The Buckeyes will be back in national title contention with Urban Meyer at the helm.
The note was abrupt: “Urban, make sure the garage door is shut.” It wasn’t signed, because there was no mistaking who wrote it.
Soon after Urban Meyer was hired as Ohio State’s new football coach, he moved in with his mentor, Earle Bruce, his former boss when Meyer was a wide-eyed graduate assistant at OSU in 1986 and ’87.
Bruce had lost his wife of 56 years, Jean, to cancer in December just a couple weeks after Meyer had been named head coach at Ohio State. Meyer needed time to redirect his family and belongings from Florida to central Ohio and lived with Bruce for about a month while sifting through potential new homes and pouring himself into his new job.
But this is no “Odd Couple” sequel. Bruce never scolded his guest for placing dirty socks on the couch or leaving the trash bin full. He just wanted to make sure Meyer remembered to hit the garage door remote on the way to his new daily grind. Hence the note.
“We laughed about it,” the 80-year-old Bruce says, “because he says ‘Geez, that’s just like my wife. She does that (stuff) to me, too.’”
Meyer doesn’t go around seeking a whole lot of instruction from others. He’s proved in short order that he’s comfortable in his own skin by putting forth his personal directives, which center on toughness, competitive fire, accountability and achievement.
But make no mistake — they are traits he learned to value under coaches such as Bruce and Lou Holtz, and that served him well when he began to cut his teeth as a head coach at Bowling Green (2001-02). From there, he landed at Utah (2003-04), where he compiled a 22–2 record and won national acclaim.
In the six years that followed at Florida, Meyer established himself as one of the premier coaches in the country, racking up a mark of 65–15 and winning three SEC East titles, two conference championships and BCS national championships following the 2006 and ’08 seasons.
Buckeye fans remember the first one all too well, as Meyer, an Ohio native, led the Gators to a 41–14 bludgeoning of No. 1 OSU in Glendale, Ariz.
Meyer took a very brief leave of absence following the 2009 season — which coincided with the end of the Tim Tebow era — then returned and led UF to an 8–5 mark and Outback Bowl win. But he walked away from the game again after that season and took a job as an analyst for ESPN to occupy his newfound free time.
While in the booth, Meyer saw his name linked to potential openings at Penn State and Ohio State while scandal and the ouster of elite coaches Joe Paterno and Jim Tressel tormented the respective programs. By the time OSU faced Michigan in Ann Arbor, the cat was out of the bag — Luke Fickell would be removed from his temporary post as head coach, and Meyer would be pulled in with a lavish contract.
Ohio State offered a six-year, $24 million-plus deal, and the 47-year-old Meyer accepted. Thus began a new and suddenly promising era of Buckeye football — despite the program’s lingering NCAA sanctions.
Still, questions, and some baggage, came with the acquisition.
Would Meyer be able to recruit at a high level with a Buckeyes program reeling from a 6–7 season and staring at scholarship reductions and a 2012 postseason ban? Would he burn out again or encounter more health concerns like the ones that shelved him in Gainesville? Is his Bruce Wayne persona and SEC-like approach really the right fit for a Midwestern program still licking its wounds from its most embarrassing setback?
The answer to the first query is a resounding yes. Even with a late start and amid a sea of negative recruiting, Meyer pulled in a head-spinning number of 4- and 5-star prospects, including defensive linemen Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Se’Von Pittman as well as offensive linemen Kyle Dodson and Taylor Decker.
Fickell and Mike Vrabel were retained on the OSU staff and helped nail down several of those players. Meyer moved Stan Drayton from receivers coach to tutor the running backs and hired six new full-timers, including former Notre Dame assistants Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton, who were instrumental in easing Decker’s mind as he flipped his commitment from ND to Ohio State.
In fact, eight members of the 25-player signing class originally had committed to other programs. That caused an uproar around the Big Ten.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema aired his concerns about Dodson’s late change of heart from UW to Ohio State by complaining publicly about the move and privately to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi also were miffed about OSU going after Pittman, a longtime Spartan commit, citing the gentleman’s agreement the program had enjoyed with Tressel in past years.
But Meyer never blinked and vowed to recruit even harder going forward.
He already has an impressive head start on his 2013 recruiting class, signaling that better times appear to be just around the corner for Buckeye fans.
But to make sure his players had no acceptance of failure, he lured strength coach Mickey Marotti from Florida and launched a demanding offseason program reminiscent of the days of Earle and Woody Hayes.
The result of every drill, every practice, every academic pursuit is measured against a standard and given a winner/loser tag.
“The structure of this program is to compete, and they don’t have a choice,” Drayton says. “If they don’t want to compete this is not the program for them.”
Says Meyer: “I want to see that distaste in somebody’s face when they lose. If they don’t share that same distaste that a lot of our coaches have, I don’t really want to see them play.”
While Meyer oozes intensity, regularly calls for 6 a.m. team meetings, likes to throw Buckeyes into one-on-one smack drills and has no hesitation in calling out players’ deficiencies — something Tressel avoided with senatorial skill — he also has begun to display a lighter side.
He cracked several jokes at the team’s Spring Kick-Off luncheon and also invited students to witness a weekend practice. In fact, he had them circle tightly around the players on some kicking drills and vowed to have one of them try some placements in front of the team next year.
“Sometimes we forget what this is all about,” Meyer says. “It’s about student-athletes and the student body and making the collegiate experience a positive thing. What does every student want? Ownership and access. So we’re going to give it to them. It’s their stadium. It’s their football team.”
Drayton, who also worked under Meyer at Bowling Green and Florida, has noticed the change. “He’s the same Urban Meyer as far as X’s and O’s and as far as intensity on the football field, but he’s in a better place right now, I think, spiritually,” he says. “He’s not letting a whole lot of things get to him as much, but it’s not like he’s taking the foot off the gas pedal at all.
“The intensity is still there and the command is still there, but now that he’s delegated some of those responsibilities and is trusting his supporting staff that much more, it’s just going to be better for him.”
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