After the 31-point loss to Iowa two weeks ago, coach Urban Meyer did a toned-down and unintentional impression of Jim Mora, the former Indianapolis Colts coach whose “playoffs?” tirade has become the stuff of legend.
Asked about the future of the Ohio State program, Meyer arched his eyebrows and responded, “Program?”
He was surprised by the query, likely wondering how anyone could question the reputation of a program that is 69-8 under him entering a game Saturday against Illinois. Fair enough, but there remains an unknown on Meyer’s resume: Can he keep a team on top?
We know Meyer can fix a program. We know he can come in and quickly contend for and win national championships, at multiple schools. Neither task is easy. Many coaches will tell you, however, that it is more difficult to maintain a level of excellence.
Meyer has never coached longer than six seasons at any school; he is in year six at Ohio State. That is not to suggest that, if he remains with the Buckeyes, he won’t win big over the next decade. It’s just that specific obstacles begin to crop up the longer a coach stays in one spot.
I turned to retired coach Bobby Bowden to help explain the difficulties of repairing a program and also outfitting it to operate at high capacity over the long haul.
When Bowden arrived at Florida State in 1976, the Seminoles had gone 0-11, 1-10 and 3-8 the previous three seasons. His immediate mission was to change the players’ mindsets, mostly by bringing in new players.
“Let’s say they haven’t been successful, then you have to change their thinking,” Bowden said. “They don’t believe they can win, so you recruit your own boys in there who believe they can win.”
Bowden likes to tell how he started mostly juniors and seniors in his first two games at FSU. He started 0-2, including a 47-0 loss to Miami.
“The next week I got seven freshmen in the starting lineup at No. 4 Oklahoma and we led for a quarter and a half (before losing 24-9), because my guys had not learned to lose yet,” he recalled.
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Meyer did it differently his first season at Ohio State, relying mostly on veterans as the Buckeyes finished 12-0. Clearly, he possesses the right mixture of pixie dust to turn a struggling team into a championship contender.
In Bowden’s view, making the magic last is more of a test, although his own results suggest otherwise. Beginning in 1987 — 11 years after Bowden took the reins in Tallahassee — the Seminoles won 10 games or more and finished in the top five of The Associated Press poll for 14 consecutive seasons, a run that included the 1993 national championship and playing for the national titles four times in five years from 1996 to 2000, winning a second trophy in 1999.
Bowden is proud of his long-term success, mostly because so many things point against it happening.
“It’s easier to get to the top than it is to stay there,” he said. “We played a lot of teams that had gotten up there but couldn’t maintain it.”
Why the drop-off? Bowden blamed human nature, as well as the cyclical nature of college football.
“Let’s say you have a team and the first year you do pretty good, the next year even better and the last year you win the national championship. Well, then you have to start over,” he said. “It’s not like the pros, where you get to keep your team.”
The antidote to the bane of continual roster turnover? Excellent recruiting.
“If you keep recruiting at the same pace, you’ll be OK,” Bowden said.
In that way, Meyer continues to kill it by annually collecting top-five recruiting classes.
Still, Bowden’s No. 1 recommendation for achieving consistent success centers on timing.
“One of the best ways to be a great coach is to go somewhere five to six years and leave,” he said, chuckling. “Because your players have heard it all from you before. It’s old news. And another thing is when they win they get satisfied.”
Bowden credited Alabama coach Nick Saban for being the best at keeping his team unsatisfied.
“Saban is way out ahead on that, always jumping on the press about building his team up,” Bowden said. “He doesn’t want them thinking they’re pretty good, and then they don’t play hard. It’s the nature of people to do that.”
Coaches are not immune from becoming complacent, either.
“At lot of times a coach will win and then let up a little bit. And the team suffers,” Bowden said. “The coach gets self-satisfied.”
Another detriment to lasting success is turnover on the coaching staff.
“If a coach has a great year, then all the other schools want his assistants,” Bowden said.
It all helps explain why a program like Illinois, which finished in the top three of the Big Ten standings five times from 1983 to ’90 — and defeated Ohio State eight times from 1983 to ’94 — dropped off in the mid-’90s, and other than a few upticks has failed to bounce back.
Unlike the Illini, the Buckeyes never fell off the map. Now Meyer must navigate them into the future.
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