On a cold, dark morning three Januarys ago, Urban Meyer officially assumed the role of head football coach at Ohio State University. He was charged with guiding the Buckeyes, a proud team that had fallen on unprecedented hard times, back to a place among college football’s elite.
And with one of the nation’s most lucrative athletic departments, a deeply passionate fan base, and the means to attract the nation’s finest recruits, it seemed like it would only be a matter of time before Meyer tasted success in Columbus. He did. But there were growing pains. There still are.
Meyer’s first year, 2012, was about blowing up bad habits and stabilizing a program rocked by an improper benefits scandal and consequent NCAA sanctions a year earlier. It was about reshaping a sloppy offensive line, about turning the talented, but raw, Braxton Miller into a quarterback and about creating an identity with a group of someone else’s players. It was about establishing a new culture at Ohio State.
Meyer’s second year came draped in Big Ten and national championship hopes. Ohio State rolled during the regular season again, but collapsed against Michigan State and Clemson in the only two games that actually mattered. Internal dissent led Meyer to believe that something woven deep inside the team’s fabric was off. “I want to make sure there's clarity of purpose at Ohio State," he said in March. “I want to make sure the culture is clear.” But it was also just as much about getting his players re-buy into a blueprint for success that crumbled apart last season.
It’s why Meyer’s third year as Ohio State’s head coach is an intriguing intersection of what happens when lofty expectations meet the first team truly built in his own image. The first two years were about building infrastructure for the future. Success came, but it didn’t necessarily have to. It wasn't necessarily supposed to. It might’ve been premature.
In Year Three, Meyer and Co. apparently have the pieces in place to legitimately challenge for championships — or at least the Buckeyes hope they do despite questions about Miller's health and inexperience at various position groups. To get to that point, though, Meyer had to lay a foundation of tenets in his first two years. Now he's tasked with building key relationships with the players who bring such standards to life.
“I think when he first got here, he had to like establish his foundation for his effort thing, that 4-6 effort thing. I think just as the years have gone on so like two years ago to now, I think everybody kind of understands that, so he doesn’t have to stress it because it’s kind of demanded, it’s a given,” redshirt sophomore safety Tyvis Powell said at the team’s Media Day Sunday.
Because for a while, Meyer had to be grumpy, mean-spirited, no-nonsense coach with the intent of making sure his players knew what was expected of them. The culture had to be firmly set to yield results. After all, rebuilding a program — even one like Ohio State — is hard work nor does it happen overnight. Meyer’s iron first, though, seemed to backfire a little bit.
“When he came in, he wanted to clean out Ohio State. He thought we weren’t very good guys and wanted to get rid of all the refuse. Now he has kind of slowed down on that warpath thing. He’s starting to get to know the guys a lot better,” senior defensive lineman Michael Bennet said at Big Ten Media Days, according to a Columbus Dispatch story exploring the difference between Meyer now and then.
“I remember that last year, he didn’t want anybody to ask the question, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Just do it. It wastes time to ask why.’ This year, he’s like, ‘We’re going to teach you the why so you are more open to it and you accept it.’”
Because players don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. They want to know things like why. A coach who gives them a reason is a coach who cares about them. Year Three will showcase and test Meyer’s ability to foster better, deeper relationships with his players who he spends so much time with.
“I think he can take his focus and switch it to basically taking care of us and doing things to get us ready for the game and stuff like that. I would say this year, he’s taken better care of us — our bodies — than he ever did,” Powell said.
A team like that’ll run through a brick wall for its head coach. A team like that is dangerous.
It’s obvious too. Athletic trainers are found constantly running around with water bottles during practice. Players say they’re stretching during downtime in team meetings and there’s a greater emphasis on recovery in respect to sleep habits and other nutritional frontiers.
Meyer’s also taking care of the team in ways that have nothing to do with football. As part of an effort to build chemistry and camaraderie, he sent it to Columbus water park Zoombezi Bay and hosted a cookout at his house afterwards in mid July. Individual units are spending their free time by going to big group dinners, reading the same books, or playing dodgeball and paintball on the weekends. It's about creating a sense of cohesion and family. The players have to trust Meyer has their best interest in mind.
A team like that’ll run through a brick wall for its head coach. A team like that is dangerous. And most of all, that kind of team might be able to do things last year’s couldn’t.