Anyone who has labored with, under, or as the boss of a good friend knows the working relationship can be a blessing and a curse, which explains why over his career Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has avoided hiring buddies for assistant jobs.
“I’ve tried to stay away from it,” Meyer said this week. “I don’t know (why), just advice I’ve taken over the years.”
Such advice, however, apparently no longer applies. Last month, Meyer brought in longtime friend Kevin Wilson to run the offense. In December, he promoted Bill Davis from analyst to linebackers coach; Davis served as best man in Meyer’s wedding.
And when safeties coach Chris Ash left for Rutgers after the 2015 season, Meyer filled the position with close friend Greg Schiano, whose duties recently increased when defensive coordinator Luke Fickell left for Cincinnati.
“Greg was probably the first one that was really close. I wouldn’t put Kevin in that category. We’re friends, but nothing compared to Billy and Greg,” Meyer said.
Meyer always has leaned toward hiring coaches he knows, but that differs from hiring good friends. What results can be expected when a coach employs buddies? Working with pals can prove challenging. One day you’re drinking beer together outside the office setting. The next you’re expected to drink the Kool-Aid your buddy, the boss, serves you. As the one in charge, you might come down harder on the friend who works for you, not wanting to play favorites.
There are control issues — why should I listen to my boss when I know from spending so much time together that he’s no smarter than me? — and the uneasiness of deciding whether to defend your supervisor or join in when co-workers criticize him.
Finally, there is the awkwardness of having to fire the friend if he is not getting the job done. It can lead to uncomfortable and compromising situations that are not in the best interest of the program.
So why do it? Why elevate Davis, bring in Wilson and go after Schiano?
“They were the best guys out there, and I have a job, and that’s to hire the best guys I can for this university, and they fit the bill,” Meyer said.
They also were available. Meyer is nothing if not straightforward. He does not hide the fact that many of his former assistants — ones he is not necessarily good friends with — already were working as head coaches at other schools.
“I really didn’t have to hire friends (in the past) because I had plenty of other guys to choose from,” he said. “But the guys I had in that pool … the pool is kind of dried out, so I went out searching.”
What Meyer found were two coaches, in Schiano and Wilson, who not only were friends but also former head coaches — Wilson at Indiana and Schiano at Rutgers and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — which potentially complicates things. Or not. It depends whether you see the glass half full or half empty.
The skeptic wonders if friends and former head coaches have enough humility to defer to their new boss. Will they try to take over in crucial game situations? What happens when the head coach chews them out?
On the positive side, friends can be trusted and former head coaches have walked in their boss’ shoes, which allows better understanding of what the chief is going through. Nick Saban certainly has made it work. This season, the Alabama coach had five former head coaches on his staff.
Will hiring former head coaches and employing the buddy system work as well at Ohio State? Probably. Schiano did a good job this season. And Meyer leaves little room for sentiment regarding what he expects from coaches. In that way, he is like Woody Hayes.
“Woody was a friend when he was a friend, but an enemy when he wanted you to do something,” said former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, who worked under Hayes from 1966 to ’71.
Davis, for one, knows what to expect.
“The accountability piece is very, very high here,” he said.
Win and you’re in. Lose and foe-getit.