Can lessons from 2009 help Urban Meyer in 2015? Punt, Pass & Pork
COLUMBUS, Ohio—Urban Meyer walked through Ohio State’s magnificently appointed new locker room last Wednesday and peered into the area with the barber chair*, where rising junior H-back Dontre Wilson sat and waited for clippers to meet coiffure.
“You’ve got to tighten that thing up,” Meyer told the speedy Texan.
“I’m going to get it tight like you,” Wilson replied.
“You give me those clippers and I’ll get you like me,” Meyer cracked.
*Forget the waterfall, which Ohio State also has. The barber chair is the new must-have accessory in any football locker room. Texas A&M has one. So does Oregon. At Ohio State, players pay $15 a cut to stay Instagram-ready at all times.
That someone would combine Meyer and the word “tight” in the same sentence and mean it as a compliment would have seemed impossible a few years ago. Meyer won two national titles at Florida, but his obsession with winning—or, more specifically, with not losing—ruined his health, forcing him to resign (twice) and leaving him to reevaluate his priorities. As he led Ohio State to a national title last season, Meyer seemed committed to the changes he made in the aftermath of his final years at Florida. Sure, he still worked ridiculous hours. But he delegated responsibilities he previously would have tried to take on himself to people he trusted. He let go of bad days and cherished good ones.
But the Buckeyes were supposed to be a year away in 2014. They played with house money as they ripped through the playoff behind the guy who had been the third-string quarterback in August (Cardale Jones), the back who broke his wrist in fall camp (Ezekiel Elliott) and the linebacker Meyer had to be talked into taking (Darron Lee). It was more fun because they weren’t supposed to win like that.
It won’t be like that this year, and Meyer knows it. The parallels between 2015 in Columbus and ’09 in Gainesville are tough to ignore. Consider the following:
• First, the obvious. The 2009 Gators returned a huge chunk of a team that won the previous season’s national title. The ’15 Buckeyes do the same. Like Florida in ’09, this Ohio State roster will be expected to win the national championship.
• Between the 2008 and ’09 seasons, Meyer lost offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, who became Mississippi State’s head coach. Meyer then hired Scot Loeffler to coach quarterbacks and elevated offensive line coach Steve Addazio to offensive coordinator. Between the ’14 and ’15 seasons, Meyer lost offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who became Houston’s head coach. Meyer then hired Tim Beck to coach quarterbacks and elevated offensive line coach Ed Warinner to coordinator. The only difference is that unlike Loeffler in ’09, Beck will be a co-coordinator.
• When Mullen left Florida, he took with him director of football administration Jon Clark, who began working for Meyer as a Bowling Green student manager and became the coach’s trusted right-hand man. When Herman left Ohio State, he took with him operations coordinator Fernando Lovo, who began working for Meyer at Florida as a student manager and had become the coach’s trusted right-hand man.
That these personnel changes mirror what happened in 2009 is pure coincidence. But they will test how much Meyer has truly changed since that year. He does not trust others easily, and losing the men he trusted with his offense and day-to-day operations proved challenging when placed atop the crushing expectations for that ’09 campaign. Meyer still vividly remembers Florida’s on-campus media day on Aug. 11, 2009, when a reporter asked if anything short of an undefeated national title run would be considered a failure. Meyer has said since that he felt the weight of those expectations upon hearing that question, but when he answered that day, he gave off a different vibe. He began by saying what he was supposed to say. “That’s a hard question to answer,” Meyer said. “I’ll try to answer it the best way I can. Would I consider the season a failure? At this point I can’t tell you. I don’t know the injuries. I don’t know the make-up of this team.”
But Meyer couldn’t help himself. What he said next suggested he did hold those same expectations. “I have an idea,” Meyer said. “I think I’m going to answer it politically correct. I have extremely high expectations for this team.”
We know now—from Meyer’s collapse following the loss to Alabama in the SEC title game, from his aborted resignation in 2009 and his completed one in ’10 and from Meyer’s admissions to HBO’s Real Sports of depression and a reliance on Ambien and beer to sleep during that ’09 season—just how much the circumstances of ’09 weighed on Meyer. What we don’t know is how he will respond when he faces them again, but an older, wiser Meyer seems much better prepared this time.
Meyer hadn’t thought about all those parallels between 2015 and ’09. “Wow,” he said after being reminded of the Clark-Lovo connection. Perhaps he doesn’t need to think of them because he has made adjustments to the way he runs his program that makes it more adaptable to change. He credits his ESPN walkabout in ’11 with opening his eyes to a shortcoming he hadn’t noticed during his time at Florida. “The year off [from coaching], I went around,” Meyer said. “I went to Oregon, Texas, Oklahoma, Army, Penn State.” And then he lowered his voice a bit so players and staffers milling about the room didn’t hear. “The Team Up North.”
Meyer noticed contrasting coaching styles, but the best programs all had something in common. They had a readily identifiable culture that everyone in the complex understood. “I walked away saying everybody is so different,” Meyer said. “Chip Kelly is so different than Brian Kelly is so different than Mack Brown is so different than Bob Stoops. The common denominator of all those places is a very clear is an expectation of culture, and it doesn’t change.”
The culture at Florida had changed as the staff turned over. The Gators went their first three seasons under Meyer without losing a single assistant. Going into the national title season in 2008, only co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and running backs coach Stan Drayton had departed. Offensively, defensively and administratively, the core group Meyer had assembled his first year in Gainesville was intact. That changed after ’08 when Mullen left with tight ends coach John Hevesy and Clark. It changed more drastically after ’09 when defensive coordinator Charlie Strong left to become Louisville’s head coach and receivers coach Billy Gonzales left for the same job at LSU. Addazio remained, but most of the rest who understood Meyer’s original vision were gone. Meyer didn’t realize he needed to train the new hires on every aspect of the program he desired. The culture he had created slipped, leaving a program Meyer described as “broke” after a ’10 loss to Florida State. “I didn’t watch it so closely when I had transition,” Meyer said.
He has worked to avoid that mistake in Columbus. Meyer proved that when he hired Herman shortly after taking the job. Meyer had inquiries from big-name, established coordinators. Instead, on a recommendation from agent Trace Armstrong, Meyer reached out to Herman. Herman had never spoken to Meyer, and thought a buddy was pranking him when he answered a call from a number with the 352 area code. Yet Herman convinced Meyer that he was willing to adapt his offense to the one Meyer had in mind. Together, the men molded a scheme around the players they inherited, relying heavily at first on the natural gifts of quarterback Braxton Miller and then diversifying to the point that the backup and third-string quarterbacks could step in and lead a national title contender.
Meyer gave Herman clear instructions about what he wanted, and Herman was flexible enough to adapt to his boss’s desires. That became the model for Meyer’s hiring policy. Next, instead of passing along his vision for the program anecdotally, Meyer worked with Columbus-based management consultant Tim Kight to codify the culture. Last spring, after co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash and defensive line coach Larry Johnson arrived, Meyer had all the assistants take workshops led by Kight that explicitly defined the atmosphere Meyer wants in the program. Beck and new running backs coach Tony Alford are going through the same workshops with their fellow assistants this spring.
The method may be different, but the concept is the same as Alabama coach Nick Saban’s policy of giving every employee in his organization a detailed list of duties each year. Saban borrowed this from former boss Bill Belichick, and it has helped the Crimson Tide have the most consistently successful program in college football since Saban’s arrival in 2007. “Everybody says, ‘Be accountable,’ but sometimes nobody ever tells you exactly what the expectation is,” Saban said in ’12. “Bill was good at defining what he expected from everybody, and everybody buying in. Then the team had a chance to flourish because of it.” Meyer’s Ohio State program is now flourishing for the same reasons as Alabama’s. Like Saban, Meyer has always been a master motivator and recruiter. Now, he might be Saban’s equal as a CEO.
Meyer has the mechanism in place to deal with change. Everyone in the organization knows exactly what is needed to thrive. This includes the “new Fernando,” former graduate assistant Quinn Tempel. “Thick skin,” Meyer’s new right-hand man said with a laugh last week.
With the culture aspect covered, the question now is whether Meyer, his staff and his players can deal with expectations. The ability to handle transition should have the Buckeyes far better equipped to handle the assumption by everyone outside their complex that they are supposed to roll through this season and win the title. Meyer knows his job is to ensure the players understand that this year is not a failure if they don’t win every game by four touchdowns. He couldn’t stop that attitude from seeping into the 2009 Gators. “I certainly felt it with our players,” he said. “We won a game by 10 points and everybody said ‘What happened?’ I walk into the locker room and everybody’s pissed.”
Meyer knows he must keep that from happening to the Buckeyes. He can control the message inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, but he’ll have to hope they take what they hear outside it with an appropriately sized grain of salt. “It’s no different than any other child,” Meyer said. “How do you keep your child from getting exposed to that stuff?”
You don’t, short of “move them away to a desert island,” Meyer said. He’ll have to pound home the message that staying on top is tougher than getting there. If Ohio State loses this season, Meyer will have to make sure the Buckeyes know the world won’t stop spinning. And he’ll have to believe it, too. In 2009 Florida went 13-1. Its only loss came to the team that went 14-0 and won the title. Was that a failure? Not by any reasonable definition of the word. But it felt that way to Meyer at the time, and for a while the fear of that feeling ruined his life.
The world will expect the same thing of the 2015 Buckeyes that it expected of the ’09 Gators. Can Meyer and the Buckeyes handle that? He hopes so. “We’ll see what happens,” he said. “It’s March. It was pretty good that March, too.” The end result, which is impossible to predict at this juncture, is beside the point. What can be measured is how much Meyer has changed in the intervening years. His attitude, which will rub off the Buckeyes, will provide that answer.
So far Meyer seems to be having fun even as expectations pile atop his team. On Wednesday he bounded back to his office, where he implored his administrative assistants to head upstairs to the training table. Bags of Skyline Chili Coney dogs sat there, available to players who needed a quick gut bomb to break up the much healthier post-workout fare they consumed at the training table. “Have you had Skyline?” the grinning University of Cincinnati grad—who ate a Coney or two in his youth—asked the women. “Don’t ask questions. Just go.”
Meyer had already grabbed a sack for himself. If he has learned the lessons he says he has, that snack might provide the worst heartburn he feels in 2015.
A random ranking
It drives me nuts when an artist gives a (non-cover) song the same name as a much better song. Why would Rob Thomas call a song “Overjoyed” when he knows full well that Stevie Wonder already made a perfect song called “Overjoyed?” All that does is get people excited when they hear the title and then dash their hopes when they learn A) it’s a Rob Thomas song and B) it isn’t even Thomas attempting to cover Stevie. It’s just a completely different, awful song that doesn’t deserve its name. But there are a few cases in which two different artists made two different songs and gave them the same name and both songs turned out to be excellent. Here are the top five cases of Same Title, Different Song.
1. “Learning to Fly”
Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly” had only been out a few years when Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne penned their “Learning to Fly” for Petty’s Into The Great Wide Open album. This one gets bonus points because the Foo Fighters’s “Learn to Fly” is three letters off and also rocks pretty hard.
Fleetwood Mac and Van Halen, because when the rain washes you clean you’ll get higher and higher.
Stone Temple Pilots, Radiohead and TLC. Nothing in common but a song title.
4. “Girls, Girls, Girls”
Motley Crue and Jay-Z, each at the height of their powers.
5. “Don’t Be Cruel”
Elvis Presley and Bobby Brown are honored for these songs because Elvis never recorded a song called “Humpin’ Around.”
1. Meyer will ultimately decide which of his three experienced quarterbacks will win the starting job. He does not seem stressed about it now, but did say something that explains just how difficult it will be to choose between J.T. Barrett, Jones and Miller. “One guy was here and playing well when things weren’t as good,” Meyer said. “One guy is one of the toughest people I’ve ever met. One guy went 3-0 and won the national championship game.”
There probably isn’t a correct choice in this scenario, but come August Meyer will have to make a choice anyway.
2. The Big 12’s advertisements might actually ring true in 2015. The league’s athletic directors met before the Big 12 basketball tournament, and while no vote has been taken, it appears the consensus is to use the head-to-head winner as the league’s College Football Playoff participant when two teams finish tied atop the conference with identical league records. After running “One True Champion” commercials in ’14, the Big 12 crowned two champs in football (Baylor and TCU) and wouldn’t declare one representative for the selection committee to consider.
The Big 12 got zero teams into the field, but this probably wasn’t the reason. Spots four through six were always going to be a judgment call for the committee if no upsets happened on Championship Saturday, and there weren’t any. Still, it’s nice to see the Big 12 embrace common sense. If you play a round-robin schedule and two teams finish with identical records, the champ is the team that won the head-to-head meeting between those teams. This isn't difficult.
3. We publicly shame schools that unreasonably block athletes from transferring to other schools on scholarship, so it’s time to praise a school that allowed a player to transfer even when it wasn’t forced. Cal could have blocked oft-injured defensive end Brennan Scarlett from using the graduate transfer exception to move to Stanford—where he would be eligible to play in 2015 alongside younger brother Cameron. Instead, Cal interim athletic director Michael Williams granted Scarlett the necessary waiver to transfer within the Pac-12.
Williams explained why in an email to the San Jose Mercury News. “Brennan Scarlett will be completing his degree and graduating from the Haas School of Business this spring,” Williams told the paper. “We are proud of his efforts in the classroom and on the field (especially having to battle back from the injuries he sustained during his playing career). Brennan is a young man with tremendous character and has represented our program well. We understand he has chosen to pursue his master’s degree at another university and play his final year of eligibility alongside his younger brother.”
Cal coach Sonny Dykes did not seem very excited, offering terse answers to questions about Scarlett’s transfer. But Williams made the correct choice. When Scarlett graduates, he and Cal will have fulfilled their obligations to one another. There is no obligation to Dykes for Scarlett; he signed in 2011 to play for Jeff Tedford and wasn’t consulted about Tedford’s replacement.
4. How did you celebrate Pi Day on March 14? Tennessee quarterback and aerospace engineering major Josh Dobbs celebrated by reciting Pi to 48 decimal places. His superior recall allowed him to avoid a pie in the face.
5. Will Muschamp explained some of the ways he is changing Auburn’s defense last week. “There were a lot of hybrid guys,” Muschamp told reporters. “They played the Star position, which is a Nickel for us. We ask our nickel to do a little bit more coverage in our scheme and system.” Former coordinator Ellis Johnson used the Star as a safety/linebacker combo in his 4-2-5 scheme. Muschamp’s Nickel is more of a third safety or third corner, depending on the situation.
Muschamp also uses a hybrid position called the Buck, which is a 4-3 defensive end who can move around the formation like a 3-4 outside linebacker. At Florida, Dante Fowler Jr. filled that role. At Auburn, redshirt sophomore Carl Lawson should thrive in the position. “I think he’ll be very effective,” Muschamp told reporters. “I know he has very good initial quickness and a very good first step. That’s one of the critical factors at that position that you have to have to be successful.” The 6’2”, 261-pound Lawson is still working his way back from a torn ACL suffered last summer, but he should be at full speed by preseason camp.
6. The NCAA’s football rules committee may have banned the crop-top jersey, but Ohio State tailback Ezekiel Elliott and his abs aren’t going down without a fight.
7. The start of NFL free agency looked an awful lot like National Signing Day. As he left a Pro Day last week, one scout joked that pretty soon we’ll see NFL players sitting at tables with hats laid out in front of them. But why stop there? Just imagine the team mascot announcements these guys could afford. Darrelle Revis could have announced his choice by chartering an actual jet. Ndamukong Suh could have had dolphins flipping behind him. DeMarco Murray could have hired a falconer to ensure an actual eagle landed on the table just as pen touched paper.
9. This week in Jim Harbaugh …
10. Ladies and gentlemen, Bo Pelini.
What’s eating Andy?
Georgia moved one step closer Sunday to turning the NCAA’s pretend crimes into actual crimes. Georgia House of Representatives members approved a bill that would criminalize any act jeopardizing a college player’s eligibility. For example, someone who gives a person money to sign autographs because his autograph is valuable would be committing a crime if the signer were a college athlete. The bill was inspired by the stupid-in-every-aspect Todd Gurley autograph scandal.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution only gives the bill a 33 percent chance of passing in the Senate. Perhaps state senators realize law enforcement officials in Georgia have better things to do than punish free enterprise on behalf of the NCAA.
What’s Andy eating?
Nashville’s Thornton Prince liked the ladies a little too much. Specifically, he liked the ladies who weren’t his lady a little too much. So legend has it that one morning after a particularly late night, Prince’s girlfriend fried him some chicken and—as punishment for whatever dalliance Prince committed the night before—loaded the chicken down with hot pepper. Prince loved the spicy chicken so much that he opened a restaurant serving it, and that place has stood for decades.
At least that’s the legend. The truth might be less interesting, but anyone who has eaten the skillet-fried birds from Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack knows the chicken is interesting enough without embellishment. But until recently, Hot Chicken has been cloistered in Nashville. The spicy wing went forth from Buffalo’s Anchor Bar and conquered the nation, but Prince’s cayenne-rubbed miracle has remained regional.
Fortunately, that’s changing. When I arrived in Columbus last week to cover the opening of Ohio State’s spring practice, the sportswriter community was buzzing about Hot Chicken Takeover. The place had started in 2014 as a pop-up serving out of a window in a restaurant co-op, and late last year it moved into its current home on the second floor of the North Market complex near the Columbus Convention Center. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursday through Sunday, the staff double fries brined chicken and coats it with a cayenne paste to serve to a Midwestern audience that—like most people outside Nashville—probably didn’t realize the how much better Hot Chicken is than a hot wing.
Hot wings are fried and then tossed in a sauce. Hot Chicken is fried and then coated in that devil paste that was supposed to teach the philandering Thornton Prince a lesson. You can eat a Hot Chicken wing, but you may also eat every other part of the bird as well. The traditional presentation includes a breast or leg quarter staked to a piece of white bread with a toothpick. The bread soaks up the grease and leaves the chicken light in texture and heavy in flavor. Pickles sit atop the toothpick to help manage the capsaicin.
At Prince’s, the Hot option (the place’s penultimate offering on the Scoville scale) feels as if it might melt the face before liquefying the internal organs. This is a compliment. Every runny-nosed sniff is a reminder of Thornton Prince’s girlfriend’s alleged rage. I can only assume those who order Extra Hot at Prince’s had their nerve endings burned out in an industrial accident and must eat that wicked stuff to feel once again, if only for a moment. Since Hot Chicken Takeover is not serving a clientele conditioned to cayenne for generations, employees walk down the line armed with menus and explanations. They educate the uninitiated on the concept of Hot Chicken, and offer helpful advice so diners aren’t over- or underwhelmed by the heat. Cam, who worked the line on the day I visited, said that since I had eaten Hot Chicken in Nashville, I should take what I would order at Prince’s and go up one notch. Since I would order medium at Prince’s, I should order Hot at HTC. Those masochists who would order Hot at Prince’s should order Holy! at HTC.
A meal at HTC comes with the requested piece(s) of chicken (breast, leg quarter, wings or drumsticks) staked to the aforementioned white bread with sides of vinegar-based slaw and macaroni and cheese. The thick, gooey mac and cheese is the star of the sides and provides an excellent foil to the spice on the chicken. But before settling for the basic meal, consider one available upgrade.
For an extra $2, HTC will replace the white bread beneath the chicken with a waffle. Yes, a waffle. Under Hot Chicken. The resulting flavor combination is far too sublime for an idea so simple. The thick waffle stands strong against the grease and heat. Dab it in the warm, house-made syrup for the ultimate spicy-sweet bite. This should probably go without saying, but it’s a sound philosophy to always upgrade from chicken to chicken and waffles when offered the option.
On top of this glorious combo, HTC offers free sweet tea. Not some powder mix, either. Real, honest-to-God brewed tea with the sugar melted into the liquid before it cools. Go ahead, give a little Ess-Eee-See chant for real sweet tea that far north. A Big Ten team holds the national title—and may not let anyone take it for a while—so cherish the small victories. Besides, once Hot Chicken Takeover completes the mission stated in its name, Columbus may feel like an SEC town. Just with a much better football team than the town that created Hot Chicken in the first place.