CHICAGO – Before anyone ever cared where Urban Meyer would coach football, he was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where he walked. It’s where he ran. It’s where he cried. It’s where he bled. It holds a special place in his heart.
After 24 years away from his home state, Meyer opted to return. And he wasn’t just stepping inside the state borders, he was tasked with leading the team of his childhood.
As a boy, Meyer watched Woody Hayes-coached Ohio State intently. The Michigan game was treated as a holiday in Ashtabula, a Rust Belt town tucked into the northeast corner of the state. When it came time for Meyer to pick a number for football, it was a no-brainer: 45.
He had the same mindset in November 2011. Meyer knew when the Ohio State job came open the decision wouldn’t be difficult. He was hit with a wave of emotion and sentimental memories.
“I don’t think I would’ve coached – not that year,” Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days. “There’s just something about knowing [Ohio State] since I was [a young boy].”
Meyer didn’t announce his triumphant return to Ohio with a thoughtfully penned letter like LeBron James would do more than two years later. But the reaction around the state was equally as positive. The cheering extended from Cleveland to Cincinnati, Toledo to Youngstown.
Columbus also rejoiced. James has become an ardent Ohio State supporter, saying multiple times that he would have been a Buckeye if he chose to attend college. Unless, of course, he played football at Notre Dame.
“I recruited him, but they made fun of me because I didn’t know who he was,” Meyer said of James, who starred on the football field as a wide receiver at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary.
The story goes that Meyer, then an assistant at Notre Dame and unaware of James’s basketball prowess, offered him a scholarship. When fellow coaches chided Meyer, he asked why all the razzing took place.
“He’ll be the next Michael Jordan,” they told Meyer.
He didn’t believe them. Now, Meyer’s well aware of the greatness James exudes.
“I offered him a scholarship. He should’ve taken it,” Meyer joked. “He’d be in a much better place right now if he would have played receiver for me at Notre Dame.”
Instead, James opted for the NBA. He’s become one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, winning four MVPs and two Finals. Even though the one-time scrawny wide receiver receive didn’t sign with Notre Dame, it doesn’t mean the two power players don’t enjoy a friendship.
When Ohio State hired Meyer, James took to Twitter to offer his approval. James attended the Wisconsin game last season, even delivering a pre-game speech. Meyer said Tuesday that James has a field pass for games, joking that he texted James and told him to be at all seven home games.
“It’s big. He means a lot in recruiting,” Meyer said. “You can’t measure the positive feeling of him standing on the sideline for an Ohio State game. He truly loves Ohio State.”
Braxton Miller said recruits get so caught up in the LeBron hoopla when he visits that they forgot about the action on the field.
“They’re like, ‘Really, man, LeBron is here?’” Miller said. “They’re so shocked and surprised they forget about us playing the game that night. LeBron was missed in Ohio.
“It’s good [having him around]. He always wants to come to our games, he’s always tweeting about the Buckeyes. It gives us motivation to be great because he’s one of the greatest ever. You want to go out there and dominate the game.”
James has his own locker in the basketball locker room, which serves as another recruiting tool. The biggest boost he can provide is simply hanging around the program. It’s free advertising that includes the most popular player in the all of sports.
Tight end Jeff Heuerman, a Naples native, said his allegiance is tied with LeBron, not the nearby Miami Heat. If James could suit up for the Buckeyes, Heuerman is the person who would find his starting spot in jeopardy. Asked about James’s playing potential, Meyer and Miller lit up and spoke of the endless potential.
“He’d be an incredible H-back/tight end,” Meyer said. “He’s still got four years of eligibility left. If he wants to come train with us, he’s good.”
Said Miller: “He’s a freak. He’s got a skill set certain people don’t have.”
Perhaps James’s most powerful tool is his ability to bring people together and create progress outside of basketball. The evidence is greatest in his hometown of Akron and throughout the rest of Northeast Ohio. By simply playing for the Cavs, James will trigger a chain reaction of economic expansion.
Tickets sold, jersey sales, restaurant business. It all links back to LeBron. He’s been generous with charities and his alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary. In his letter, James mentioned his hope that the region would flip its recent bad luck and return to the glory days when factories made the entire Rust Belt a financial hub.
It was a time when a young Urban Meyer was playing football and baseball on the shores of Lake Erie.
“I read about the economic impact and that the positive feelings are off the charts in Northeast Ohio, and I think that’s great,” Meyer said. “That’s where I’m from. It’ll be interesting to see the economic recovery and spirit in Cleveland the next couple years.
“Every chance I can, I brag about where I grew up. Every Sunday, when we could, we would go to Browns games. I was a big Cavs fan, I went to Indians games. The Indians told me they were going to draft me in the first round in 1982. They didn’t. I was crushed.”
Meyer settled for throwing out the ceremonial first pitch two decades later.
He learned during his formative years that nothing is given in Northeast Ohio. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.
Meyer accepted the challenge. He is home.