Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Time To Pull The Lever For Urban
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
Now that the elections are complete, signs are being pulled from the yard and just about all of the results are official – I’m looking at you, Florida – the assumption is that all the campaigning is over.
Well, not if you reside in my e-mail inbox it isn’t.
We are winding to the final stretch of the college football regular season, and since I’m a Heisman voter and a member of the Football Writers Association of America, it’s time to start sorting through long lists of candidates for everything from All-America teams to the Lott Impact Trophy to the Poppin’ Fresh Nickelback of the Year Award.
OK, I made that last one up, but trust me, there are a lot of votes yet to cast.
Possibly most noteworthy this year will be all the Coach of the Year designations. By the way, there are tons of them. Liberty Mutual awards one. So does Home Depot, the FWAA, The Associated Press and many other entities.
And there are just as many prominent candidates. Chip Kelly is going to get some love. Brian Kelly (no relation) probably will win a couple. Bill Snyder leading the resurgence at Kansas State certainly is noteworthy. Someone will even take up for Nick Saban, noting how many top-shelf players he lost to the NFL and yet Alabama remains a dominant force.
Mike Riley of Oregon State, Will Muschamp of Florida and Charlie Strong of Louisville also merit being in the discussion.
But the two most deserving candidates, it would appear, reside in the Big Ten.
What Bill O’Brien has done to hold off the eventual avalanche at Penn State is admirable at least and borderline amazing. That program had every excuse to crumble in 2012 and instead O’Brien has the Nittany Lions playing solid football and believing in his stern and organized approach.
Still, Urban Meyer is the horse out front right now.
Let me write this plainly so it loses no significance: I have been covering the program since the beginning of the John Cooper era and this is the best job I’ve ever seen by an Ohio State head football coach.
Adding up everything – coaching hires, offseason preparations, motivational tactics, messaging through the media, game management and uplift – I can’t think of a season that compares in all facets.
Yes, there have been some outstanding seasons by coaches around here in the last couple decades or so, and yet you’d have to go back to Earle Bruce’s debut season of 1979 – if you didn’t stop at 2002 – to find something that even compares.
And, yes, the Big Ten is weak this season, I realize. It’s simply not as difficult as it used to be to pick off one league combatant after another. Still, it’s major conference football, and we’ve seen how easy it is to stumble in the midst of it or, say, find yourself in a dogfight against a team like Purdue.
Also, it’s not exactly shocking that Meyer, who was refreshed from a year away from the profession and had two national championships on his resume, arrived determined and organized and has since proven himself capable of the task.
But let’s not forget what he inherited.
The Buckeyes were 6-7 last year. I know that barely registers because you have already washed away the pain of 2011 and dismissed it as an aberration and a steep price to pay for the selfishness of few who brought on a prolonged and costly NCAA probe.
Even so, to the players it’s real. Seven losses were the most Ohio State had suffered in a century. It would have been very easy for an acceptance of mediocrity to creep in, or at least lingering doubts regarding OSU’s ability to jump right back in with the elites.
The players lost their mojo and their belief in overcoming on-field adversity. They lost close game after close game. Then they lost their coach – again.
But Meyer the maestro arrived and changed the culture. He orchestrated one of many early brilliant moves by reaching out to Luke Fickell and asking him to stay on board as his defensive coordinator.
He hired Mickey Marotti, his trusted strength and conditioning coach, and immediately made sure the players would be whipped into shape and prepared for a grueling spring and summer ahead. He landed Tom Herman, a young and ambitious offensive coordinator who is one of the bright young stars in coaching.
He nabbed Everett Withers, like Fickell a veteran coach who served on an interim head level last year, and made him co-defensive coordinator. He hired former assistant Zach Smith to charge up the wide receivers and shifted Stan Drayton, who also worked under him in the past, to the more comfortable job of running backs coach. He also saw great value in keeping former Buckeye and NFL standout Mike Vrabel on staff and assigned him to direct the defensive line.
And Meyer kept building his dream team. He hired the high-energy cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs away from his alma mater of Cincinnati. He dipped his hand into South Bend, another area with which he was familiar, and grabbed offensive line coach Ed Warinner and fullbacks/tight ends coach Tim Hinton, both of whom had Ohio ties.
Ohio State has had some coaching dream teams in the past. Check out the list of coaches from seasons like 1968 and 1982, for example. This group has a chance to be mentioned with some of the best ever on campus.
Meyer kept going. He identified team leaders, entrusted his faith to them and prodded them to help him seek out the best possible results from those who hadn’t quite found the “on” switch just yet.
He allowed players who wanted to leave to do so, but challenged many who weren’t even sure what they thought of the transition. Rod Smith was one. Meyer had transfer papers sitting on his desk for him. But he sensed Smith was more confused than hurt and led him back to the light of opportunity.
He had similar sitdowns with Carlos Hyde, Corey Linsley, Kenny Guiton, Jordan Hall and Jake Stoneburner.
And like early election results, the numbers started to pour in, and the Buckeyes – despite several close shaves and obvious flaws – kept coming out on the left side of the scoring column.
Meyer already was dealing with a postseason ban and clipped scholarships because of NCAA sanctions, but he kept finding carrots to dangle and ways to patch holes in the two-deep, even when injuries mounted.
Zach Boren was so committed to the Meyer way that when the head coach asked him to consider moving over to linebacker, Boren agreed to make the shift in mid-practice. The four-year fullback has racked up 29 tackles in four games at his new position, more production that even an eternal optimist would have predicted.
Quarterback Braxton Miller grew exponentially in the Meyer/Herman system and his backup, Kenny Guiton, also bought in and is playing the best football of his life.
The offensive line banded together. Carlos Hyde shook off petty jealousies and decided to let his play do the talking. Jake Stoneburner overcame an off-field incident and indifference. The wide receivers and young tight ends suddenly developed.
John Simon and Bradley Roby played with injuries – and played like All-Americans. Nate Williams and Michael Bennett overcame nagging lower-body issues of their own and are part of the defensive resurgence of the last month.
Storm Klein was booted off the team after allegations of domestic violence but was welcomed back when those charges were reduced and the senior agreed to return to a zero-tolerance arrangement. There have been no problems with Klein since and he has found his way back onto the field.
Meyer beamed when talking about his five co-captains prior to the season. Two of them – tailback Jordan Hall and linebacker Etienne Sabino – have missed all or part of the Big Ten season, Garrett Goebel’s role has been reduced, Boren is on the other side of the ball and Simon has been slowed at times by aching shoulders and double-teams.
Still, the Buckeyes are the only 10-0 team in the nation, 6-0 in the Big Ten, and tied for fifth in the current Associated Press poll.
Miller is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. The offense, which was every bit of dreadful last season and lost several players to the NFL, now ranks ninth in the nation in rushing with 256.1 yards per game and is 12th in scoring at 39.9 ppg. In fact, OSU has scored more than 50 points four times this season, which is a new school high-water mark.
The defense, meanwhile, has improved dramatically since Meyer starting sticking his nose into meetings and films sessions and appears to be boning up just in time for the final two games against Wisconsin and Michigan. After allowing an embarrassing 49 points in a narrow win at Indiana in mid-October, the Buckeyes managed to make the proper midseason adjustments and tightened considerably in successive wins over Purdue, Penn State and Illinois.
“That game, we played pretty good as a defense in the first half but we missed a lot of opportunities,” safety C.J. Barnett said of the Bloomington near-nightmare. “I know I dropped three picks my own self, then we let them come back at the end of the game.
“After that game, Coach challenged us. That’s the first time Coach Meyer came in and watched the film with the whole defense. He put the pressure on us and the coaches put the pressure on us and some players got up and put the pressure on everybody. We called people out and I think we’ve done a good job of answering that call.”
Ding-ding-ding. The response brought OSU to its current lofty place and has fans and even pundits now talking about the real possibility of Ohio State as the only team to emerge from the regular season unscathed.
That’s enough to make one lightheaded considering Meyer called the offense a “clown show” during the spring session and the defense looked like it should have floppy orange hair and red noses attached to its helmets just a month ago.
And here’s the kicker: The players believed in this fairytale all along.
“I’m not surprised at all,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said when asked about OSU’s 10-0 record. “I felt last year the team was just as good but we didn’t do the things that we’re doing this year because we weren’t playing as good. Last year we had a great leader, but now we have Coach Meyer and we have Coach Fickell with the defense and Coach Meyer doesn’t have to worry about the defense much at all.”
And that leads to a broader point. Meyer didn’t get the Buckeyes here with a mask and duct tape. Instead, he stayed true to his makeup, bettered himself, and found the right avenues to inject his competitive fire, toughness and unquenchable thirst for accountability into his coaches and players.
They are traits he learned to value under coaches such as Earle 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 for his work.
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 college football seasons.
Meyer took a very brief leave of absence following the 2009 season – which coincided with the end of the Tim Tebow era – but returned that fall to lead UF to an 8-5 mark and Outback Bowl win. But he walked away from the game again, this time for nearly a year, and took a job as an on-air analyst for ESPN to occupy his newfound 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 each program. But OSU won out and inked Meyer to a six-year, $24 million-plus deal.
He immediately caused an uproar across the Big Ten by landing a highly rated 25-man recruiting class that included eight prospects who originally had opted for other programs. And there were other signs that there was a new sheriff in town with an SEC bravado.
But while Meyer oozes intensity, likes to throw players 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 displays a dry sense of humor during interviews and has no problem throwing around flowery phrases when talking about his players. “I love that guy,” is now part of the vernacular when discussing Ohio State football.
Meyer, who has a pair of college-aged daughters as well as a younger son, also has a soft spot for students. In fact, he invited OSU students to a spring practice and ordered them to circle tightly around the players on some kicking drills. He even 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 said. “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.”
Even back then, Bruce and former coach John Cooper admitted being very impressed with Meyer’s work and grasp of the program.
“I think people are going to be really excited to watch the style of play, to watch the spread offense, the no-huddle,” Cooper told me in April. “I think it’ll be exciting and people are going to get behind it. They’re already behind it. I think we’re going to be OK. I don’t think we’re going to have a great team but we’re going to be real solid and we’ll win a lot of games on our schedule. It’s going to take a pretty good team to beat us. We’re going to be well-coached and it’s going to be a fun year.”
Bruce, who had Meyer live with him in the summer while Urban and his wife, Shelley, searched for a house in central Ohio, agreed with Cooper.
“I think he’s a fabulous coach,” Bruce said. “I think the guy who was here before him did a great job, too. But Urban is something special. He’s the only coach I know in the history of my life in coaching that two schools fired their head coach so they could hire him.”
Bruce frequently attends practice and still offers his advice to Meyer, who welcomes the input. In fact, Meyer has sought out other top surrogates such as Cooper, who likes to point out opposing players drawing attention at the professional level.
Cooper was deer hunting the day the university came to terms with Meyer and he received a morning call on his cell phone.
“He called me and said he was reaching out to me and wanted me to come over when I could,” Cooper says. “So I came over some and sat in on some meetings, watched practice, shared ideas.
“I’m impressed with everything I’ve seen of him so far. He hit the ground running, he did a great job with getting organized right away and recruiting hard. And that’s the main thing: You’ve got to recruit. The team that’s got the best players usually wins the game. And I think recruiting starts here in Columbus and in state but I think you’ve got to go nationwide like we did with guys like Will Smith (New York), David Boston (Texas), Michael Wiley and Na’il Diggs (California).”
Even Meyer’s abrupt approach and demanding players take part in pre-dawn meetings seemed to be wearing well on the players.
“I think that’s better for us, because we know what we need to work on, what we need to do,” linebacker Curtis Grant said in the summer. “It’s not like he’s sugarcoating it. It’s like when your parents tell you to do something, you get it done. It’s no different.”
“He pushes the guys to their limits but he knows he’s going to get the best out of them,” former Buckeye Will Allen said prior to the season. “So I think all the alumni and everybody is excited for Urban Meyer.”
While the Buckeyes have looked a bit weary at times this season, their effort rarely has come into question. And Meyer deserves credit for pushing his team as far as possible without overtightening the screw.
That is the result of Meyer’s famed pink list of promises to his family but also his newfound ability to stay upbeat in his work and even harp on the positives after a sloppy performance.
“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,” said Drayton, who also worked under Meyer at Bowling Green and Florida. “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. He’s learned how to manage it that much better and he’s really great to be around.
“This is an intense business we’re in, and some people handle it differently. And right now he’s handling it differently, and I think it’s going to be good for him and his family. I really do. I like the place that he’s in right now.”
Drayton also sees a boss who is better at leaving certain tasks to his assistants.
“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,” he said.
Meyer is far from perfect, and neither is the play of the Buckeyes. But Ohio State’s record is spotless – and so far so is the marriage between the program and it’s new head coach.
*This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.