COLUMBUS, Ohio — Zach Boren recalls the Ohio State football team’s introduction to its new head coach as part business session, part motivational talk, and a whole lot of revival meeting.
Urban Meyer laid out a quick sketch of his plans to revive the program that had been rocked by scandal, outlined for the Ohio State players what he expected of them in the coming months, all while filling the room with the boiling-point intensity that had become his trademark.
“I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but five minutes into that meeting, I was ready to put on the pads and go play,” the senior from nearby Pickerington said. “We knew coach Meyer’s reputation as great leader and motivator, and after listening to him, you were ready to run through a wall.”
The Buckeyes have broken down more than a few walls since Ohio native and former Ohio State graduate assistant Urban Meyer arrived on campus nearly a year ago, charged with bringing the Buckeyes back to a position of prominence in the Big Ten, and on the national stage. In Year One under the Urban Plan, Ohio State enters its season finale here on Saturday against rival Michigan a perfect 11-0.
“He has two national championship rings, and now he’s standing right there, as your coach. You were pretty certain everything would change for the better, and it has,” said Boren, who has played both fullback and linebacker for Meyer this season.
This storied program, with its seven national championships, seven Heisman Trophies, and 34 Big Ten titles, had started to crumble after 12 months of embarrassment, humiliation and indictment over players selling memorabilia for cash and discounts on tattoos.
Former coach Jim Tressel, long the most popular man in the Buckeye State and a seemingly Teflon-coated icon for the football program and the university, had resigned in disgrace in May of 2011. The Buckeyes floundered for months, and then staggered through a tortured 6-7 season — the program’s first losing record in nearly a quarter of a century.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith went out and hired the one man in America he felt had what it would take to thoroughly fumigate the place, get the troops in line, and build a winner — in a hurry. In late November of last year, Smith made it clear that he wanted an Urban renewal project to get started immediately.
“At different times in organizations, teams, or groups, there’s the right time for certain leaders. This is the right time for Urban Meyer to lead our football program,” Smith said as he introduced Meyer.
While Tressel was fluent in coach-speak and obfuscation, often secretive and seemingly unflappable, Meyer could deliver the fire and brimstone with a sledge hammer when he felt it appropriate. Tressel was the master of nuance, but Meyer demonstrates little use for being vague or dancing around the issue.
He labeled his own offense “a clown show” before the start of spring practice, and described the Ohio State offensive linemen as “unmotivated” and “fat” and “sloppy”.
“I’ll utilize any form of motivation I can to get guys angry, because I love coaching angry teams. There’s nothing like it,” Meyer said. “There’s nothing like a group of kids that really want to prove someone wrong or prove something to someone.”
The Ohio State offensive linemen did just that. They lost weight, added muscle, and by summer were Meyer’s favorite unit on the team.
“Coach Meyer brought in a different style, with a level of intensity that took some getting used to,” junior offensive tackle Jack Mewhort said. “It was tough, but it made us better. We’ve changed in a positive way, and become a better football team.”
Most Ohio State fans had probably never heard of Urban Meyer when he landed his first head-coaching job a couple hours up the road at Bowling Green. The team he inherited there had suffered through six straight losing seasons and was crippled by unmotivated players, malcontents, and a severe lack of structure.
By the time his first spring practice at Bowling Green opened in 2001, Meyer had either run off, kicked off or encouraged 30-some players to seek their fortunes elsewhere. When asked how he felt about losing essentially one-third of his team, Meyer skipped the feel-good lingo from the coaching manual and said: “good riddance.” If they were not as motivated as the next guy was, to go to class, put in quality time in the weight room, and fully commit to the program, he didn’t want them around.
“And we were a different team, just like that,” said Josh Harris, who quarterbacked Meyer’s first Bowling Green offense. “He brought a high level of intensity and passion to everything we did, and it was contagious. There were very specific expectations, and you were held accountable.”
Bowling Green was 2-9 the year before Meyer was hired. The Falcons went 8-3 in his first season. “It was the same players, just a completely different way of doing things under coach Meyer,” said Harris, now a Columbus businessman. “That’s why he’s the ideal person to be coaching at Ohio State.”
Meyer, who went on to post an undefeated season at Utah and then win two national titles at Florida, had a half dozen or so players leave the program after he arrived in Columbus, some for minor scrapes with the law and others for not making the commitment he demands.
“If you’re a non-competitor in the classroom or on the practice field, then you’re just a non-competitor, which is fine,” Meyer said. “There’s plenty of non-competitors. They can’t play for us, though.”
The majority of the Buckeyes bought into Meyer’s brand of frenetic football, and it has paid big dividends on the field. This season Ohio State has won twice in overtime, and scored one-point and three-point Big Ten road wins.
“Everything is different than what we did under coach Tressel, from day one,” defensive back Bradley Roby said. “Our practices have been much more intense, and competition is stressed in everything we do. Coach Meyer emphasizes a sense of urgency.”
The 48-year-old Meyer, who says he’s addressed the health issues that had led to him leaving Florida, made it clear from his opening address in Columbus that he wants players who “refuse to lose”, but that is hardly a new directive. His first Bowling Green team did not lose until its fourth game, a bitter 37-31 defeat at then national power Marshall. With his players sobbing in the locker room after the game, Meyer was asked how troubling that scene was for a first-year coach to take.
“That’s a good thing,” he said, because if losing hurts so badly, his players would pour themselves into competing, so as to prevent that feeling from returning. His Ohio State team got the same message.
“Whenever you’re around Coach Meyer, you tend to sit up straight and pay very close attention to everything he says,” said All-American defensive lineman John Simon. “He commands your respect in a way I’ve never seen before.”
“He cares about his players, and they pick up on that,” said former Ohio State head coach Earle Bruce, who hired the 22-year-old Meyer as a Buckeyes graduate assistant in 1986. “Kids want to play hard for a guy with that kind of passion for the job.”
Meyer and the current Buckeyes are serving the penance for the sins of Tressel and several players who are no longer in the program, so a post-season ban will keep the 2012 Buckeyes out of the Big Ten Championship Game, despite the fact that their recent 21-14 overtime win at Wisconsin gave them the outright Leaders Division crown. .
Boren and the rest of the Ohio State seniors will end their careers with the Michigan game, and a chance to post an oddly perfect 12-0 season. Boren said the pain of missing out on the Big Ten title game and a possible shot at a national championship is softened by what he sees ahead for the Buckeyes.
“Nobody’s dwelling on the past, but coach Meyer has picked us up and brought Ohio State back,” Boren said. “Everything he’s done is going to pay off big-time in the long run.”