31
9. Larry Coker, Miami, 18.82
10. Nick Saban, Alabama, 18.14
11. Dan Devine, Notre Dame, 17.95
12. Urban Meyer, Ohio State, 17.89
12. Lou Holtz, Notre Dame, 17.89
14. Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee, 17.35
15. Woody Hayes, Ohio State, 17.34
16. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma, 17.28
17. Duffy Daugherty, Michigan State, 16.78
18. Steve Spurrier, Florida, 16.34
19. Darrell Royal, Texas, 16.24
20. Vince Dooley, Georgia, 15.68
21. Lloyd Carr, Michigan, 15.62
22. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State, 15.36
23. Bear Bryant, Alabama, 15.11
24. Jim Tressel, Ohio State, 14.99
25. Bobby Bowden, Florida State, 14.88
Sports-Reference breaks down every major team in college football history by using the Simple Rating System, which measures point differential and strength of schedule to provide an objective snapshot of teams' strength. We compiled the average SRS of each of these coaches' first five seasons at their national championship schools. SRS tends to favor teams from the 1970s and 1940s, eras in which the most powerful teams were particularly dominant thanks to difficult schedules and a lack of parity. So it's no surprise that Switzer sits atop this list, as he coached some of the most dominant teams of all time, including two national champions in his first five years.
That's also why Osborne (1973-77) is fifth in average SRS despite ranking 23rd in winning percentage. Meyer's SRS at Ohio State is 12th, four spots behind his first five years at Florida, due in part to the Big Ten's weakness his first few years, which produced mediocre schedule strength.
Of course, the first five years of coaching tenures can't solely be judged on the average strength of their teams. Results are skewed by what happened before they arrived: Switzer and several Miami coaches (Coker, Johnson, Erickson) inherited fantastic situations from coaches who left at their peak for pro football jobs. Coaches like Saban and Bryant may have arrived at a historic power, but their programs were far from their peaks when they arrived, making instant success much more difficult to attain as they tried to clean up previous messes.
When Meyer got to Ohio State, the Buckeyes were coming off a 6-7 season under Luke Fickell, but despite the scandal, the program was still relatively healthy, having won 44 games in Jim Tressel's final four seasons. It's not a knock on Meyer; it's hard to win big no matter the situation inherited. Still, some coaches pulled off impressive success despite stepping into less-than-desirable positions, and many of them had a first year that couldn't help but involve rebuilding.
So who improved their program the most in their first five years?
SRS difference, five years before and after arrival
Difference between average SRS of first five years of coaching tenures vs. five years before they took over.
1. Johnny Majors, Pittsburgh, 18.76
2. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma, 18.14
3. Bear Bryant, Alabama, 16.78
4. Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame, 15.55
5. Bobby Bowden, Florida State, 14.48
6. Bob Devaney, Nebraska, 14.46
7. Pete Carroll, USC, 13.34
8. John Vaught, Ole Miss, 10.42
9. Nick Saban, Alabama, 9.06
10. Mack Brown, Texas, 8.98
10. Vince Dooley, Georgia, 8.98
12. Howard Schnellenberger, Miami, 8.60
13. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State, 7.90
14. Larry Coker, Miami, 7.28
15. Lou Holtz, Notre Dame, 6.83
16. Danny Ford, Clemson, 6.66
17. Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee, 6.34
18. Steve Spurrier, Florida, 6.27
19. Jimmy Johnson, Miami, 6.18
20. Don James, Washington, 5.97
21. Darrell Royal, Texas, 5.49
22. Urban Meyer, Florida, 5.35
23. Urban Meyer, Ohio State, 4.79
24. Nick Saban, LSU, 4.53
25. LaVell Edwards, BYU, 4.47
None of these coaches made more significant improvement than Majors, who spent only four years at Pitt before leaving for Tennessee, his alma mater. Majors inherited a team that had gone 14-27 the previous five years. He had three decent seasons followed by a national title, placing him 30th in average SRS, but none of these coaches walked into a worse situation than Pitt's previous five-year SRS average of -4.85. Edwards, Bryant, Devaney and Stoops also took over teams with a negative SRS the previous five years, further illustrating how impressive there early turnarounds were.
Stoops won a national title in Year 2 despite taking over an Oklahoma program that had gone five years without a winning record. Alabama was a disaster when Bryant returned home, having gone 4-24-2 in three years under Jennings Whitworth. Parseghian arrived at Notre Dame after Hugh Devore went 2-7, and Bowden and Devaney built programs from relative obscurity.
Meyer can't claim the same sort of turnaround at Ohio State, despite the NCAA scandal that happened before he arrived. Still, no matter what happened against Clemson, what Meyer has done in Columbus is historic, one of the greatest first five years of a coaching tenure in the history of the sport.
The loss to Clemson was merely a blip. His time at Florida came to an end after only six seasons, but it seems likely that the first five years are only the beginning of Meyer's dominance at Ohio State.