Few people in life turn out to be better than the buildup, but Pete Werner found one.
Throughout the recruiting process, as he was being talked into flipping his commitment from Notre Dame to Ohio State a couple of years ago, the linebacker from Indianapolis was intrigued with the idea of training under OSU football performance coordinator, Mickey Marotti.
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“From what I heard, I knew that he develops players like no other,” Werner said. “That he was a very intense guy but also knows what he’s doing and is a great guy to be around.”
Then came Werner’s first meeting with Marotti while on a recruiting visit.
“He was the first one who told me when I visited, ‘It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be real hard,’ ” Werner said. “He was talking reality, and I liked that. I liked his honesty.”
It turned out, it was the first phase of Marotti working on what he considers to be the most important part of a player. Strengthening mental toughness is at the heart of what he does.
“A lot of my job and responsibilities comes every day, making, promoting, trying to get guys to do stuff that’s pretty hard,” Marotti said. “So you’re always selling, you’re always promoting — ‘We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do that. We’ve got to be positive, tough.’
“You do it all the time because you’re preparing, not for one moment, you’re preparing for a bunch of moments.”
He was in one of those moments as he took a five-minute break in his office this week. Ohio State had been ranked No. 2 in the country the week before and riding high before a 49-20 loss last Saturday at Purdue.
Strange as it might seem, such situations are when the Marotti method have come to the fore the hardest, ever since he came with coach Urban Meyer from Florida in 2012.
“He is as close a confidante as I have. He is a guy I count on and this whole program counts on,” Meyer said. “He is extremely close with our players from discipline to toughness and to their physical well-being.”
Dealing with adversity and bouncing back are the true tests for any individual or team.
“It matters a great deal in something like this, because what coach Mick does in the winter, spring and summer, when the other coaches aren’t around, is he builds you up,” fifth-year senior receiver and co-captain Johnnie Dixon said. “That allows us to be at our very best no matter what the situation is. That where he is really good.
“You come in and he will break you down, but then he will build you up to be a man. He prepares us for it each and every day so we’re ready for this challenge. And a big hat’s off to him because he’s prepared us for it.”
Marotti relishes those offseason workouts when he and his staff put players through drills that are about building not only strength, speed and endurance, but stamina, determination and mettle.
“You learn to know them. They let their guard down. We let our guard down,” Marotti said. “So you really get a connection with them. Yes, it is about football, because you’re training for football. But it really isn't about football.
“It’s about learning about who you are as an athlete. When you’re being pushed, or the chips are down and you’re backed into a corner, how do you respond? In training that sometimes happens. On a particular day a player might not feel like training, because maybe he didn’t get enough sleep, but he knows he has to train because he doesn’t want to let his teammates and coaches down.”
In those settings in, say, the middle of the winter, with no game on the horizon or depth chart to climb, “It’s as raw as it gets,” Marotti said. “It’s about nicknames, it’s about yelling, laughing, crying, stuff that cuts to the core of it, and it’s just you and them.”
Trust the plan, the Marotti method, and improvement and bonding will come, the players say. That was put to the test within the current team back just before of preseason camp. Suddenly Meyer was suspended while university administration investigated what he and others knew of Courtney Smith’s allegations of domestic abuse against her ex-husband Zach Smith, a former receivers coach.
Offensive coordinator Ryan Day was named acting head coach, stepping into that role for the first time. He called on fellow coordinators and former head coaches Greg Schiano and Kevin Wilson for guidance, but Day left no doubt that he leaned on Marotti for a major reason.
“Mickey is the heart and sole of this program,” Day said. “And what he's done for everyone here during this time is amazing. He has the pulse on this team, he works with these guys in the summer, and he is the guy behind the scenes that keeps this thing together. He is the glue.”
Marotti said he had one immediate thought during the preseason shakeup.
“‘Don’t change who I am,’ because if I change even a little bit, the players are going to be like,” he said, eyes widening for effect. “I knew they were going to notice any difference; if my shoelaces were out, they were going to notice.
“So I just said ‘Be who you are, do what you do, and then be there for others around the facility.’”
As Dixon remembered, Marotti stayed true to character, relying on what he and his staff had built into the players over the years.
“He didn’t change at all,” Dixon said. “His regular stuff is when he’s at his best. He did not deviate from who he is usually is, and that just kept pushing us toward our goal.”
Now comes the latest challenge, bouncing back from defeat. Again, Werner said, they will lean on the core Marotti has built with them.
“Once it gets hard in workouts, it transitions to the playing field,” Werner said. “When it gets difficult, you’ve got to learn to push your mind past that certain point and say to yourself, ‘I’ve got to go here. I’ve got to go harder. I can’t just stop. Fatigue cannot play a role here.’”