If you want to know which Ohio State football team is going to show up Saturday against Penn State — the one that looked lost against Oklahoma last month, or the one that torched Wisconsin in 2014 — look at the Buckeyes’ leaders. Both players and coaches.
If those leaders use their gift effectively — and leadership absolutely is a gift that can be shared or selfishly stashed within — the Buckeyes will be in the game. If not? What can happen is Clemson, 31-0. Or Florida, 41-14.
Urban Meyer has been on both sides of those lopsided losses, as Ohio State’s coach when the Buckeyes lost to Clemson last season in the Fiesta Bowl playoff semifinal, and as Florida’s coach when the Gators embarrassed OSU in the 2007 BCS national championship game.
On Monday, I asked Meyer if he has a feel for which version of the No. 6-ranked Buckeyes will take the field against the No. 2 Nittany Lions in Ohio Stadium. Is he curious about how his players will respond in the moment?
“I’d like to think we have a very good feel,” he said. “I’ve been wrong a couple of times; not very often.”
Meyer is what we in the writing business call a good non-talker. He usually answers the question (good), but usually is not expansive.
When discussing leadership, however, Meyer can be chatty (for him). Probably because the topic fascinates him. He authored a book on the subject, “Above the Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Program,” and he credits another leadership book he read during his year away from coaching in 2011, “LEAD … for God’Sake!” with helping him deal with his motivations as a coach.
Meyer believes strong leadership wins big games. And weak leadership loses them.
“If you have very strong leaders on the field and very strong leaders in the coaching rooms, you tend to have very great performances against great teams,” Meyer said, responding to a similar question on how to get a team to play its best in the biggest games.
Interesting. If Meyer is correct, the 2006 Buckeyes lacked strong leadership when it mattered. The key is when it mattered. The 2006 Buckeyes were thought to possess robust leadership. But entering the 2007 title game, Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, who had just won the Heisman Trophy, appeared out of shape, and the unbeaten team lacked its normal focus. Something went haywire. Leaders became laggards.
What about the Clemson game last season? My sense is that leadership was lacking among key players — perhaps because of the upcoming NFL draft, which saw seven Buckeyes selected? — but also in the coaching room, where power struggles, distraction and a measure of disunity leaked into team performance.
So what of this game Saturday? Meyer, who has raved about player leadership this season, is confident it will show up for the Penn State game.
“We’ve had templates of both. We’ve had templates when our team played their very best against the best competition … the most obvious one was 2014,” he said. “Same with we’ve had maybe some last year … we didn’t play our best.
“That’s leadership. That’s toughness. That’s coaching. That’s power of the unit. Those are all things we’ve worked so hard from February until now on.”
Whether the work paid off will come to light Saturday. Or has it already? The only thing we have to go on is the Oklahoma game, in which the entire operation, from coaching on down, lacked cohesion.
Players now say they were too amped for the Sooners, that the loss had little to do with leadership. But whose job was it to settle the nervous excitement? And has that been remedied?
We’ll find out soon enough.