The bedrock of any functional football program, an adamant Urban Meyer maintains, is the ideological alignment of its coaching staff.
“That’s the essence of what we do and the essence of any successful organization,” Meyer said last February.
You’ll hear that around the Ohio State football team a lot since having more talent than the other guys across the field just isn’t enough anymore.
“Everybody's got great players,” Meyer said Sunday. And the Buckeyes, of course, have some of the best.
But the difference between good and great team? The difference between a berth in the national championship and a loss in the Orange Bowl?
“It's the alignment of staff and the chemistry on your team.”
Because it’s really hard to get a dozen or so different coaches with different football experiences, views and values on the same page. Egos get in the way. Personality clashes are inevitable. Cohesion is hard. That's life.
So when the third-year head coach needed to replace Everett Withers and Mike Vrabel last winter, he made alignment a top priority when carefully curating a list of possible replacements. He wanted coaches who were going to buy into a system and a culture he’s been tirelessly building for the last two-and-a-half years. Chris Ash, a rising star in the ranks from Wisconsin and Arkansas, and Larry Johnson, an 18-year veteran from Penn State, fit the bill.
“They’re two very selfless people,” he said. “It was made very clear that there’s a certain way we’re gonna do it.”
That way, in short, is Meyer's three-pronged philosophy: "competitive excellence," is the first, that repetitive "point A to point B, 4-6 seconds of relentless effort" saying is the second, and the small-group cohesion "power of the unit" mantra is the third. This is Meyer's blueprint for winning and guiding the Buckeyes back to a place among college football's elite.
It won them 24-straight games before big-time losses to Michigan State and Clemson. The setbacks were devastating, but they were just the symptoms of a deeper problem. Meyer said the Buckeyes lost their way.
"I've gotta make sure that we have a clarity of purpose and culture here at Ohio State," he said last spring. "It's not scared of making a mistake, it's not timid. It's a very aggressive approach to everything we do."
Changes were made, Meyer said, to a revamp up a defense that had grown stale and feeble.
"We won a lot of games, but there were some holes. Holes, very easy to blame players or blame coaches," he said. "Just overall we need to freshen up our defense. That's what's going to get ready to take place over the next few months."
Enter Ash, the hard-charging, no-nonsense guy tasked with curing a miserable pass defense that finished 112th nationally last season. Meyer wants what he called a "what-if" defense to quit being so reactive. Ash does too.
"You play fast. You play with reckless abandon. You’re physical, you throw your body around. You play without hesitation. There's no confusion, you know exactly what you're doing,” Ash said in March. “And there's only one speed: it's full speed. And that's the way we've got to play."
And enter Johnson, the soft-spoken coaching disciple of former Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno who molded seven All-Americans while in State College, Pa., for two decades. He'll command a defensive line in Columbus that's projected to be one of the nation's best.
"The product that we sold at Penn State’s the same product here: great student-athletes, quality players, quality people and that makes it easy in the transition because you’re recruiting the same kind of players," he said in February.
Outside of football, Chris Ash and Larry Johnson don't seem like they have much in common. It's understandable, obviously. There's a 20-plus year age gap between the two. Ash comes across like a drill sergeant and Johnson reminds you of your favorite grandparent.
But together, they offer Meyer's Buckeyes a certain degree of alignment that was apparently missing before. But now?
"I'm very comfortable with where we're at. I would put it in the great category," Meyer said. Fall camp and two-a-days, though, have a funny way of either confirming such a notion or debunking it.
"All this remains to be seen. Next week is going to be tough on the coaches, too, so I'm really watching it closely. But (we have) high-character guys that are talented at their skill, it's very strong right now."
That's because it has to be. Meyer's made it a nonnegotiable prerequisite to coach at Ohio State.