Early Thursday, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan announced his team had fired head coach Urban Meyer, who was in his first year as head coach. The Jaguars are 2-11 and have lost five games in a row. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell will serve as interim head coach. The firing concludes a tumultuous experience for Meyer, whose personal and professional missteps could give grounds for the Jaguars to designate the firing “for cause” and for Meyer, in turn, to sue.
Meyer, 57, signed a multi-year contract with the Jaguars in January. Despite being a rookie NFL head coach, his annual compensation is estimated to be $9 million. That dollar figure is higher than many NFL head coaches and a reflection of Meyer’s success at the college level, which included three national championships.
Meyer’s contract is not publicly available, but coaches’ contracts usually contemplate two types of firing. The first is a firing without cause. This occurs when an owner decides he or she wants to replace the coach. In this scenario, the coach hasn’t done anything wrong per se, but the team hasn’t performed to the owner’s satisfaction. When a coach is fired without cause, the coach normally receives most, if not all, of the remaining money on the contract.
The second type of firing is one that can trigger litigation. It is a firing “for cause” or “with cause.” Here, the owner concludes the coach has breached the contract by engaging in forms of misconduct and wrongdoing detailed in the contract. The owner can save money by invoking a for cause firing since it usually relieves the team of any obligation to pay salary, compensation or benefits going forward.
As explained in Sportico in November, if Meyer’s contract is like other NFL coaches’ contracts, it required him to adhere to public morals and conventions, to not bring himself or the Jaguars into scandal or ridicule, and to refrain from violating league rules.
Typical contracts also refer to the concept of progressive discipline, wherein the Jaguars are expected to first warn Meyer of potential complications and to make a good faith effort to correct misconduct issues before firing him. This is where Meyer’s personnel file matters. The Jaguars human resources department and general counsel’s office likely documented each misstep and how the team addressed it with Meyer. After each misstep, the Jaguars can more plausibly argue that Meyer didn’t learn his lesson from the previous incident and has a pattern of breaking rules.
Despite being with the Jaguars for less than a year, Meyer accumulated a lengthy list of troubles. Some of them could arguably justify a for cause firing.
In July, the NFL fined Meyer $100,000, and the team $200,000, for violating a rule against excessive contact during an organized team activity (OTA). A month later, the NFLPA launched an investigation into Meyer after he suggested that he was more inclined to cut a player if the player wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19. While Meyer was likely not alone among coaches in holding that view, his willingness to say it out aloud was problematic, because the NFL and NFLPA agreed to set procedures on players and vaccination status.
Meyer’s biggest misstep occurred in October when two embarrassing videos surfaced online of a young woman dancing close to Meyer’s lap and Meyer touching a woman’s bottom. The videos surfaced two days after the Cincinnati Bengals had defeated the Jaguars, and Meyer curiously opted not to fly home with his team, instead decamping to his restaurant in Columbus where the incident occurred. Meyer apologized, while Kahn publicly rebuked Meyer, calling his conduct “inexcusable” and warning that Meyer must “regain our trust and respect.”
Khan’s language from October is noteworthy since his statement on Thursday connected to it. “As I stated in October,” Khan expressed, “regaining our trust and respect was essential. Regrettably, it did not happen.” From an employment perspective, Khan had placed Meyer on warning in October and, now in December, Khan is articulating that Meyer failed to heed the warning.
To that point, Meyer’s problems didn’t end with the viral videos. Earlier this month, the NFL Network reported that he disparagingly called his assistant coaches “losers” during a meeting. Most recently, Josh Lambo, a former kicker with the Jaguars, claimed that Meyer kicked him in the leg while he was stretching (Meyer denied it).
Before Meyer could sue the Jaguars for breach, he would need to comply with any contractual language compelling alternative dispute resolution. Many employment contracts require that disputes first be heard through mediation and then arbitration before a complaint can be filed in court. In any action, Meyer would likely argue that none of his missteps warranted a for cause firing, that some of the missteps didn’t happen or didn’t happen as reported, and that the team erred in the process of evaluating him.
Most employment contract disputes are eventually resolved through a settlement, a process Meyer is familiar with. In 2018, he and Ohio State reached a contract resolution after he was suspended in the aftermath of a misconduct controversy involving assistant coach Zach Smith. In that dispute, Ohio State could have fired Meyer “with cause” but Meyer was poised to challenge it.