Finding the strength

Joey Kaufman
Ohio State strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti, watching over defensive end Chase Young's workout, is able to motivate players to reach potentials they may not have known they possessed. Marotti's official title is assistant athletic director for football sports performance, and he oversees four assistant strength coaches and a nutritionist. [Eric Albrecht/Dispatch]

On the day before Urban Meyer announced his retirement as Ohio State football coach, he nestled into a familiar spot at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

Meyer sat in the black leather chair inside Mickey Marotti’s office.

In seven seasons leading the Buckeyes, Meyer appeared often in the seat to confer with Marotti, as much his right-hand man as the team’s strength and conditioning coach. They discussed every aspect of the program, from practice plans and player health to personnel decisions. Before Meyer hired Ryan Day, his eventual successor, as a co-offensive coordinator in 2017, he floated the idea to Marotti.

But there was no discussion this past December. Meyer arrived to tell Marotti about his impending retirement.

It marked a possible endpoint in a symbiotic coaching partnership that spanned two decades and sparked revivals of college football blue bloods. As Meyer led Florida to two national championships before constructing a similar juggernaut at Ohio State, Marotti followed as an instrumental presence.

“He’s not a strength coach,” Meyer said last month. “He’s so much more than that.”

With the Buckeyes, Marotti helped Meyer cultivate a certain intensity around the program, squeezing talent out of blue-chip recruiting classes. The Buckeyes won 90 percent of their games and the first College Football Playoff. Players described the spirit that drove their success as a constant feeling of fourth-and-1, an idea that instilled urgency. Marotti quibbles only slightly with the portrayal.

“I always say fourth-and-inches,” he said.

The approach served as their secret sauce.

“People on edge have a tendency to be more focused,” Marotti said. “When you're relaxed and you’re chilling and you’re carefree, you're not as focused. That's the culture we had.”

As Meyer discussed his retirement in recent months, he expressed faith in his exit plan, noting the “infrastructure” left in place for Day.

His words required no translation. Though Day retained other key support staff members and five assistant coaches, the reference was largely for Marotti.

The 53-year-old is left to reside at the juncture of two eras at Ohio State, representing the most visible link to the historic run of success under Meyer and serving as a vital figure for Day, a first-time head coach.

During the offseason of transition, Marotti holds a clear task: Can he re-create the same edge?

• • •

On a midweek morning this month, Marotti stood on one end of the Ohio State weight room and pointed about 30 huddled players toward a whiteboard.

Marotti was preparing the group for an early weightlifting session with one of his fiery pep talks, calling their attention to a so-called board of truth propped up against a wall. Seven points were listed in black ink. He stressed the first two.

“Here’s the truth,” Marotti began. “Yesterday was a good job. No. 2, it wasn’t good enough. We got to be way better than that.”

His voice captured their attention, echoing throughout the room.

“I know it’s hard,” he said. “Tough (bleep). Doesn’t matter. Nobody cares.”

It was two months before preseason training camp and a snapshot of Marotti in vintage form. Tough. Demanding. Unsatisfied.

“The world that they live in, everybody is telling 'em how good they are, how great they are, everything,” Marotti said days later. “I try to be real. If you're good, ‘Hey man, great job.’ OK. You gotta do it again.”

The official title for Marotti is assistant athletic director for football sports performance. He oversees four assistant strength coaches and a nutritionist, among others. They run workout regimens and implement dietary plans. As college football has evolved into a year-round endeavor, Marotti and his staff supervise the players for most of the offseason, entrusted with their physical development.

Since Meyer’s first season, Marotti has helped raise the program’s talent level, seeing 49 players drafted into the NFL.

"He gets these really good athletes and guys who are known for speed, and he'll add 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 pounds to their frame,” said former linebacker Joshua Perry, who was a team captain for the Buckeyes before a brief NFL career. “And these guys are just as fast, if not faster, than when they came in. It's an amazement to me how he's been able to mold guys.”

But Marotti views his offseason training program as part of a larger role. His focus, what he saidencompasses 95 percent of his job responsibility, is motivating players. It was a favorite topic of conversation with Meyer as they searched for the right buttons to push.

The walls of the weight room are a testament to Marotti’s approach. Posters are hung with inscriptions that read “Thick Neck Coalition” or “Lean Cuisine Club.”

They document weight room progress. As players lift more, their necks grow thicker. With better diets, they shed body fat, becoming leaner. Their latest measurements are listed every few weeks for all to see.

"Everyone has different motivators,” Marotti said. “But one that is atop the list is peer pressure. I use that as much as I can.”

It’s a tough psychological game from a demanding coach. No one can hide in front of teammates.

But as much as intensity cloaks Marotti, it serves as only one motivational method, albeit the predominant one.

“The biggest thing about Mick is he just has the ability to see what each student-athlete needs,” said Anthony Schlegel, a former assistant strength coach with the Buckeyes. “Does he need a hug? Does he need solitude, words of encouragement or being real? Does he need a size 12 or 13 shoe up his butt?”

During the early morning workout this month, Marotti buzzed with energy to accompany the guitar solos from AC/DC and Led Zeppelin thundering from the speakers. Classic rock often plays during workouts. Marotti has played the drums since age 5, including in April when he joined a band on stage at Tootsies Orchid Lounge, the famed honky-tonk bar, in Nashville, Tennessee. Marotti visited the city with Meyer and Day for the NFL draft.

As players dropped into squats, Marotti stood behind them in a corner of the room. He later led them through stretching exercises.

When a graduate assistant stepped in, he even pushed him.

“Chug that coffee,” Marotti said.

He rarely seems to rest, an early-riser who wakes up at 4:30 a.m. for his own lifts. He has brought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle into the weight room to hype players up before workouts or given pregame speeches. Once, as Marotti began his second season as the head strength coach at Cincinnati in 1991, he was asked by then-Bearcats coach Tim Murphy to produce a new fight song to inspire the struggling team. They soon sang an altered version of Queen’s "We Are the Champions” after victories.

His presence in the weight room first captured Meyer’s attention. Meyer was visiting Cincinnati, his alma mater, and noticed Marotti’s intensity.

When Meyer was a wide receivers coach at Notre Dame several years later, he encouraged Fighting Irish coach Bob Davie to hire Marotti for their head strength role, beginning in 1998.

“This guy’s nuts,” Davie recalled Meyer saying.

It was all Marotti knew.

• • •

The words still rattle around in Marotti’s head.

“Get in front of the ball!”

“Stop swinging at that!”

Marotti heard them often from Chuck Cvitkovic, his Little League baseball coach in middle school.

“He was tough,” Marotti said. “Scared to death of him. But I loved him. Once every three weeks you’d get something nice and it’d be the best feeling ever.”

Raised in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, a steel town northwest of Pittsburgh, Marotti learned from demanding coaches, and Cvitkovic emerged as the first among many to influence the young football and baseball player.

Marotti revered the men as father figures. He lacked one at home for much of his childhood. His parents split when he was in second grade and was largely raised by his mother, who worked long hours as a cook.

“Can you imagine if you had that and you didn't play sports?" Marotti said.

The experience forged a belief that tough-minded coaches could steer players toward a path of success.

They would, after all, help Marotti reach West Liberty, a Division II program in West Virginia, despite his short and stocky build. The school listed him at 5 feet 9 and 220 pounds.

Marotti grew to be a hard-nosed fullback, his legs churning as if it was always fourth down. He was named a team captain by his senior season through resolve.

“He didn't have breakaway speed,” said Larry Shank, his coach at West Liberty, “but, by God, he could get you those needed yards.”

• • •

Marotti stood alongside Meyer for 13 of the past 14 seasons.

The exception was in 2011.

After Meyer’s first retirement from coaching, stepping down at Florida, Marotti remained as the Gators’ strength and conditioning coach.

But the pairing with Will Muschamp, who replaced Meyer, never felt right.

Whereas Meyer included Marotti in nearly every decision as a trusted sounding board, Muschamp rarely sought his input.

“It was just like, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this,’ ” Marotti recalled.

Looking back, he never quite adjusted to being a holdover.

“Sometimes it's hard when you're the one who stays on with the program,” Marotti said. “Because I preach and sell what the head coach is selling: the culture. And when a new head coach comes in, you do the same thing. But it's going to be different.”

Marotti reunited with Meyer the next season at Ohio State, and his status was never in doubt. When Meyer presented his new assistants at a men’s basketball game in early 2012, he introduced Marotti last, referring to him as “the most important hire I made on this coaching staff.”

As he diverges from Meyer for a second time, Marotti expresses more optimism in his present setup in Columbus.

The outlook is shaped by experience with Day, who spent two seasons on staff as an assistant and had a trial run leading the program last fall as acting coach when Meyer was suspended for three games for his handling of domestic violence allegations involving former assistant Zach Smith.

Marotti was impressed by Day’s command during a chaotic stretch.

Since his promotion, Day said he speaks daily with Marotti, much as he did during his interim stint. Every so often, they review each player on the roster.

“He's done this so many times he has a great feel for the team,” Day said. "It's not only the physical stuff, but the emotional stuff, the team bonding, the accountability.”

Day and Marotti have known each other for more than a decade, meeting at Florida in 2005 when Marotti was the new strength coach under Meyer and Day a new graduate assistant.

After his promotion, Day said he never considered not retaining Marotti, citing his knowledge of modern sports science methods as much as his old-school toughness. Day ensured he was well compensated, too. Under a new contract, Marotti will make at least $735,000 next fall, believed to be the second-highest paid strength and conditioning coach in the nation.

Marotti trusted that Day would maintain the program’s current culture.

“He believes what I believe,” Marotti said. “I want to be around people who believe what I believe. When that happens, you keep rolling.”

Day has asked Marotti to alter little of his offseason program.

“We try to tweak things here and there,” Day said, “but overall, it’s very similar to what Mick's done in the past. He has a great history and book of work.”

Later this summer, they will preserve one of the Buckeyes’ last customs of the offseason.

Throughout Meyer’s tenure, the team held a banquet dinner on the eve of preseason camp. During a ceremony, Marotti, who had overseen strength and conditioning workouts, would hand Meyer a set of keys. In other instances, he presented a copy of the roster or a whistle. Items varied. The symbolic passing was to show Marotti returning the team to the head coach, and it also revealed — intended or not — the stature he held within the program.

“It signaled a transfer of power,” said Perry, the former team captain.

Day liked the tradition. It served as a proper tribute to Marotti and his staff for the role they played in shepherding the team in the lead-up to the season. Few are more involved.

Their first exchange would be similar, Day thought on a recent evening, but he had yet to settle on specifics.

“We'll have our own way to do it,” he said.


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