Ohio State football is a multifaceted behemoth that sparks the interest of fans in ways silly (Brutus), serious (win-loss records) and sacrosanct (TBDBITL).
That said, only two things really matter to Buckeye Nation: winning national championships and beating Michigan. Urban Meyer has done both, and although he will be remembered long term for both achievements, going 7-0 against TTUN will stand as his most lasting legacy.
No other Ohio State coach won every game he played against Michigan, and only one (Howard Jones, who coached the Buckeyes to a tie against the Wolverines in 1910, his lone season as head coach) escaped without at least one loss against the Wolverines.
Meyer’s perfect mark against “our rival,” as he calls the maize and blue, tops even the sterling 9-1 record Jim Tressel posted against Michigan; Tressel and Meyer share the most consecutive wins (seven) in The Game.
The secret to Meyer’s domination of Michigan — he did lose to UM in the 2008 Capital One Bowl while coaching at Florida — goes beyond having better players, although the disparity in talent is a big factor. It stems from the approach he took in preparing for the Wolverines.
In his final news conference before Tuesday’s Rose Bowl, Meyer spelled out his strategy for success in rivalry games.
“Rivalry games, I hear people say that it’s just a name, a faceless opponent. That’s not the approach we’ve taken,” he said.
Coaching at Bowling Green, Meyer was 1-1 against rival Toledo. At Utah, he went 2-0 against rival BYU. At Florida, where Meyer said the three big rivals are Georgia, Florida State and Tennessee, he finished 16-2. Total: 26-3 against main rivals.
“We work the game 365. We’ve already been working it out here,” he said. “How do we do that? Follow recruiting, follow everything they do,” he said of keeping tabs on the Wolverines.
“That was the Woody Hayes mentality, and that’s been everyone’s mentality at Ohio State,” he said.
Certainly, every former OSU coach understood Michigan is a must-win game, but Meyer took it to another level.
“At the end of the day, it’s always ‘Beat the Team Up North,’ which is why he’s so successful,” Ohio State defensive lineman Robert Landers said. “He truly understands what the rivalry is and what it means. And he instills that into every guy who walks into the locker room and puts the jersey on.”
What some see as gimmicks — never mentioning Michigan by name, for example — Meyer views as strategic weapons. Several “rivalry clocks” hang in the football facility, counting down the minutes to the next Michigan game.
“We have one huge clock in the weight room, one countdown clock where we normally eat, one in the locker room and one in the hallway to the locker room,” Landers said, smiling, adding that the clocks reset immediately after each Michigan game.
Meyer makes sure the Buckeyes treat the Wolverines the same way overseas travelers should treat professional pickpockets — with wary respect.
Ohio State works on Michigan every day during spring practice and preseason camp, plus during summer workouts. Meyer also has used motivational tactics in unpleasant circumstances.
Offensive tackle Isaiah Prince recalled that his favorite Meyer speech occurred his freshman season after Ohio State lost to Michigan State 17-14 the week before playing Michigan.
“He was disappointed we came up short, because we were such a talented team,” Prince said. “We had some really good players on that offense: Michael Thomas, Ezekiel Elliott, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller. We should not have lost. We took that anger the next week to That Team Up North in Ann Arbor. Just watching our guys play, it was crazy.”
Meyer whipped the No. 8 Buckeyes into a frenzy by reminding them they were not maximizing their potential and not playing for each other — the brotherhood, as OSU calls it — and the result was a 42-13 win at No. 10 Michigan.
“He sets that tone,” Prince said. “And makes sure everybody understands what the game is about.”
Meyer’s success is tied to more than Michigan, of course. He won two national championships at Florida before coming to Ohio State. He is the only coach to win national titles in two different conferences. He owns a 54-4 record (.931) in Big Ten games. And he has never lost more than two games in a season at OSU. A juicy stat unearthed by Tom Orr of The-Ozone: Meyer has won at least 11 games in seven seasons at Ohio State. Michigan still has only five 11-plus-win seasons since 1906.
For all the success Meyer has experienced, all legacy roads lead to The Game. Future generations of Ohio State fans will read “7-0 against Michigan” and salute Meyer as the Wolverine slayer.
A reporter asked Meyer what he considers to be his season highlight leading into the Rose Bowl.
“One moment? I think everybody knows the moment — it was in Columbus around Thanksgiving time,” he said.
Turkey dinner? Nope. As usual, Meyer dined on Wolverine.