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Urban Meyer Will Win In The NFL – And He’d Better

Jay Mariotti

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Urban Jags

You can’t be as intense as Urban Meyer and not obsess about legacy. There are tourniquets in emergency rooms wound less tightly, as evident in the Fox Sports studio the last two seasons, and he struck me as a man tortured by the empty stomach of unfinished business. Yes, he won multiple national titles on the college level, but he also fled campuses left in flames by scandals.     

How would he be remembered? For his two championships at Florida, the way he nurtured Tim Tebow and turned him into a sports-and-religion cult? Or for a lawless program that enabled Aaron Hernandez amid 31 player arrests? Would he be saluted for lifting Ohio State into the top-three elite? Or scorned for his awkward exit after trying to protect an assistant coach, Zach Smith, from domestic abuse allegations? Or questioned for why health problems always surfaced in times of turmoil?     

He threw his entire being into his television work, but he couldn’t end his professional life talking to Reggie Bush and Brady Quinn every week, could he? There had to be something more in coaching, one last opportunity to hammer down the first paragraph of his obituary.     

That last chance found him in recent weeks, step by step, as if meant to be. The woeful New York Jets started winning games, tormenting their fans but stirring the suffering souls in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars have devolved into such suckiness that London might be turned off to the NFL by their annual visits. Suddenly, quarterbacking savant and Southern boy Trevor Lawrence was the door prize as the No. 1 overall draft pick — and no one loves him more than Meyer, who sat on the set last year and called him “the best quarterback in college football, ever.’’ The Jets never were going to bring in Meyer. But Jacksonville? He’d grown chummy of late with Jaguars owner Shad Khan, sharing conversations on Khan’s yacht in Miami. And if Meyer was viewed as a cad in some American sectors, didn’t they still embrace him in north Florida for his triumphs down the road in Gainesville?     

The result Thursday was the most polarizing hire in recent NFL times. He didn’t get the $12 million annual salary floated as an original demand, but he’s only making slightly less than Bill Belichick, who has won six Super Bowls, and in the vicinity of Pete Carroll, Jon Gruden, Sean Payton and John Harbaugh, all winners of a Super Bowl. If you think it’s haywire, it’s the growing market price of NFL coaching — why shouldn’t Meyer make that much when Baylor’s Matt Rhule was handed almost $9 million annually by the Carolina Panthers?     

So, you might say Urban Meyer had better win. And win big. If he and Lawrence claim a championship together, he’ll be celebrated as one of the all-timer greats in his field, the rare coach to pull off the NFL/college perfecta.     

If he fails? Legions of Meyer detractors will be swimming in champagne schadenfreude, and the networks might not even have him back. One way or another, Sports Google will have finality.     

At 56, with his troublesome health history, a championship might be a stretch for Meyer because he might not coach beyond five years. But relieved of college coaching’s onerous burdens, including recruiting battles that grow wearisome, he will succeed quickly on the next level, I say. Not only does he inherit a potential Hall of Fame cornerstone in Lawrence, the Jaguars have the most salary-cap space in the league and a treasure trove of high draft picks. Armed with front-office power, he is positioned to control his destiny, pick and sign his preferred talent and become an instant favorite in a region that saw the Jaguars reach the AFC championship game in 2017, only to go 12-36 the last three seasons.     

Make no mistake, this was the only job for Meyer. He listened to the Los Angeles Chargers, where Justin Herbert has one sensational quarterbacking season in the books, but he has spent enough Fox assignment time in L.A. to know that franchise might never catch on. Besides, he had all the leverage in negotiating with the Jaguars. They needed him more than he needed them, struggling to build a strong fan base in the league’s fourth-smallest market and failing to cut a deal with the city in developing a mixed-use entertainment complex near an aging stadium. The Florida Times-Union, the city’s newspaper, accused Khan of trying to shake down the mayor for “a $65 million, no-interest, 50-year “loan’’ that operated like a cash grant. The city was loaning the money an providing the money to pay itself back.’’ If Jacksonville still doesn’t buy into the Jaguars with Meyer and Lawrence in town, Khan and the league might as well move the franchise — though, please, not to London, as rumored for years, given the logistical and travel problems presented by having one European team and 31 U.S. teams.     

The transition to NFL coaching shouldn’t be difficult for Meyer, who spent 17 years in four college programs. He cares too much, studies too much, lives the game too much to become the next Bobby Petrino, the most infamous recent college-to-pro flop. Or the next Chip Kelly, whose offensive innovation was figured out by the best defensive minds. Actually, the apt comparison is Carroll. He should be Meyer’s whisperer, his legacy fixer. Both were massively successful on the collegiate level, yet both found trouble that drove them out of their jobs. Carroll slipped away to the Seattle Seahawks, where he won a championship and, with general manager John Schneider, created one of the league’s strongest perennial franchises. With more than $90 million in cap room, 11 total draft choices this spring — four in the top 45 — and a core that includes talented weapons for Lawrence, Meyer can build a similar foundation.     

It’s paramount that success comes immediately. Otherwise, will they be calling another ambulance for him? I was in Atlanta in 2009 when Florida lost to Alabama in the SEC championship game, which flipped the script for Saban to rule the sport the next decade-plus. Meyer wound up in the hospital with chest pains, then announced he was resigning before un-resigning the next day. The episode, diagnosed as an esophagus issue, prompted him to reassess his priorities, and after a down season, he found a permanent escape hatch. Returning to his dream job at Ohio State, he went 83-9 and won a national title, but in Year Seven, he reported headaches from a congenital arachnoid cyst as the Smith drama was devouring the program. When he departed the program in December 2018, after serving a three-game unpaid suspension, he indicated he likely was retired for good.     

“I believe I will not coach again,’’ Meyer said.     

Who believed him? Who ever believes him?     

Which begs the question: How will a man who lost only nine games the last decade, and went 187-32 in his college career, deal with the inevitable losing that happens in the NFL? In the best-case scenario, Meyer would go 9-7 in his first season. How does he handle each of those seven losses?

“I’m ready to coach the Jacksonville Jaguars,” Meyer said in a statement. “Jacksonville has an enthusiastic fan base, and the fans deserve a winning team. With upcoming opportunities in the NFL Draft, and strong support from ownership, the Jaguars are well-positioned to become competitive. I’ve analyzed this decision from every angle — the time is right in Jacksonville, and the time is right for me to return to coaching. I’m excited about the future of this organization and our long term prospect for success.”     

Excuse me. Did he say the Jaguars are positioned to become “competitive’’ without providing a time frame? Urban Meyer isn’t a man who settles for being competitive. Is he trying to tamp down expectations, knowing the Jags gave up a franchise-record 492 points last season?     

I know a man who already is voicing bigger goals. “This is a great day for Jacksonville and Jaguars fans everywhere,” Khan said. “Urban Meyer is who we want and need, a leader, winner and champion who demands excellence and produces results. While Urban already enjoys a legacy in the game of football that few will ever match, his passion for the opportunity in front of him here in Jacksonville is powerful and unmistakable.”     

Did he reference “excellence’’ and “results’’ in his statement?     

It’s a fascinating story, sure to drive arguments even in a pandemic. But will it end well? That first paragraph of the obit is waiting.

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One Question About Stuart Scott’s 30 for 30: What Took So Long?

“Whether it was references or catchphrases or just his general vibe, Stuart Scott was can’t miss TV.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Stuart Scott

There haven’t been many celebrity deaths that have truly left me in tears. I am a Nirvana super fan, and I remember exactly where I was when I found out about Kurt Cobain’s suicide, but I don’t remember breaking down. I can only remember three celebrity deaths that left me feeling true, uncontainable sadness: Robin Williams, Tom Petty and Stuart Scott.

So many documentaries and episodes of television have been made about the life, times, and deaths of Williams and Petty. They are icons. Their respective deaths left millions of fans in mourning. 

Scott’s impact is no less significant, particularly in the sports media world. I am happy to hear that he is finally getting his due with a life and career retrospective as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.

I hated school as a kid. Each morning felt like a march from the courthouse to the bus that would take me to prison. I loved sports and loved to laugh. Scott and Rich Eisen felt like my last little bit of joy before I was dragged to Hell each weekday morning. That’s why he meant so much to me.

His impact can be felt everywhere in our business. Countless black men and women who work in sports media will tell you about the impact they felt seeing someone who looked and talked like them. A generation of broadcasters, regardless of race, will tell you about how they connected to someone who embraced the idea that this is fun and unserious. 

Whether it was references or catchphrases or just his general vibe, Stuart Scott was can’t-miss TV. The fact that he was, revolutionized sports television.

Because of his influence, we were introduced to new faces. The whole style of highlight shows changed. Dan Patrick and Keith Olberman moved it away from a newscast and closer to a watercolor conversation. Scott pushed the genre closer to a block party.

ESPN has been careful about which broadcasters become the subject of a 30 for 30 documentary. Some of that has to do with drawing the line between sports and sports media. Some of it has to do with ESPN not being keen to turn a critical eye on itself. I mean, what other explanation could there be for why we have never gotten a documentary on the aforementioned Patrick and Olberman years

Scott clears whatever bar there is though. His story is one of social impact and industry dominance. On top of that, the way ESPN and its charity partner, The V Foundation, stood behind Scott during his battle with cancer, allows the company to give the story the Disney Princess treatment and erase any flaws or animosity that may have ever existed. That part isn’t necessary, but since ESPN is owned by Disney, it’s a nice bonus.

For a certain generation, this documentary will be a look back at the glory days of ESPN. The cultural dominance the brand enjoyed in the 90s could have come to an end after Keith Olberman’s exit and the end of Sunday night’s “Big Show,” but Scott’s rivalry with Dan Patrick (real or perceived) was an important part of extending that relevance. I mean, you could find boxer shorts in Disney World with “booyah” and “en fuego” scrawled across the ass at that time. 

Rich Eisen will surely figure prominently in the film. How could he not? He and Scott became the SportsCenter’s new gold standard. Their friendship and chemistry were real. They dealt with each other offscreen with no filter and the onscreen product was better for it. To this day, Eisen gets emotional when talking about his friend.

No one who dies at 49 lived a full life. How could they? There is so much left to do and give. But Stuart Scott packed a lot of life and made a lot of impact in his short time on Earth. 

Maybe you need the benefit of time for a 30 for 30 documentary to make a real impact. Scott died in January 2015. By the time the documentary comes out, a decade will have passed. As someone who was 15 years old when I discovered his voice and remained a fan until his dying day, I have one question. Why did we have to wait so long to get this movie? 

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Seller to Seller: Sandy Cohen, Union Broadcasting

“You are putting people together and you are seen as a connector. People love being connected with other people, and we like to do that with local business owners.”

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Graphic for Seller to Seller with Sandy Cohen

In last week’s Seller to Seller feature I had asked several sellers what the hardest part was of selling sports media right now. One of the replies was, “Prospecting, I feel like the number of categories willing to spend what they need to is dwindling.” That response prompted my old foe, Union Broadcasting partner and vice president of sales Sandy Cohen, to reach out to talk further about the topic.

Sandy and Union Broadcasting have been in the game since 1998 in Kansas City where they have Sports Radio 810 WHB and ESPN Kansas City. They also have ESPN Louisville and ESPN Wichita and Cohen oversees sales for all of the properties. I competed against them in Kansas City as the GSM for 610 Sports and learned how well-respected Sandy and his team are in the advertising and business communities as well as how good of a job they do when it comes to servicing clients and building relationships.

Sandy said when he read last week’s piece, a thought kept running through his mind, which was that as an industry, sports media needs more people on the street and a next generation of sellers. He had some great insights on the topic as well as Union Broadcasting had been in a hiring mode recently in Kansas City and he wound up hiring three people with a year or less of experience in the workforce.

When we spoke, I first asked him if we need more or if we need better. As any good salesman would do, he asked for it all. “Yes! We need more, better,” he replied. “I think there’s benefits all the way around. You can increase your sales with more people, and you can energize your existing sales team by hiring brand new salespeople.”

Cohen said they put a full-court-press on recruitment and ran ads on air, on their stream, on their website and all of their social channels. I wondered if people were still excited to work in sports media sales and if they had a solid response.

“We had lots of choices, I was pleased,” Cohen said. He told me they went through a few rounds before inviting some candidates in to make presentations in their conference room. “We looked at how they prepared, how they dressed, did they make eye contact, and did they use props or anything to stand out. Lastly, did they follow up with a thank you and stay in touch throughout the process.”

We talked about what types of things he looks for when screening candidates and he said, “I think they have to have a passion and an interest in sports, be a go-getter with a lot of good energy. I think they need to be money motivated and a self-starter, detail oriented with solid communications skills…If they’re not going to pay attention to the details, they’re not going to make a very good salesperson.”

We agreed that after you go through the difficult process of recruitment and then eventually hiring the new sales talent, the real work begins as now you have to make sure they get trained as best as possible.

As for the training process Cohen uses, he said, “It’s a combination of two things. We have our own in-house training system. We have everything mapped out, what the first two weeks look like, day by day, and then at the end of each day there is a recap. Then it continues, but not as structured as the first two weeks.

“We also use P1 Learning through the Missouri Broadcasters Association which is several weeks and is done in bite-sized pieces. They have homework and video calls and assignments they do to really learn the basics.” Cohen said a couple of the new hires had finished at the top of their P1 Learning class.

“It’s nice because it’s an outside voice, I like the way it is structured, and they go through everything. Beyond that, it is a lot of hands-on attention with new sellers, ongoing training, goal setting, lead distribution, and following up with them on how they are making their contacts. It’s talking to them and seeing what they are experiencing and how we can work on those and that works hand in hand with the formal training.”

I was also curious about the role the other sellers on the team play in training of new hires. Cohen said he is fortunate as he has a lot of senior sellers who are willing to help when called upon.

“We’ve got several veteran sellers who have been with us for 20-plus years,” he said. “So, while they are very busy with their own stuff, they recognize that at some point in their career somebody did that for them as well. They will let the new hires shadow them on calls or spend time with them one on one answering questions.”

Cohen hopes that as an industry, sports media makes a commitment to network with area colleges to form relationships with the professors in business schools or journalism schools to have a chance at some of the top talent coming out of college. “We need to have a presence in these classes and try and be in line when kids are graduating,” he said. “We can bring up the level of interest…it requires a lot of work. But we have to find a way to train new sellers and spend a lot of time with them.”

Of course, once the training wheels are off, at some point the new hires have to perform. We talked about the benchmarks of time as to when you should expect to know what you need to know about a new hire. “In the case of somebody who is fairly new…in six months, are they making progress? One year is definitely a benchmark. I think based on activity, new business, work ethic and habits you have observed you will know…It’s effort and activity and you can teach the nuances of what it means to be a solid individual in our industry.”

As mentioned previously, Sandy and his team are exceptional when it comes to having strong relationships with their clients, built through a quality product but also from the amount of time they spend with their clients and connecting them to one another.

“I just think at its core, what we do is fun,” Cohen said. “Some of the days are going to be long if you’re working all day and then taking someone to a sporting event or whatever it may be. We have always felt like entertainment is what sets us apart and one of the most important aspects of what we do.

“I just think if you’re doing business with someone, why shouldn’t you go and have some fun with them, too? You can certainly just hand them some tickets, but there’s nothing better than experiencing an event or planning a party for a group of clients so that they can all network together. You are putting people together and you are seen as a connector. People love being connected with other people, and we like to do that with local business owners…it becomes almost a club where they all work together because they met at one of our social events.”

Cohen said they try and have at least one significant quarterly entertainment event where they bring large groups of people together in addition to connecting one on one at a sporting event. A couple of recent examples of the larger events included a movie preview where a partnership with a local theater allowed for pre-show fellowship, followed by interaction with a talent who would host the event and then an opportunity for the group to see a movie before it has come out to the public.

Another example was a bus trip to Lawrence, Kansas for a KU-Oklahoma State basketball game which included a behind-the-scenes tour at Allen Fieldhouse. The team broadcasters showed the group the locker rooms and other areas that are not open to the public, followed by a KU chalk-talk and VIP treatment for the game.

In summing it up, Cohen said, “Whenever we can bring groups together like that and have a good time, that’s what we do.”

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Ian Eagle Will Always Remember His First Final Four

“This time is allowing me to exhale a bit and truly appreciate the path.”

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Photo of Ian Eagle
Courtesy: For The Win

Over the course of his career, Ian Eagle has called what seems like a million basketball games.  His approach for all of those games, whether it was the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, nationally televised NBA games, or college basketball games, has always been the same.  And when it came to taking over as the new play by play voice for the Final Four last week in Arizona, Eagle remained consistent with that approach.

Eagle subscribes to theory that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fit it”. 

“I recognized that I didn’t want to make sweeping changes to my approach because it was a bigger stage,” said Eagle.  “I wanted to be myself and do the games the way that I’ve done them for a number of years now and I think that comes with experience and maturity and muscle memory.  I do think that having done so many NCAA Tournaments put me in a very advantageous position of knowing what I was walking into.”

One part of that approach was to have fun.  It’s certainly a job that comes with a big responsibility because of the big stage and the number of eyeballs that are on you, but doing play by play is a lot of fun and a really cool job to have, no matter what sport or what level.

In Eagle’s case, he made sure that he was not only prepared for the job at hand, but he also made sure he was having a good time with his crew that included Bill Raftery, Grant Hill and Tracy Wolfson.

“We had a blast,” said Eagle.  “I made a conscious effort to remind myself to enjoy it.  Sometimes in life, we forget that it’s supposed to be fun, and it’s supposed to be joyous.  I had this sense of calm just before going on air for the Final Four.  I didn’t feel nerves.  I didn’t feel stressed.  I felt in the moment and comfortable and excited.”

This was a moment for Eagle that had been in the works for a few years and something that he certainly had been thinking about.  When it was first reported that legendary play by play announcer Jim Nantz would be winding down his long run as the voice of the Final Four, it had been suggested that Eagle was going to be the heir apparent.

In October of 2022, CBS and Turner Sports announced that the 2023 Final Four would be the final one for Nantz and that Eagle would take over in 2024.

For Eagle, it was big shoes to fill succeeding Nantz, but he knew the transition would be smooth and that his job was not to be Jim Nantz but to simply be Ian Eagle.

“I think because it was being discussed over the course of a few years, I never felt that level of enormity,” said Eagle.  “For me, it was recognizing that Jim was synonymous with this event and respecting the run that he was on.  It was incredible.  No one is ever going to match it so why think of it in those terms?  Just go do your job and be you.”

Perhaps this could be viewed as a “passing the baton moment,” but on the day before the national semifinals, a message came up on Eagle’s phone.

It was from Nantz.

“Yeah, he texted me on Friday,” said Eagle.  “We had a really nice exchange.  I think he was being very respectful with the job that I had to do.  There’s a high level of respect between the two of us.”

Even before the Final Four, Eagle had established himself as one of the great play-by-play voices in sports broadcasting.  From his days as a student at Syracuse University to his early days at WFAN in New York, to being the radio and television voice of the Nets and national NBA and NFL games, Eagle had already accomplished so much in this industry.

A premier event like the Final Four seemed like the appropriate next chapter of his career.

“It felt very much like the next step,” said Eagle.  “I think all of your experiences play a role in some way.  Even while you’re experiencing them, you have no idea how that’s going to affect you down the road.”

It has been quite a ride for Eagle, and it was a road that started as a producer at WFAN before that run morphed into an on-air role hosting and ultimately becoming the radio voice of the New York Jets.

The road to the top has to start somewhere and for Eagle it was at the nation’s first sports radio station.

“My time at ‘FAN…I learned so much,” said Eagle.  “I was around some of the most legendary figures in sports radio history and I benefited greatly from osmosis of being in this really unique situation that helped me when I got the next job and then the next job and then the next job.”

From hosting “Bagels and Baseball” on WFAN to doing play-by-play for the Final Four, it’s been quite a ride for Ian Eagle.

“It’s pretty wild if I take a step back and think about it but when you’re in the moment, you don’t necessarily reflect,” said Eagle. “This time is allowing me to exhale a bit and truly appreciate the path.”

And who knows where that path is going to take him next.

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