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Urban Meyer’s Renewal in Jacksonville

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They filed into the first few rows of TIAA Bank Field, 120 staffers from the Jacksonville Jaguars’ business side, sitting there like so many college boosters and alumni Urban Meyer had addressed over the years. He gathered them there on a sunny afternoon in early March, nearly two months after being hired to revive one of the N.F.L.’s more forlorn franchises, to deliver a speech similar in spirit and substance to ones he’d given as the coach at college behemoths like Ohio State and Florida.

After retiring from coaching in 2018, Meyer, 56, had a cushy television gig and a secure legacy as one of the best, and most polarizing, coaches in recent college football history. But he was still unfulfilled. He wanted to coach again, and despite the N.F.L.’s history of conquering celebrated college coaches trying to recreate their glory in the pros, Meyer determined his best fit was with the worst team of the last decade.

Tabbed to try to reorient this wayward organization, Meyer conjured his past as an ace recruiter. Wearing white shorts and a gray Jaguars pullover, he urged the assembled employees to “own it,” a call to action he also used at the Jan. 15 news conference introducing him as Jacksonville’s new coach. He implored them to take pride in every facet of the organization, right down to the team logo.

“This, right now, is not the most respected logo in the N.F.L. — it’s not,” Meyer said that day. “If in three years it still doesn’t mean much, then you’re probably looking for a new coach and we’ve not been very successful. That’s how personally I’m taking it.”

Meyer’s rah-rah message underscored that his competitive drive to own anything and everything about a program, a compulsion that produced three national titles — two at Florida and one at Ohio State — remained fierce, even after a two-year layoff.

That self-imposed time away from coaching came after a string of scandals and stress- and health-related issues helped cause him to resign or retire three times in his career. Meyer’s college teams were 187-32 (.854) while, at Florida, there were 31 arrests of players during his tenure, and, at Ohio State, he protected a longtime assistant with a history of domestic abuse.

As he weighed whether to re-enter a culture that glorifies workaholics, Meyer did not choose any of the more visible (and venerable) franchises that also wanted him. Instead he pursued the top job in one of the N.F.L.’s smallest markets with a team that perennially has to quell speculation that it will move to London.

Jacksonville is poised on Thursday to select Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, one of the best quarterback prospects in decades, with the first overall pick in the N.F.L. draft. After years of disarray, the Jaguars, as desperate for an identity as they are for victories, have arrived at the most critical juncture since their inception in 1995, an inflection point that the team owner Shahid Khan called “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in football.” The union between Meyer and Khan is meant to make good on it.

“Now, we get a fresh start,” Khan said in an interview in mid-April. “Everybody gets that this isn’t rebuilding. I mean, we need to win now.”

Jaguars fans at a Bold City Brigade tailgate during the 2019 season. The 2020 season, the worst in franchise history, yielded its most promising moment: the right to draft Trevor Lawrence. Credit…Dustin Hegedus

Since Khan’s first season as owner in 2012, no team has a worse record than the Jaguars (39-105), who until last year’s 1-15 debacle somehow never managed to be quite putrid enough to earn the No. 1 draft pick. They have outspent every other team in free agency over that period, but recorded only one winning season, in 2017, during which they lost the A.F.C. title game at New England. Since that apex, Jacksonville is 12-36.

John Caputo, the president of Bold City Brigade, a Jaguars supporters club with chapters around the country and overseas, likes to say that fair-weather Jacksonville fans cannot exist. For years, they have endured taunts about their team, their city, their own perceived apathy, and still they fork over discretionary income to watch bad football in person.

The darkness lifted in December when the worst season in franchise history yielded its most promising moment: The winless Jets beat the Los Angeles Rams in Week 15, vaulting one-win Jacksonville ahead on tiebreakers for the right to draft Lawrence. “The last month of the season was the most fun we’ve had since 2017 even though we were setting a franchise record for being terrible,” Caputo said. “Because of the Trevor watch.”

As the Jets edged Los Angeles, Caputo sat, riveted, at a bar near his home in Jacksonville Beach. Patrons chanted, “J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets!” Afraid the Jets would lose if he left, Caputo stayed until the end.

“For the last 10 years all we want is for the Jaguars to win, but they lose,” Caputo said in a video call. “And so now we’re actually cheering for them to lose, which was kind of liberating.”

His friend Pat Donnell, the Brigade’s vice president, chimed in: “And they didn’t let us down.”

In light of the team’s rebuilding fortune, fans are rallying to newfound ambitions. Since Meyer arrived, deposits for season tickets have poured in so fast — and from so many new customers — that the Jaguars hired 20 new sales representatives. Traffic on the team’s website and social media accounts has soared, with much of it coming from locations outside Florida, including the Midwest, where Meyer last coached.

Coach Urban Meyer, far right, watched Trevor Lawrence, foreground, work out at Clemson’s pro day in February.Credit…David Platt/Clemson Athletics, via USA Today Sports, via Reuters

A bonanza of fan-designed apparel has cropped up. “Urban Renewal” merchandise is for sale along with T-shirts blaring “Hope,” beneath Lawrence’s photo, a nod to the popular Shepard Fairey-designed poster for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Scores of Jaguars fans contributed $9.04, a homage to Jacksonville’s area code, and bought Lawrence and his new wife, Marissa, a $299.95 toaster from their wedding registry. The fans’ gifts, combined with $20,000 Lawrence said he’d chip in and other donations, added up to more than $54,000 that will be given to charities. “Thanks again, we hope to be a part of your community soon,” Lawrence responded on Twitter.

Lawrence’s pending arrival has reinvigorated a franchise that has tried and failed to find a quarterback to outshine Mark Brunell, who started eight playoff games for Jacksonville in the late 1990s. But Meyer’s hiring has given the Jaguars immediate credibility as a team that might also responsibly manage a talented star’s rise.

Khan and Meyer had chatted at a few functions over the years, but it wasn’t until Khan bumped into Meyer at an invitation-only N.F.L. party before the Super Bowl in February 2020 in Miami Gardens, Fla., that they shared an extended conversation. As they discussed each other’s backgrounds, Khan found that Meyer’s leadership traits were similar to those he’d acquired immigrating to the United States from Pakistan at age 16 and becoming a global auto parts magnate: relentless ambition, a hands-on temperament, trust in his staff.

Though Meyer fielded interest from other teams, he was drawn in by Khan’s offer to remake the franchise in his image. If he succeeds, Meyer can become only the fourth coach to win both a national college championship and a Super Bowl, after Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer and Pete Carroll.

“If you know Urban, I mean, he doesn’t do much on quick decisions or on a whim,” said Florida Coach Dan Mullen, a close friend and former assistant of Meyer’s. “Everything he does is extremely well thought out with a very detailed plan of why he would do it.”

Prepping for coaching interviews, Meyer had canvassed his former players in the N.F.L. and contacted, among others, Johnson to learn how he rebuilt the Dallas Cowboys three decades ago after leaving the University of Miami.

The conversations with Khan moved swiftly, and Meyer called his decision to accept the job — and the bounty of benefits that accompanied it, from the weather to the lack of state income tax to Jacksonville’s swell of Florida Gators fans — an easy one.

“They got the first pick, a chance to start fresh, start with some salary-cap advantages,” Meyer said in an interview. “Really, if you look at the team, there’s some very good core players here.”

Khan, after having experimented (and failed) with various front office power-sharing models, reworked the organizational hierarchy to give Meyer maximum leeway and a big role in the general manager search.

“This, right now, is not the most respected logo in the N.F.L. — it’s not,” Meyer said in an address to team personnel, vowing to change that.Credit…Jacksonville Jaguars

N.F.L. owners have long been fascinated with innovative or triumphant college coaches, and although some flourished at the pro level, many, including Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier, struggled to adapt. In the N.F.L., recruiting prowess is neutralized. Motivational tactics that might work with 19- and 20-year-olds might not work on grown men. Roster limitations and the salary cap, intended to foster parity, wrest control from control freaks. So can injuries and meddlesome owners.

Spurrier was 56, same as Meyer now, when he — regrettably, he says — rushed into accepting a head coaching job in Washington, where he came to learn that the owner, Daniel Snyder, would be rather involved in personnel matters. In their first year together, in 2002, Snyder pushed Spurrier against his objections to play the rookie quarterback Patrick Ramsey, and the next year released the second-stringer Danny Wuerffel, who played for Spurrier at Florida. Unable to pick even his backup, Spurrier later told his wife, Jerri, that he’d be done after that season.

“I was offered a bunch of money, and I did not use an agent, and I wasn’t probably as careful as getting things in writing as I should have,” Spurrier said. “I did a poor job also, and I’ll admit to that. But the situation ran me out.”

Neither Spurrier nor Saban — nor any of their college brethren, really — inherited a situation quite as favorable as Meyer’s in Jacksonville, where he can develop a franchise quarterback while continuing to stockpile talent with four other 2021 draft selections in the top 65.

Khan’s words might teem with optimism, but the Jaguars are still going to lose — more often, perhaps, than Meyer, whose worst season as a college head coach was 8-5, ever has. Meyer’s ability to cope with defeat may determine his longevity in the N.F.L.

“That’s the first thing I talked to him about when he took the job,” Mullen said. “I mean, ‘How are you going to handle that?’ Ten-and-six is a great year, and I don’t know if he would ever view 10-6 as a great year.”

Meyer had far more success than the last two N.F.L. hires plucked from the college ranks, Matt Rhule (hired by the Panthers) and Kliff Kingsbury (Cardinals), but he recognizes that he must adapt on a number of fronts.

Already he seemed to misjudge the extent of the backlash generated by the hiring of a strength coach, Chris Doyle, who left Iowa’s staff after several current and former players said he had promoted a culture of bullying and racism. Within hours of the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s condemning the decision, calling it “simply unacceptable,” Doyle resigned.

Recruiting players is one of Meyer’s strengths, but unlike in college, where he often had several face-to-face conversations with potential players, he didn’t speak with any prospective free agents until after they signed. The Jaguars signed more than a dozen free agents, including several veterans who played for Meyer and his coaches, like running back Carlos Hyde, who said it was a “no-brainer” to rejoin him.

“We’ve been lucky,” Meyer said. “A lot of guys are here training. But we haven’t had a team meeting yet. In college, you probably would have had 50 by now.”

But as he is fast learning, Meyer is not in college anymore.