Urban Meyer Wanted More Ideological Alignment; He Got it With Chris Ash and Larry Johnson

By Patrick Maks on August 12, 2014 at 8:15a
Eleven Warriors' 2014 Ohio State Football Season Preview

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.


Comments Show All Comments

Tater_Schroeder's picture

Here's to transforming our miserable pass-defense to a pass-defense miserable to play against.


+5 HS
IGotAWoody's picture
Here's some pain for ya!!

“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” ~Carl Rogers

+3 HS
apack614's picture

I'm excited to see the results I miss the old silver bullets

I can't wait to poop in the PL bathroom.

+6 HS
VarsityClubMD's picture

"Our ships must all sail in the same direction."

Dot this

+4 HS
saluki2007's picture

Changes were made, Meyer said, to a revamp up a defense that had grown stale and feeble. 

That might be the most polite way I have ever someone say they were awful. 

+2 HS
Barnsey69's picture

We find out in 18 days...


Thank the Maker that I was born in Ohio, cradle of coaches, US Presidents, confederate-stomping Generals, and home of The Ohio State University Football Buckeyes- 2014 UNDISPUTED National Champions!

FROMTHE18's picture

Great hires, The quality of Johnson's product has been known for a very long time. I am interested to see what Chris Ash is all about and how he develops the very talented, but raw, secondary we have. I like what I'm hearing, I just hope I like what Im seeing here in a few weeks. 

BeatTTUN's picture

Talented Coaches on the same page with a solid scheme + Talented players on the same page with a solid scheme = nighty night to opponents.

the last 3 seasons watching the defense has been similar to being lactose intolerant and drinking a gallon of whole milk, then waiting for the inevitable to happen.

Go Buckeyes Beat Michigan

+2 HS
DC-town's picture

As said in the previous post...don't freak out when a 7 yard slant is completed against our press-man coverage.

Urban didn't 'discover defense' in the offseason, so when the defense gives up a touchdown....breath- it's going...to be...okay

'Piss excellence' -RB

+1 HS
Frimmel's picture

It wasn't the scores so much as the giving up the scores because they weren't any where close to where they needed to be. There's getting beat and not being in the game and many times the secondary was just not in the game.

+1 HS
MN Buckeye's picture

Patrick, I thought about starting a forum post about this, but I will just lay this out here:

I think you have been killing it in the short time you have been with 11W. You have great content and an easy-to-read style, and I look forward to your articles. Great job!

+12 HS
Patrick Maks's picture

Appreciate that, thank you.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

". . . ideological alignment . . . [is] the essence of any successful organization,” Meyer said last February.

I'm not sure about that - e.g., the great Warren G. Harding staffed his cabinet with a diverse range of viewpoints - but I'm looking forward to seeing this principal at play out with the football Buckeyes this season. I remember, during the 2006 season, being impressed that JT's offense was so varied. They could effectively switch from I-formation power, to single-back and 3/4 WR and 1/2 TE, to "spread" looks, etc. The way to stop that offense, which huddled after most plays - besides beating the OL in the trenches a la Florida that year - was to be just as varied defensively.

Since then, with the popularization of spread no huddle attacks, defenses that tried to do too much either weren't well-equipped to play hurry up or they got tied in knots (or both) - not to suggest that over-processing was the main, or only, problem with the 2013 Buckeyes defense. Back in the early 00s, Meyer was among an elite group of offensive innovators that studied some of the concepts being used by Hal Mumme and others and then tweaked them in a new direction. At essence, he wanted to find ways to get his playmakers the ball in space, yet still retain a power run game.

Now, I get the impression that Meyer sees the current existential crisis of defenses in this decade as his next big frontier to explore and conquer. On an immediate basis, his staff is looking to correct last year's problems (baby steps); but they're ultimately working toward some new defensive response that will bring some of the current offensive advantages to heel. Aggressiveness through simplicity seems like one of the core concepts, but I'm not much of an Xs and Os guy, so I have no clue how that translates schematically. The "ideological alignment" part is not only about ensuring that the coaches are working together, etc; it likewise reinforces the idea of "less is more" and not getting bogged down in over-processing.

I can't wait to see what Urban, Ash, Fickel et al are cooking up.

+2 HS
My2Sons's picture

You just did to this article what the Buckeyes defense did to their game plans last year.  They became far too complicated.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

I couldn't help myself - I'm interested in knowledge/cognition problems in general. But that's not much fun in a football thread, even if the rise of no huddle offenses has created an epistemic problem of sorts for defenses.

edit: Oh, btw, maybe you can show me an example from your comments where you discuss a topic in an interesting way without over-complicating it. I can use the pointer.

Doc's picture

So,Was it Vrabel's fault? XD

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

Woody16111's picture

I'm thinking Withers ... my sense is Vrabel left for the NFL. Issues last year where pass defense - DB's. The pass rush was pretty good, the DB's were always out of place.

"There is nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you."

Completed the "Double Skully" 18-August-2015

+1 HS
My2Sons's picture

Quit looking to blame someone.

+1 HS
Zimmy07's picture

So,Was it Vrabel's fault? XD


You jest, but I just watched the Texan's first preseason game last Saturday and felt sick.  The Texan's LB's got shredded in the mid-range passing game.  I had hopes of a return to the playoffs after getting a lot of people back from injury & a new system but the horrible defense and incompetent quarterback might mean we'll pick first again next year.

Part of the problem might actually have been Vrabel, to be honest.

+1 HS
theopulas's picture

I had said that Coach Meyer is going to hire the best possible and when these coaches came available maybe others was just given a chance to look at other options but make know mistake, Coach is always looking to upgrade....every year their are James Madison's or some school that will take a coach from a big time successful program


Seattle Linga's picture

Nice article Patrick - so looking forward to seeing the D grow game after game. Looking to pass a few tests on the schedule. 

Woody16111's picture

I have to admit I got it wrong last year on the defensive troubles. I pegged Combs as the main problem but it appears to have been Withers - mostly because he is gone and Combs is still around. I also think if you read between the lines of this article, a few players were the issue as well, most notable is Bradley Roby. When the article hammers home we need a defense that isn't timid, and not afraid to make mistakes and so forth, I at least get the impression that Roby had is mind elsewhere, maybe thinking NFL, and didn't fit that mold.

I'm really geeked up about the staff and players this year, I have a feeling, call it whatever you want, that this defense this year, will be back to Silver Bullet form.

"There is nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you."

Completed the "Double Skully" 18-August-2015

-1 HS
BuckeyeStrong2's picture

“And there's only one speed: it's full speed. And that's the way we've got to play."

I love this.


+1 HS
theopulas's picture

Ash is on the fast track in CFB to HC ranks... Johnson hopefully just doesn't want to be a HC because it doesn't look like the big boys are knocking.....


bucked up's picture

Love ash and his philosophy, but does he only take awful photographs? It s like he's competing with Bo Pelini for the most unphotogenic face award

Johnnycake's picture

Blaming Vrabel for Texans linebackers already; interesting.



Bamabucknut's picture

"the Buckeyes lost their way" (long sigh)

I'll let  the choice of those particular words speak for themselves.

NashBuckeye's picture

This is the key to the season.  The Offense will score points, but the D has to go back to being dominant for us to win the B1G and make the playoff.  BTW, I love being able to say "Make the playoff".  I honestly thought that it might never happen.  

Knarcisi's picture

It's apparent that Withers was an issue, at least in an ideological sense vs Fickell. And Vrabel was likely a defender of Fickell and possibly an antagonist that contributed to the divisiveness. Hard to know what goes on behind closed doors, but not real hard to figure at least this much out. 

Meyer wants alignment, but I said at times that he was as accountable as anyone for the defense. He hand picked Withers, and brought him in. He is responsible for that hire. Not for the chemistry, but the management of it, and the expectations. Just glad that he acted quickly.

And he did so while keeping the best interest of his guys in mind. He knew he had to make a few changes. In doing so, he got these guys promotions of all things. Now that's a good manager.