Urban Meyer: Best from the cutting-room floor
The series in The Dispatch earlier this week on Urban Meyer's time as Ohio State's coach was four stories and roughly 5,000 words. But even in a project designed to be comprehensive, there is inevitably interesting material that doesn’t make it into print. That’s certainly the case with these stories.
Here are the most interesting stories that got left on the cutting room floor:
A timely phone call
Meyer and Tim Hinton told a great story about Meyer’s hiring as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 1986. Late OSU quarterbacks/wide receivers coach Tom Lichtenberg was in charge of the GA program back then. He learned about Meyer from Cincinnati St. Xavier coach Steve Rasso, who had Meyer serve as a volunteer coach and was impressed by him.
Lichtenberg invited Meyer to come to Columbus for an interview with head coach Earle Bruce. Hinton was a second-year GA and the unofficial leader of that group. He saw Meyer right before the interview with Bruce and delivered some advice. The way Ohio State’s graduate assistant program was structured then, Hinton told Meyer, the responsibilities of offensive GAs were much different than those of defensive ones.
“Urban came in," Hinton recalled, "and I said if you want to coach, you better go to the offensive side of the ball because defensive guys don't coach. They’re just support people.”
Meyer said there were two available GA spots — tight ends and defensive backs. Meyer, a walk-on defensive back at the University of Cincinnati, had planned to pursue the job at that spot.
“I was like, ‘Tim, I wouldn't be ready for this,’” Meyer said of coaching tight ends. “But he said, ‘Just make sure you take the tight end spot.’ Right then, the door opens to Earle Bruce's office, and the secretary says, ‘They'll meet with you now.’”
His head spinning, Meyer decided to heed Hinton’s advice. When Bruce asked which job he was seeking, Meyer said tight ends while wondering how he could possibly convey he’d be qualified for it.
“Then he says, ‘Well, tell me about yourself,’” Meyer recalled. “And then we're getting ready to start talking about tight ends, and I know nothing about tight end play. Zero. And right then, I think by the grace of God, the secretary walks in and says, ‘Coach, the top recruit is on the phone.’
“He looked at me and goes, ‘Oh, you're fine. You got it,’ and he takes the phone call. I walk out sweating and now I'm officially the tight end coach at Ohio State.”
That interview was one of the few times in Meyer’s life that he wasn’t fully prepared for a job. Hinton said that even at a young age, Meyer was different than his peers.
“One thing about Urban is, he’s never lacked self-confidence, and I don't mean that negatively,” Hinton said.
The same goes for work ethic. Hinton said he and Meyer put in long hours for little pay, as graduate assistants are wont to do.
“He was all in,” Hinton said. “To me, that work ethic and the ability to hunger for more is really what separates a young coach being pretty good and a young coach who never gets to where he needs to go, because you don't know what you don't know as a young coach, and Urban was willing to try to find out what he didn't know.”
When Meyer became Ohio State’s head coach, he hired Hinton as one of his assistant coaches. Hinton’s position? Tight ends.
Meyer ‘stunned’ by BCS win over OSU
After leaving Ohio State as a grad assistant, Meyer always wanted to make it back. But his coaching journey took him all across the country.
In 2006, his Florida team played the Buckeyes for the BCS title. He tried to act as if Ohio State was just another anonymous opponent, but in practice for that game he realized the Buckeyes weren’t. Knowing Ohio State fans would fill the stadium, he had crowd noise pumped in, over his assistants’ objections. That meant playing music the Gators would hear during the game. When “Hang On Sloopy” blared over the practice loudspeakers, Meyer could no longer pretend he was playing a faceless opponent.
“It just took me aback,” he said. “For a minute, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really happening.’”
Florida was a decided underdog against the No. 1 Buckeyes, who were led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith. But the Gators’ speed overwhelmed the Buckeyes in a 41-14 shocker for Meyer’s first national championship.
“Stunned,” Meyer recalled. “I never expected that.”
Meyer said he started preparation for that game wondering how Florida could even hang with the Buckeyes. But his confidence grew during preparation.
“As you get closer to the game time, (I thought) we might have a chance,” he said. “And then during the game, you can feel it rather quickly. Just the differential speed was overwhelming.”
Starting with perfection
Not everyone was thrilled that Meyer’s first Ohio State team went undefeated in 2012. Shelley Meyer knew how high that set the bar.
So after the Buckeyes beat Michigan to end the season because the NCAA sanctions prevented OSU from playing in the postseason, she asked her husband, “Really, you had to go undefeated your first year? Like how do you top this? What are you gonna do from here? What's next? I was like, Oh, my gosh, we're so in trouble here.”
The change that brought Day
The 2016 Buckeyes beat Oklahoma in Norman convincingly, won in overtime at Wisconsin, and had the epic double-overtime win over Michigan to make the College Football Playoff. But after Clemson’s 31-0 rout in the semifinals, Meyer knew he had to make changes.
“My job is to put together an elite coaching staff and to get the most out of that team, and I don't believe I did that year,” he said. “We had some great wins… but I don’t think that team was maximized.”
Meyer didn’t fire offensive coordinator Ed Warinner or quarterbacks coach Tim Beck, but he encouraged them to seek other opportunities, which they did.
“They're fine people and fine coaches, but it wasn't working,” Meyer said.
He replaced them with former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson and a fairly obscure NFL quarterbacks coach, Ryan Day.
“I've always liked Kevin Wilson,” Meyer said. “He's a tough guy that runs a spread offense. Those are the people I love to be around.”
Day had been a grad assistant for Meyer at Florida and coached under Meyer’s close friend Steve Addazio at Boston College. Day then went to the NFL to coach under his mentor, Chip Kelly. But Kelly and Day were fired in consecutive years by the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.
“I knew he was very good,” Meyer said of Day. “To say that Day is the Ryan Day that we got, I did not know that. (But) I thought he was going to be really good.”
How soon did he realize it?
“Rather quickly,” he said. “I could tell. It always starts with your football acumen. But then also the command that he has over a room and a staff. He's really elite at everything. In football strategies, he’s elite. But Ohio State's a different duck. It's a political monster. You better appreciate that place, or you'll never survive. And you know, (for) a guy that's not an Ohioan, you better have it, and he has it.”
Meyer raised Big Ten recruiting bar
Before Meyer arrived, Big Ten coaches had a gentlemen’s agreement that they wouldn’t pursue recruits committed to other conference teams. Meyer made it clear he wouldn’t abide by that. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema was furious when Ohio State flipped Badgers recruit Kyle Dodson, a Cleveland native.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Meyer challenged the rest of the league at a meeting to recruit at a higher level.
“All the athletic directors are in the room,” he said. “All the football coaches were in the room. (Commissioner) Jim Delany is in the room and we literally talked about recruiting and he was very, very forceful. He said we need to do better.
“And the Big Ten did. We had a couple years where we were pretty doggone strong across the board, and he was very much a part of that movement to improve.”
Former OSU linebacker Joshua Perry joked about Bielema having his “panties in a bunch.” He said Meyer’s challenge lifted the league.
“That's why you see that the Big Ten, even though the population has shifted and the talent doesn't necessarily exist the same way in the Midwest as it does in the South, is able to compete with teams in the South,” he said. “Urban forced their hand with that.”
Ready for the NFL?
Shelley Meyer always thought of her husband as strictly a college coach. She never envisioned him coaching in the NFL.
But she said Meyer has convinced her he’s ready for it and that the NFL lifestyle will be easier, at least in the offseason, than as a college coach, where recruiting never stops. Shelley believes his headaches stemming from a congenital arachnoid cyst will be more manageable as an NFL coach.
“He's talked to several coaches,” she said. “He's done his homework. I see him having (offseason) weekends off. Always weekends off. That's never happened in his career ever. Five weeks off in the summer, that has never happened.
“No recruiting, no checking players going to class, no academics. There's just so many things taken off his plate that I have a promising feeling about the quality of life that he's going to have.
“He's approaching this as a CEO running a business. It already feels different. … He's 56 now and he wanted a new challenge. After he explained things to me how the NFL works, I was like, OK, let's do it. And he's having fun right now. He's still having fun setting everything up.”
Wins not only legacy
Meyer was 83-9 at Ohio State, but the victories, and the rare devastating losses, are not his only legacy at Ohio State. Perry had his ups and downs with Meyer, but believes their relationship will endure for the rest of their lives.
“Yeah, I'd be surprised if I didn't,” Perry said. “He has called me just literally out of the blue just to talk. He's also called me to have some very inward-looking questions about things that he can do or things that are going on in the world. I appreciate that he respects my opinion enough to do so.
“Even now that he's on to the next journey, I feel like we'll always have a relationship. I'll always be able to reach out if I need anything. I know he'll do the same. And I think that's really important. I can say that obviously not every player that he's ever coached has that type of relationship with him, but I know a lot of guys feel like if they really needed something from him, they would reach out and he would answer.”
Perry said Meyer’s role in establishing the Real Life Wednesday program that prepares players for a post-football career is a major part of his legacy.
“Ohio State is a football factory, right?” he said. “So everyone's No. 1 objective is to go to the NFL, and he produced high-caliber NFL talent year after year. You look at some of the guys in the league right now, and what they're doing, where they were drafted, etc., and it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
But Perry said that players that had short NFL careers or none at all are still able to take advantage of the off-field program.
“They're leveraging the tools that were taught to them through some of the implementation of programs that Urban had,” he said. “I think that is a big legacy, too. Not only pushing the envelope on wins and success and redefining a standard at a blue-blood university, but also the fact that you were able to redefine standards for what you see as success when guys walk out the door — not just a degree, but can you secure job opportunities and be able to call your shots there?”