Off to the NFL, Urban Meyer candidly looks back at his years at Ohio State

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

From the moment Urban Meyer took over as football coach at Ohio State, nothing was ever the same.

He returned to his native state in late 2011 to restore a proud program to its rightful place among the elite. His coaching journey had taken him all over the country, but he always was an Ohioan at heart.

To Meyer, being from Ohio meant something.

“A great work ethic and brutal honesty,” Meyer said. “When I think of Ohio, that’s what I think of.”

Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer looks back as he high fives fans while leading the team into Ohio Stadium before the college football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Northern Illinois Huskies in Columbus, Saturday afternoon, September 19, 2015. (The Columbus Dispatch / Eamon Queeney)

Urban Meyer retrospective:The long road home to Ohio State

Meyer, who was hired last month as coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, spoke at length with The Dispatch to reflect on his seven years as Buckeyes coach.

In a three-day series, Meyer details the many successes, including the undefeated 2012 season and 2014 College Football Playoff championship. He also is candid about the low moments — the rare but devastating losses, the tragic death of walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge, and the Zach Smith ordeal in his final season.

Get the full subscriber-only series

One of a kind

Ohio State had never hired a coach like Meyer. For his predecessors, their ascension into the role was a major promotion. But Meyer had already won two national championships at Florida, including a 41-14 upset of Jim Tressel’s 2006 Buckeyes.

In style and temperament, Meyer and the diplomatic Tressel were opposites. Joshua Perry found that out immediately. The linebacker from Olentangy High School committed to play for Tressel, who was then fired on Memorial Day in 2011 for his role in the tattoo-and-memorabilia scandal.

Perry enrolled early as a 17-year-old freshman the following January as Meyer took over.

“I remember having a conversation with Urban like five days into my Ohio State experience,” he said, “and he was like, ‘If I was still at Florida, I would have never recruited you. I don’t think you’re twitchy enough. I don’t see the pop on tape. You didn’t jump off the tape to me.’ ”

Welcome to college, kid.

Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Joshua Perry (37) and Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer against Michigan Wolverines at Ohio Stadium on November 24, 2012.  (Columbus Dispatch photo by Adam Cairns)

“I remember years later talking to coach Fick,” Perry said, referring to Luke Fickell, OSU’s interim coach in 2011 who became defensive coordinator under Meyer. “His recollection of that same time was probably as stressful as mine was. Early on, it was a whirlwind, and he wanted to make it known that the culture he was building there was unlike anything that anybody had ever seen.”

Winning attitude

Those who know Meyer well describe a person as an almost unique combination of raw intelligence, extreme intensity and laser-like focus.

“That’s exactly it,” said his wife, Shelley. “I always tease him because I’ll say something to him and he’ll pause for three seconds and say, ‘Sorry, babe. I didn’t hear that.’ I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. You have such focus when you’re in football. You can focus on every single thing that’s going on and you have attention to detail like nobody I’ve ever seen before. But then I sit here and talk to you and you don’t hear me at all?’ ”

She said her husband takes after his father, Bud, who was quite demanding of Urban.

“I will give him credit for installing this work ethic in Urban that is unmatched,” she said. “I’ve never met anybody like him.”

Urban and Shelley Meyer celebrate Ohio State's 49-37 win over Michigan State in the NCAA football game at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan on Nov. 8, 2014. (Adam Cairns / The Columbus Dispatch)

Shelley said her husband does have a softer side. He is capable of relaxing much more than he did at Florida. She lamented that more people don’t get a chance to see how funny he is.

But as a coach, Meyer unrelentingly demanded the most out of himself and everyone else.

“It was a whole new ballgame,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said of the culture shock in the program when Meyer took over. “He was a hard charger. It was a different environment, where every single day you were on pins and needles to some degree, based upon the time of year, because he was challenging constantly. That was his style. You could walk by him in the hallway and he might say something to somebody to just motivate him.”

To Meyer, complacency was the constant opponent, maybe as much as Michigan was.

“I believe in productive discomfort,” he said. “The objective truth is that greatness is hard. I don’t believe that’s being taught as much in society anymore, that greatness is really, really hard, and that hard work gets rewarded. I still believe in that.”

Rob Oller:Urban Meyer, Paul Brown shared similar beginnings and endings at Ohio State

Getting results

However uncomfortable people might have felt, Meyer’s method worked. The Buckeyes didn’t lose more than two games in any season under him.

Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. hugs Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer before heading to the locker room after arriving for the 105th Rose Bowl Game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Washington Huskies on Tuesday, January 1, 2019 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

“I truly don’t know what my Ohio State career would have actually looked like without Urban,” Perry said. “I’m sure that Tress would have been able to bring the greatness out in me, maybe in a different way. I don’t know if it would have happened as quickly.

“I don’t know if we would have been a national title team. I don’t know if I would have been a fourth-round (NFL) draft pick. I truly don’t know if my life would look the way it does right now. Urban was going to be great with or without a guy like me, and he made me hop on the bandwagon, for sure.”

Retrospective:A complex legacy

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer speaks during a student celebration of the Ohio State football team's National Championship in the main hallway of the Ohio Union on Friday, January 23, 2015. The players with him from left are Joshua Perry, Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein. (Columbus Dispatch photo by Jonathan Quilter)

Smith said Meyer’s legacy is secure. He raised the bar at Ohio State, and really for the Big Ten. Smith said Meyer forced the conference to recruit at a higher level to try to compete with the Buckeyes, though OSU’s rivals haven’t been able to match the level of Meyer or his successor, Ryan Day. Ohio State is as dominant in the conference as it has ever been.

Under Meyer, the Buckeyes also created the Real Life Wednesday program that delves into societal issues and helps prepare players for post-football careers.

Meyer is 56. One-eighth of his life was spent as Ohio State’s coach. He had success elsewhere and now hopes to in Jacksonville.

The Meyers have sold their home at Muirfield Village Golf Club, but he has a restaurant in Dublin and another to open in the spring. He will retain family ties here as well. His daughter, Nicki, and her husband, OSU quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis, have two young sons. The Meyers also have charities here.

Shelley Meyer, second from right, and Gigi Meyer, right, wipe away tears as Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer speaks to ESPN's Rece Davis following the Buckeyes' 28-23 victory against the Washington Huskies in the 105th Rose Bowl Game on Tuesday, January 1, 2019 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

So while the Meyers won’t live here full-time, they aren’t leaving Ohio behind. It’s simply a part of him.

“His genes are in Ohio,” Shelley said. “He is Ohio.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch