Urban Meyer and John Tortorella don’t know each other.
“I’ve never had a chance to sit and talk with him,” Tortorella said last week. “I’d love to sometime.”
Now, obviously, is not that time. While Meyer awaits Saturday’s Ohio State spring game, Tortorella’s Blue Jackets continue their NHL playoff series tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Although they have never met, they are kindred spirits in an important way that has been fundamental to their teams’ success. Both coaches believe, as an integral tenet in their coaching philosophy, in forcing their players to embrace discomfort.
“I guess one of the worst things that can ever happen to an athlete or a program is complacency, and the direct opposite of complacency and comfort is discomfort,” Meyer said. “How do you create discomfort, which is really what college football is?
“You have to find a way in your mind and in your body to overcome discomfort. So our whole offseason is built on that. Our teaching methods are based on having discomfort in the meeting room.”
Tortorella, the winningest U.S.-born coach in NHL history, heard those comments and smiled in agreement.
“I think people are afraid of conflict,” Tortorella said. “I think it’s human nature not to be in conflict.”
Tortorella is most assuredly not afraid of conflict.
“If there’s honesty, there’s going to be some conflict,” he said. “We’re all individuals. We’re all in a high-pressure sport — egos, testosterone, all that stuff. I think it’s very important to embrace that.”
Tortorella said some of the players with whom he has had the most conflict now are among his closest friends.
“That’s what happens,” he said. “When you embrace the conflict, there’s honesty there. If you handle it like men and work through it and not let it linger the next day, it brings you closer. It becomes a tighter bond with the player, and I think it’s a tighter bond with the team.”
At Ohio State, players are put under pressure from the start.
“Terms like ‘chill’ and ‘laid back’ are terms you’ll never hear here,” Meyer said. “The way our strength coach (Mickey Marotti) operates is, ‘How does the mind and the body grow? It’s through discomfort.
“When you want to lift weights, you can stop when it becomes uncomfortable and you don’t gain anything. Or you can push through discomfort, and that’s when your body starts to grow.”
Meyer and his position coaches can only work with players for part of the year. The rest falls on Marotti and his staff to instill the culture and expectations.
“I think it’s at the root of what we are and who we are,” Marotti said. “Toughness gets thrown out here all the time, and I think that’s what it is. It’s being comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Ohio State tends to get blue-chip prospects who’ve been coveted for years. When they arrive, they start at the bottom.
“You’re nothing,” senior center Billy Price said. “It’s tough. It’s an ego hit. You have to learn how to respond and make those decisions and grow.
“It’s all about confrontation and how you respond. When we do our winter training programs, it’s very, very intense. It’s in your face. It’s confrontational. Instead of making a bad decision — ‘Hey, I want to swing at a guy’ — it’s, ‘I need to get better and have better technique and stay with my keys instead of being a wild animal and swinging at somebody.’”
In meeting rooms, Meyer wants players on the edge of their seats. He deliberately puts them on the spot with “maybe a little bit of fear that you’re going to be called upon. You have to stay engaged.”
Football rosters are about quadruple the size of an NHL team. Tortorella marvels at the ability of Meyer and other successful football coaches to oversee an organization so large.
But coaching a pro team has its own challenges. Players have fat wallets that can be accompanied by healthy egos, and some have agents and entourages who can urge players to put selfish interests above the team’s.
Tortorella took over early last season after the Blue Jackets lost their first seven games. It didn’t take long for him to recognize one of the team’s biggest problems.
“It stunk of entitlement,” Tortorella said.
He was careful not to blame his predecessor, Todd Richards, whom he called a “really good” coach. But the years of losing had become ingrained in the culture, and Tortorella realized he had to confront players with painful honesty.
“It’s human nature to want to feel comfortable and not get pushed into a higher area,” he said. “I think one of my biggest responsibilities as a coach is to push guys, as Urban says, into an uncomfortable area.
“Then they see, ‘I’m uncomfortable here, but I can do this. I can get higher.’ That’s my whole philosophy — not so much X’s and O’s, but to push them mentally into areas they never thought they could get to.”
Tortorella understands that comes with risk. Players can be pushed too far. Sometimes, they simply aren’t capable of reaching the lofty standard Tortorella wants.
“But more often than not,” he said, “when you push them and don’t let off, the players say, ‘I can do this,’” he said. “That’s really cool. That’s empowering.”
Nick Foligno was among many who found himself in the crosshairs. As the team’s captain, he felt burdened by the team’s struggles during the 2015-16 season, and his play suffered. When Tortorella thought Foligno was trying to cut corners in the defensive zone last season in an effort to jump-start his offense, he singled him out in front of his teammates.
“So to hear that, in front of everybody, that was kind of like, 'Whoa.' It was the first time I’d been called out by him,” Foligno said. “After that, you self-reflect, and he was right.
“That was a turning point for me. I felt my game started getting going after that. We went to L.A. and I got into a fight and started getting my game going that way. I think it was him being point-blank with almost brutalness that kind of snaps you out of it.”
The setting of that tongue-lashing mattered. Early in his career, Tortorella would meet privately with players to deliver his blunt critiques. He now does it in team meetings so there is no misunderstanding and no escape.
Tortorella and the Blue Jackets believe that the foundation of brutal honesty established last season and in an arduous training camp last fall led to the team’s best-ever regular season. By embracing the uncomfortable, as the Buckeyes have done for years under Meyer, they have forged an understanding and a trust of what’s necessary to excel.
“It’s the most enjoyable part for me — trying to figure all that stuff out and then getting them to play in a team concept,” Tortorella said.