As far as sports analogies go, being equated to Mariano Rivera doesn’t get much better. When the appraisal deals with closing, the picture becomes brighter and more elegant. Think Michelangelo and da Vinci during the Renaissance. That’s Urban Meyer and his ability to lure the nation’s top recruits to Ohio State.
While Meyer and his staffs – Florida and Ohio Sate – have developed a reputation as being one of the game’s top set of late-inning relievers, it’s not the end of the process where attention should be focused. Instead, the shine should stretch back two years prior to when the Buckeyes lay the foundation, constructing the first Lincoln Log on a relationship that develops into a 30,000 square-foot mansion.
“I usually walk in because I’m kind of the closer,” Meyer said. “[Assistants] set the groundwork, and I know where we’re headed when I walk in that home. The number one thing, without question, is relationships being built.”
Woody Hayes brought forth numerous phrases that are still recited as frequently as scripture in Central Ohio. One is “You win with people.” It can be used in all walks of life, but in particular ventures that involve teamwork. Meyer’s implemented it heavily in recruiting, stressing the importance of establishing relationships.
“It’s a very honest, open approach,” he said. “They come in and see everything we’ve got. This is the way we do our business. It's not for everybody, and if you want to be a part of, it we’d love to have you.”
The journey to secure linebacker Raekwon McMillan began with a simple social media message from director of player personnel Mark Pantoni. The recruiting maestro zeroed in on McMillan early in the process and tabbed him as a possible impact player. When McMillan became a five-star recruit, the instinct proved valuable.
For two years, Pantoni and McMillan exchanged text messages, tweets and Facebook interactions. In December, McMillan, a Georgia native, spurned Alabama and Clemson for Ohio State.
“That was a guy I targeted and told myself I wanted to get, and we had to get,” Pantoni said.
Naturally, out-of-state prospects are more difficult to sign. If you grow up in the shadow of Ohio Stadium, you’re indoctrinated into all things Buckeye at birth. Listening to music on your iPod means hearing the sounds of The Ohio State University Marching Band. When the family buys a golden retriever, picking a name is a non-issue – he’s known as Brutus.
But fight songs and traditions are foreign to Virginians and Floridians. For recruits lacking a direct connection to Ohio State, relationships take on a greater significance. Enter Zach Smith, the Big Ten’s 2014 recruiter of the year. He scoured Florida and much of the East Coast in search of talent.
For Smith, landing defensive end Jalyn Holmes and wide receiver Johnnie Dixon was akin to acing a college midterm.
“To go to Norfolk and get a kid to come to Columbus, Ohio, and beat all of those schools in recruiting, or to go to South Florida and take a receiver out of other people’s back yards, they have to know that someone’s going to take care of them when they get here,” Smith said. “It’s more than just a coach-player relationship.”
Said Pantoni: “Building relationships is the most important thing in this whole process. With some of these kids, it’s an every day deal of reaching out and selling Ohio State, selling yourself and building that relationship.”
The Buckeyes’ coaching staff convinced 14 players in its third-ranked Class of 2014 that Ohio State was the right place for them during the good and bad times. Honesty and genuinely caring about recruits’ well being is a large step in growing connections. Smith and Co. pride themselves on not spewing “B.S.”
That includes letting a potential future Buckeye know he just played poorly. Smith did exactly that with Dixon. If recruits can’t handle the truth, Ohio State probably isn’t the rightful destination anyway, Smith says. Players who take the criticism as advice generally fare better inside uber-competitive locker rooms.
“We became best friends just over the process,” Dixon said of Smith. “We talked like every day. He’s a great guy. He's still young and we have a great connection. I can joke with him whenever. We connect on a lot of areas as a player and a coach. It's just a great relationship, like a friend.”
If rules permitted, Meyer wouldn’t be sending stuffed animals and balloons to recruits. He’s about trust and the truth.
“[Meyer] is really a great recruiter. He crosses all the Ts,” defensive line coach Larry Johnson said. “My first in-home with him was awesome, really awesome. You watch a guy go to work and he’s got it all going on. He covers all his bases, know the family, know the kids, and that’s pretty awesome what he does.
“He gets that involved. You call it aggressive, but I think that’s his style.”