Complete teams are solid in every area – offense, defense and special teams. Championship-level teams have an added dimension: intangibles. Ohio State had the total package in 2012. A high-scoring, fast-paced offense, a defense that was among the nation’s best in November, special teams that came up big in crucial moments and leadership that will be discussed for years to come.
It’s that final characteristic that Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has pointed to when discussing his 2013 team. Sure, there are concerns about depth at various positions and whether each unit can live up to the hype. But targeting the strong personalities in the locker room is the priority at the moment. According to Meyer, leadership is 80 percent of the equation in determining your final record.
The four captains from last season who have moved on – John Simon, Zach Boren, Etienne Sabino and Garrett Goebel – made sure the Buckeyes never needed a catchy slogan, t-shirts or some other form of motivation. Bowl ban or not, it was all hands on deck. One game at a time with 12 wins as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Leadership can be shoved aside, thought not to be important in determining wins and losses. However, when adversity hits, it’s leaders that rise above the fray and steer the team back in the right direction. Guidance and an unwavering command not from coaches but fellow players acts as a propeller, sending an average team up the rankings.
Average is exactly how Meyer described Ohio State at times last season. By late November, though, they were 12-0 and Leaders Division champions.
“I spent all summer worrying about how to approach (motivation) if there were questions like, ‘Why no bowl game, why no championship?’ ” Meyer said. “If you have a good group of leaders, that never comes up. You’re going to go try to play the game and try to win the game. So I’m hoping we’re taking the same approach this season.”
This will be Meyer’s 27th season as a college coach and 12th as head coach. Needless to say, he’s seen it all. Entering each season, though, the same worry consumes him.
“(Leadership) is going to be the difference,” Meyer said. “The older I get and the better teams I’ve been around over this last decade of football, there’s one constant. It wasn’t the style of offense, it wasn’t the style of defense, it wasn’t the height, weight, size, how high you jump, how fast you run. It’s the leadership within the program. Because every team will get punched right in the mouth. Every team. Something’s going to happen. The leaders are the ones who control that.”
All three of Ohio State’s representatives in Chicago – Braxton Miller, Jack Mewhort and Christian Bryant – are on the short list to be captains. Corey Linsley, Andrew Norwell, Bradley Roby and Ryan Shazier are other names mentioned.
The summer is when players take the biggest strides, whether it’s on the field or off the field. Cohesion forms with quarterbacks and receivers, while veterans offer advice and direction for underclassmen.
For years, Meyer has done his own speaking on the subject of leadership. His top example is Michael Jordan. Playing with more urgency in practice, a Jordan staple, has developed into a Meyer philosophy.
“Michael Jordan is I think the greatest (leader) of all time,” Meyer said. “Michael Jordan’s focus I would argue was the greatest of all-time. There was very little that could ever disrupt his train of thought. We just had something disrupt our team’s train of thought. We just turned right, and you can’t turn right. Now how do you get it back straight? I think that is so overlooked in the big picture.”
There’s another greatest of all-time currently playing, someone Meyer offered a scholarship to while he was an assistant at Notre Dame. LeBron James opted for the NBA instead, but Meyer has been able to observe his actions from afar and implement them with his players.
event + response = outcome
“He’s one of the most driven human beings I’ve ever seen,” Meyer said. “He won’t allow his team to (lose focus). I love using those examples we have and I love showing them, because our guys look up to them and there are other great players that don’t have it. It doesn’t mean they aren’t good people, but they don’t have that focus.
“During the Finals it was LeBron this and LeBron that. What are they talking about? Give me all kinds of LeBrons. Do you see the way he articulates, the way he treats people, the way he focuses? Those leadership meetings, those videos, his face is plastered all over. First, our guys admire him and the head coach really admires him and he’s a great role model. To me, he and Jordan are the two that just separate.”
For Ohio State, the leadership aspect was hammered home this summer with weekly classes conducted by Tim Kight, a team-building expert in the business world.
The players have been receptive to the lessons, with attendance growing every week. Bryant said the presentations have heightened his awareness to aiding teammates and taking the next step in his career arc.
“The leadership role I’m taking on, it’s a great deal,” he said. “I’m taking full advantage of it. Being a captain would mean the world to me.”
The offensive line and defensive backfield are the most veteran-laden units on the team, giving them added responsibility on their side of the ball. And it’s the quartet on the O-line – Mewhort, Linsley, Norwell and Marcus Hall – that has Meyer’s attention.
“Our offensive line is, without question, the heart and soul of the team,” he said. “They’re the voice, they’re the face of our program, which if you’re going to start somewhere, it’s got to be a quarterback on your offensive line. Where it has to improve is on defense, where you lost Simon and Boren.”
The Buckeyes already have “The Chase” as a keyword for the 2013 season. Now they can add E+R=O, or event+response=outcome. The buzzwords have been drawn up on scarlet and gray bracelets and dispersed to the team. How one responds can affect the outcomes of the season.
Leaders come in all shapes, sizes and ages, but they are most often seniors. Ohio State’s Class of 2013 has played for three head coaches, endured a lengthy scandal, stumbled through a 6-7 season and then came out the other side undefeated. It’s positioned them to shove aside adverse situations and be well-equipped to succeed in moments of tension.
Past experiences have also helped Meyer stand tall in difficult moments. But the recent speeches by Kight have been an eye-opener.
“It has been one of the most profound experiences I’ve been around as far as teaching these guys a systematic approach to teaching leadership, which we’ve always tried to teach,” Meyer said. “I’m 49 years old, and I’ve learned more from those leadership classes than the players.”