Urban Meyer's motivational mastery propels Ohio State to a national title
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Everywhere Ohio State football players went for the past two weeks, they saw the No. 16. They saw it in the locker room. They saw it in their meeting rooms. They saw it on the practice play clock. They saw it from Columbus to Dallas, from the team facility at the Woody to the team hotel off I-35.
The No. 16 represented everything the Buckeyes needed to slow Oregon. Urban Meyer decided that by forcing Oregon to take longer than 16 seconds to snap the ball, his Buckeyes would disrupt the Ducks' dizzying offense enough to win. Meyer distilled the defensive game plan to the simplest possible form for his players: “Eliminate 16.” Forget the Heisman winner at quarterback, the hype of the title game and the millions watching on TV. Eliminate 16, and you’ll win.
Part of Meyer's mad genius -- more than any X's or O's he moves on the grease board -- is his relentless ability to motivate. He emphasizes more themes than an English professor. He has more rallying cries than a rack of bumper stickers. There’s pushing and pulling. There's prodding. Any motivational tactic will be exploited. And on Monday night, Meyer showed why his methods work.
While America saw a stout defense that sparked Ohio State’s 42-20 victory in the national title game, the Buckeyes simply fulfilled their mission to Eliminate 16. “[Strength coach] Mickey Marotti and I, it’s the thing that we do best,” Meyer said. “We felt we could eliminate the No. 16 demon. Whenever you’re dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds, you’ve got to give them something different than, ‘Hey, play hard.’”
Meyer won his third national as a head coach on Monday when Ohio State pulled away for its impressive victory. The common theme through all of them (and the parcel of his coaching repertoire that is least appreciated) is his ability to bond with and mentally manipulate his teams. To go through all of Meyer’s motivational techniques this season would take a novella, not a column.
There’s the Navy SEAL training in the preseason. By stressing the Power of the Unit to each position group, coaches are motivated just as much as the players. There are CEO Wednesdays to prepare guys for life after football. There is solving the mystery of putting others before yourself. There are the life coaches he imports to work with players. There is 15-year-old Jacob Jarvis, confined to a wheelchair with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, to whom the Buckeyes dedicated a win over Cincinnati on Sept. 27. There are enough mottos, pictures and speeches to make a comatose frat guy rise up and run a 4.4. “It’s unreal,” said scout-team quarterback Stephen Collier. “If you have a problem being motivated here at Ohio State, there’s actually something wrong with you.”
Ohio State took Eliminate 16 so seriously while preparing that Marotti elaborately ripped the jersey off poor Cam Burrows, the reserve defensive back who wears the dreaded number. He wore No. 8 for the title game.
In readying for the season's biggest stage, Meyer’s motivational angles showed no limits. The reserve unit arrived at their lockers last week and saw a special red Nike dry-fit shirt with silver lettering that read, “Smack the Quack.” (I would say don’t tell Ducks fanboy Phil Knight, but he was hugging Urban and Shelley Meyer after the game like he had never worn neon in his life.) Scout-teamers rarely get gear that starters don’t, and the ploy worked perfectly.
Just like Meyer planned for Oklahoma’s offense in 2008 -- the greatest in college football history -- the scout team played a huge role for him. So did the No. 16.
The play clock in practice was set to 16 after every snap, with the scout team having to get the ball off before it hit zero. There were two scout teams that alternated turns: The first team ran six plays in around 90 seconds, then the second jumped on and ran six more. Defensive starters battling the scout-team offense were gassed, but the scout-teamers helped defeat the numerical demon. They helped Smack the Quack.
“We were going at warp speed,” said Vince Oghobaase, the Buckeyes graduate assistant who prepped the scout team. “It’s not easy to replicate everything, especially at the speed they do it. This is a big deal. This is not another game. These guys gave the exact looks.”
The same things that make Meyer an elite coach -- he’s trending toward some vaunted company with his third national title -- are the exact reasons he isn't tempted to be an NFL coach. “Never,” said Ohio State running backs coach Stan Drayton. “Never. He doesn’t want it. We’re running a big-time program like it’s a high school program.”
What fires Meyer up is sitting down with a player, discovering what music he likes and slipping it into the playlist to help set the tempo for a great Tuesday practice. And when that ends, his mind is moving 100 mph to find the small tweak that leads to the high-energy Wednesday practice. He uses quotes from anyone from Bill Belichick to Vince Lombardi. Or, he’ll use a loud, frenetic highlight video to hype up his team. And then comes the lighthearted Friday schedule that Meyer boasts as “The Best Fridays In Football.” It’s always something.
“That’s Urban Meyer. He never stops trying to figure out another way to motivate players, improve the program, get coaches to coach better,” Boston College coach Steve Addazio said in a phone interview on Monday. “That’s the secret recipe to him. It’s not scheme. The scheme is fine, but there’s too much emphasis on that. Get your guys to play fast and get them motivated, that’s your value as a coach.”
Meyer’s zeal to motivate reverberates throughout the program. Ohio State special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs gave all of his players a cigar box, painted in Buckeyes' colors by the managers. He told them to fill it with things that mean something to them. He shipped all the boxes to Dallas for the title game. Every player’s box includes a picture of every one of his special teams teammates in a moment of “selfless strain.” (Think diving for a tackle.) Anything that helped put the team and others in front of themselves went in that box. Junior Joe Burger put a small bottle of holy water in his box and a letter from his family, written by his aunt, that he read before the game. (He splashed his helmet and gloves with holy water.) “It’s just a little thing that gets you going during the week,” he said.
All those little things, even the seemingly insignificant ones, can build enough momentum to win another national title. And don’t think that Meyer’s mind didn’t wander early Tuesday morning to concerns about championship complacency. But don’t worry, there are already plans in place to combat that. “I’ve already written the offseason program based on us winning today,” Marotti said. “It’s already done. It’s about refocus, redirecting and recultivating what we’re all about.”
With starters returning at 14 positions, the Buckeyes should be the preseason No. 1 next fall and the favorites to repeat as national champs. They’ll also be bracing, of course, for another endless battery of Meyer’s motivation. No. 16 has been eliminated. The next battle will begin soon.