COLUMBUS, Ohio – This week, Urban Meyer’s past, present and future are meeting at the same intersection, one that sits in front of a 105,000 seat stadium that for eight Saturdays this fall will be full of believers.
They believe because Meyer’s track record says he’ll win, both big and immediately. He returns to his home state, the (latest) favorite son in charge of Ohio’s favorite football program. He’s the head coach at Ohio State, the right man to most quickly erase the missteps of the last 20 months and make the seasons that follow among the most memorable and successful in the program’s rich history.
That’s Meyer’s future. That’s why he took this job.
That, also, is part of the reason why there’s so much intrigue and interest in Meyer’s return to the sideline. He’s the same guy who stressed himself sick at Florida, but only after he won two national championships. He has 104 victories in 10 years as a head coach, winning conference titles and bowl games at various levels, with teams of varying talent levels. His foray into broadcasting last season gave him inside access to multiple programs, coaches and situations, information and insight he thought he’d use if he ever returned to coaching.
It just so happened that the one and only job he swears he really wanted was available. Now, nine months after signing a family contract mandated by his children on which he promised, among other things,that he’d take care of himself and get the proper amount of sleep, Meyer will sleep all of about 17 minutes on Friday night.
Saturday at noon, the Buckeyes open the 2012 season — and the Urban Meyer Era — against Miami-Ohio.
“I’ll be coming out of my shoes a little bit,” Meyer said.
Working as a broadcaster on Ohio State’s opener last season, Meyer said he had to wipe a tear from his eye when the Ohio State band took the field for its pregame routine. He said he expects similar emotions this Saturday because he remembers being barely four years old “the first time I saw the Scarlet and Gray play.” He was officially hired last November, two days after Ohio State lost to Michigan for the first time in seven years, and by February he had the itinerary set for a grueling August training camp. When that camp came he allowed full access to television cameras for a series of nationally-televised specials, a move that’s nothing short of genius when it comes to recruiting.
Past, present, future. All here, where he was a graduate assistant in 1986 and now is the face of the program.
“That’s the kind of neat thing about where I am in my career,” Meyer said. “I don’t care. I want to work on getting this team ready for Miami-Ohio. Everything I’ve got. I’m not worried about what’s the legacy, what’s this, what’s that.
“I want to make the great state of Ohio proud and win this darned game coming up, and look good doing it. Because our kids deserve that.”
He might be different than he was in the past. With experience and some new perspective, it’s not crazy to think his second stint as CEO of a name-brand program will eventually be as successful as his first.
In a matter of weeks after taking the job, Meyer flipped highly-rated recruits who had previously committed to Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State. In a matter of hours after Ohio State’s 2011 season came to a merciful end in the Gator Bowl, he held an early morning team meeting to talk about the future.
“Guys sat straight up in their chairs,” Ohio State senior fullback Zach Boren said. “Everyone perked up. It was almost like meeting a celebrity for the first time.”
Part of Meyer’s past, present and future is his presence. He’s always been a master recruiter.
“His name itself was a recruiting tool,” said Ohio State sophomore linebacker Ryan Shazier, a Florida native Meyer tried to recruit in his previous job. “He’s almost legendary down there.”
Meyer didn’t leave Florida on the best terms. He resigned, citing health reasons, following the 2009 season but quickly changed his mind. The Gators went 8-5 in 2010, and Meyer essentially said he had to choose his health over his career.
That’s why he shared that family contract at his introductory Ohio State press conference. He’s said repeatedly in recent months that he has a grip on his priorities, that he’s learned to flip the switch to the off position, that he’ll appreciate the victories and the processes more than he used to.
“My job is to motivate 100 (players),” Meyer said. “It’s all about 18, 19, 20-year‑old players, not a 48‑year‑old coach.”
Meyer grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio and got his undergraduate degree from the University of Cincinnati. He brought his son, Nate, as he threw out the first pitch in both the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians ballparks this summer. He hosted a free football camp just a few miles from his Northeast Ohio hometown with a longtime friend. For the first time ever, he attended a high school reunion.
All those things indicate that he’s relaxed and enjoying his new start, and at least as long as Ohio State is undefeated that should continue. Maybe the best sign that he’s actually changed — or at least trying to — is that last Saturday he flew to Atlanta to watch his daughter, Nicki, play volleyball at Georgia Tech.
“She’s a captain,” Meyer said proudly.
As for the questions his kids and wife will continue to ask? He knows one speed. And he knows that he knows one speed.
“We’ll judge that probably in the next week, or next two weeks, next two years,” Meyer said.
Meyer is often seen at practice wearing a white pullover, just as he did at Florida. He hasn’t been shy about sharing his areas of concern or jumping into a drill to show his new players exactly how he wants something done. He’s brought the spread offense, and the Buckeyes likely won’t huddle very often. He already has an SEC-type defensive line, demanded an SEC-type budget, brought from Florida a strength coach who makes $300,000 annually to oversee grueling offseason workouts and he already has verbal commitments from the next wave of super recruits.
Just like he used to. Just like he’s going to.
This November will mark the first time in Meyer’s head-coaching career that his team won’t be playing for a conference championship. That’s not a gaze into a crystal-ball but rather the reality caused by the situation that brought Meyer here in the first place. Ohio State is serving a one-year postseason ban handed down by the NCAA, rendering the Buckeyes ineligible for the Big Ten Championship Game and a bowl game.
“I think at some point that’s going to have to be addressed,” Meyer said. “Now is not the time. Our team is going to be focused on point A to point B as fast as you can go, four to six seconds relentless effort. Any other messages are not coming from here.Our coaching staff is aligned with that. There is no conversation about week 13, week 14, week 15 and Christmas break, what do we do. It’s full metal jacket just to get to Saturday.”
Deep down, Meyer knows he can play for the future this fall. But he’s been insistent his team is playing for right now, to erase whatever underachievement or unfair circumstances clouded last season, Ohio State’s first losing season since 1988. If all goes according to plan, 2012 will eventually be known simply as Meyer’s first year and the years that follow will see Ohio State as a consistent national championship contender.
He’s done it before. He has all the pieces, all the ingredients and all the tools to do it again.
It all starts on Saturday, the day the honeymoon period officially ends but also, probably, the day all the excitement for this new starts gets turned up even further.
“Obviously, to say I’m excited about Saturday, it would be a very shallow statement,” Meyer said. “Because I think everybody knows that. But I’m honored to be here, honored to be the coach of the Ohio State University football team and to come back home and coach in the great state of Ohio.”