Urban Meyer looking to overhaul Ohio State's culture this spring
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Tim Kight performed a near-miracle in 2013. He made Urban Meyer stop and chat at a party.
Kight, a Columbus-based consultant who specializes in leadership training, was attending a fundraiser at Meyer's home when the notoriously small-talk averse Ohio State coach walked past. Meyer stopped to say hello. Kight introduced himself and explained what he does. Suddenly, Meyer was intrigued. So intrigued that Meyer brought in Kight and his son to work with Ohio State players last year and with Buckeyes coaches this spring. "I joke around that [Kight] doesn't drink beer often, but he drinks Dos Equis," Meyer said.
At 6 a.m. on Monday, Kight stood before Ohio State's coaching staff at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and explained for 90 minutes how it must prove its competence to players on a daily basis. The lecture was the fifth in a series of six that the coaches will hear this spring as Meyer tries to overhaul his team's culture. In Kight's buzzword-heavy program, culture may be the most critical one. Meyer has a winning program (24-2 in two seasons at Ohio State), but he isn't sure his Buckeyes had a winning culture for the past two years.
Meyer points to his team's pass defense as an example. The Buckeyes were horrible against the pass in 2013, allowing 268 yards a game through the air. That ranked 11th in the Big Ten and 110th nationally. Meyer and his coaches wanted to improve coverage, and they took steps to correct deficiencies. But Meyer isn't sure everyone was preaching the same message. "I've made mistakes in trying to attack behaviors," Meyer said. "For example, we're not playing hard on defense. You can try to fix behavior, but it's unsustainable unless you fix the culture. I believe in that from the bottom of my gut."
Kight has helped the coaches simplify and clarify their message so that every player understands exactly what the coaches want. None of what they're doing is revolutionary. In fact, most of it involves concepts Meyer has taught for years. But it is simpler and easier for a group of 110 18- to 22-year-olds to digest. Meyer and Kight boiled down Ohio State's culture into three essential elements. Meyer believes a goal such as "I want to win the national title" is too big to wrap the brain around. These smaller chunks help the players focus on smaller, incremental goals. (This is basically a more corporate speak-heavy version of The Process, the behavioral culture passed down from Bill Belichick to Nick Saban to Jimbo Fisher with championship results. Saban and Fisher also use a consultant, mental coach Trevor Moawad, to help players understand the concepts.)
To ensure his players remember the elements, Meyer has them plastered all over the Buckeyes' complex. It's difficult to find a wall in a common area or meeting room that doesn't refer to one of three things.
• Four-to-six, A-to-B
The average football play lasts between four and six seconds. Meyer has preached about giving maximum effort for this brief stretch for years, but he never had it codified and prioritized like this. By the end of the 2014 season, Ohio State beat writers will be sick of quoting Buckeyes who say "Four-to-six, A-to-B" as cornerback Doran Grant said after Monday's practice. Meyer will be delighted if the players take the message to heart. So will Kight, whose favorite formula is E + R = O. The E stands for event. The R stands for response. The O stands for outcome. While Kight insists the formula works for any situation, it's particularly useful in the context of a football play. "You don't control the events of life," Kight said. "You always control how you respond."
• Competitive excellence
This is the most abstract of Meyer's keys, but a look at Monday's practice suggests the Buckeyes understand. Meyer wants a heightened sense of competition at all times. Every rep matters, and every rep has a winner and a loser. With Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly and Boston College coach Steve Addazio looking on, the Buckeyes' offensive line, which must replace three excellent starters, struggled at times during their inside 7-on-7 drill with a defensive line that should be among the best in the country. But on occasion, those young offensive linemen would whip their talented counterparts on the other side of the ball. The coaches want players competing on the practice field, in the weight room and in the meeting room because it will keep them sharp and engaged.
• The power of the unit
Meyer isn't calling his assistants "position coaches" anymore. He's calling them "unit leaders." Kight said that in studying the military, he has found that a soldier's No. 1 motivation to fight is for the men next to him. If the group is too big, the bond isn't strong enough and the motivation goes down. In football, this translates to building around position groups. The receivers compete against the cornerbacks and safeties. The running backs compete against the linebackers. Everyone has a stake. The goal is to get all nine position groups playing up to their potential. "If you have six of nine, you have a good season," Meyer said. "If you have nine of nine, well, Florida State had nine of nine."
Meyer hopes a restructured staff gets all his defensive units in proper working order. After co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Everett Withers left to become the head coach at James Madison and defensive line coach Mike Vrabel left to join the Houston Texans' staff, Meyer hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas to coordinate the Buckeyes' pass defense. Meyer also hired former Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson to replace Vrabel.
Meyer said that Ash and fellow co-coordinator Luke Fickell will use a "back end-forward" style rather than predicating the defense on stuffing the run. The Buckeyes ranked ninth in the country against the run last year, but Meyer worries his coaches committed too many resources to stopping the run and not enough to stopping the pass. Meyer recalled a conversation with New England Patriots coach Belichick in which Belichick said he was willing to give up a little in the run game if it meant being more sound in the pass game. This makes practical sense. A breakdown on a run play is more likely to lead to an eight-yard gain. A breakdown on a pass play is more likely to lead to an 80-yard gain. Plus, with a defensive line that includes star sophomore end Joey Bosa, tackle Adolphus Washington and rush end Noah Spence, Meyer doesn't mind putting more pressure on the best players on his defense.
Meyer points to Ohio State's Orange Bowl game plan against Clemson -- when Tigers receiver Sammy Watkins caught 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns -- as an example of how not to defend a team with a star receiver. "We played Sammy Watkins, and we weren't prepared defensively to say, 'Let's go double him.' Because if you double him, then you're susceptible to the run," Meyer said. "We're trying to have enough stuff from the back end forward so we can double a great player and put the stressors where we're pretty good on the D-line. Two-gap them, line stunts, whatever."
To hire Ash -- who worked for Bret Bielema at Wisconsin and Arkansas -- Meyer had to extend a branch into another coaching tree. In his early years as a head coach, Meyer tried to hire mostly coaches who, like him, had come from the Lou Holtz, Bob Davie or Earle Bruce trees. This is another trait Meyer picked up from Belichick. "When coaches leave, you don't want to adapt to their culture," Meyer said. "They have to adapt to yours. That's why [Belichick] is very particular about who he invites into the family." Meyer believes Ash will fit in with this coaching family, just as offensive coordinator Tom Herman did when he left Iowa State to join Meyer in Columbus.
When Meyer called Herman in late 2011 about coming to Ohio State, Herman had never met his future boss. Herman was in his office in Ames on a Sunday and received a call from a Gainesville, Fla., number. When the person on the other end introduced himself as Urban Meyer, Herman didn't believe him. After he realized he was talking to Meyer, Herman quickly agreed to an interview, which he calls "the most intense 36 hours of my life."
Herman did something Meyer had declined to do in the past. He ran a no-huddle offense. Meyer liked to spread the field, and while at Florida he sent then-offensive coordinator Dan Mullen to study Missouri's no-huddle approach. But Meyer had passed on the concept because he felt it didn't allow great leaders such as Tim Tebow to assert themselves on every play by looking their teammates in the eyes. However, by the time he got the Ohio State job, Meyer couldn't ignore the way defenses struggled with no-huddle schemes. "I still don't like that part of it," Meyer said of the lack of between-play interaction among players. "But the stress that it puts on a defense, that's why we do it. You'd be crazy not to do it."
Herman and Meyer have done it quite well, especially considering they didn't inherit the personnel they'd prefer to use in the offense. Quarterback Braxton Miller was an ideal fit, but the Buckeyes lacked the kind of perimeter speed Meyer utilized so well at Florida. Still, the offense carried the Buckeyes to most of those 24 wins. Herman believes the win total would have been lower had the coaches stubbornly stuck to the scheme they intended to run instead of adjusting it to the players' strengths. "That's one of the things I'm most proud of our staff for," Herman said. "We did not try to fit a square peg in a round hole, and we still maintained our core beliefs of what we want to do offensively."
They also got some ideas. While Herman believes the Buckeyes have now recruited some excellent perimeter speed, the success of tailback Carlos Hyde last year has Meyer wanting to recruit more power backs. Both coaches would like to take more stress off Miller in the run game. Herman said the number of designed runs for Miller dropped from about 10 a game in 2012 to "two or three" a game in '13. This year, Herman hopes to give Miller even more options so he doesn't have to turn broken plays into carries that expose him to potential injuries.
Miller is sidelined this spring, and in his absence, Buckeyes coaches are looking for another Kenny Guiton, who replaced an injured Miller for two starts in 2013. The top candidate appears to be redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones, who was previously best known for tweeting in October '12 that "classes are POINTLESS." ("At least he was going to class," one Ohio State staffer sheepishly cracked.) Meyer said Jones has grown up, and his maturation has given the Buckeyes a 6-foot-5, 250-pound option in case Miller gets dinged.
Meyer hopes all the players who get on the field for the Buckeyes will understand the concepts of four-to-six, A-to-B, competitive excellence and the power of the unit. Meyer hopes that if they all buy in to the competitive culture Kight has helped the staff create, Ohio State might be able to get over the hump between a 12-0 regular season and a Big Ten title or even more.
"It's essential. It's everything, Kight said. "We believe culture eats strategy for lunch. Strategy says 'This is the behavior I want.' Culture determines whether or not you get it."