In the wake of an 0-4 start to the 2021 season and being featured in an embarrassing video with a young woman dancing close to his lap, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer could suddenly find his job in jeopardy.
On Tuesday, media analyst and former Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots executive Michael Lombardi tweeted: “there are many closed-door meetings happening over the last two days in the [Jaguars’] football offices and none of them have anything to do with the Titans. Stay tuned. This might get ugly.”
Meyer, whom Jacksonville hired in January, has apologized to his family, Jaguars owner Shad Khan and others for the video, but this isn’t the coach’s first controversy with the Jaguars. In July, the NFL fined him $100,000 and the team $200,000 for violating the no-contact rule for off-season practices.
In a statement released by the Jaguars on Tuesday, Kahn described Meyer’s “conduct last weekend” as “inexcusable.” Kahn also stated that he is “confident” Urban will “regain our trust and respect.” This language suggests that the Jaguars will not immediately fire Meyer and have put him on a performance improvement plan. However, the situation is clearly fluid and the number of items in the Jaguars’ Meyer employment file—which would be critical in any decision to fire—is growing.
Meyer’s contract is not publicly available. Prior to his hiring, media reported he sought a multiyear deal that would pay him in the ballpark of $12 million a season.
Normally, a coach’s contract is at least partially guaranteed in the event he or she is fired without cause. Such a firing is the ordinary way a team lets go of a coach. It means the owner and general manager don’t accuse the coach of any wrongdoing—there is no “cause” to fire—but are nonetheless unsatisfied with the performance of the team or coach’s performance and wish to make a change.
If the Jaguars want to replace Meyer and avert a potential legal fight, the easiest method would be to fire him without cause. The downside to that approach is that it could cost the team a substantial amount of money, depending on how much is guaranteed money to Meyer going forward.
Alternatively, the Jaguars could fire Meyer with cause. In most contracts, a with cause (or “for cause”) firing relieves the team of any obligation to pay—including salary, compensation and benefits—after the termination date. This classification of a firing would mean, as the team sees it, the coach engaged in a form of wrongdoing specified in the contract and that warrants termination.
This is where the language of Meyer’s contract could become crucial. A contract usually contains language that requires the coach to not only follow the law, but also—more ambiguously and interpretatively—act with due regard to public morals and conventions. The contract might mention that the coach can’t insult or offend the community and can’t bring himself or the team into scandal or ridicule.
Meyer, 57, is no stranger to employment contract disputes. In 2018, there was discussion about whether Ohio State would fire Meyer with cause, which would have relieved the school of the obligation to pay him $38 million over the following five years. Meyer was connected to a personal misconduct controversy involving assistant coach Zach Smith. Meyer’s contract authorized a “with cause” firing if he violated any university rule, engaged in fraud or dishonesty or failed to comport himself consistent with the university’s moral and ethical standards. Ohio State instead suspended Meyer for three games. He retired at the end of the season.
Firing a coach after four games would be extremely unusual, but it wouldn’t be the shortest tenure. In 1978, Los Angeles Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom fired coach George Allen after six months and two preseason losses.
Meyer’s contract with the Jaguars could contain language that requires any dispute be heard in mediation or arbitration, rather than in court. Both mediation and arbitration are private forums for dispute resolution. Unlike litigation, mediation and arbitration do not produce public filings that are accessible to the media. No matter the forum, Meyer would likely argue his conduct didn’t authorize such a penalty and that the Jaguars failed to allow him a credible opportunity to defend himself.