Back in action, ace recruiter Meyer assembles stellar Ohio State class
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It's two days before Signing Day, and Urban Meyer can't stop yawning. Sitting on a couch in his spacious office in the Woody Hayes Center, white workout towel draped over his shoulder, Ohio State's head football coach looks beat from 17 consecutive days of visiting, hosting or calling recruits.
Just don't make the mistake of telling him that.
"I look beat?" Meyer repeats with a touch of incredulity. "I'm tired. I feel good, though. Amazing."
That's because in two day's time, 25 faxed letters of intent would arrive in the Buckeyes' office, including nine from Rivals.com four- or five-star recruits who committed during the two months since the former Florida coach returned to his home state. Despite a tattoos-for-memorabilia scandal that cost revered coach Jim Tressel his job last spring, an uncharacteristic 6-7 season and an NCAA-mandated 2012 postseason ban, Ohio State landed the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class Wednesday.
Few coaches could have pulled that off under the same circumstances. Then again, few can show up in a recruit's living room sporting a pair of BCS championship rings and a list of former players who are now NFL stars.
"Urban Meyer is the best head coach recruiter by far," said Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell. "He's relentless, and he doesn't give up."
During his six-year run at Florida from 2005-10, Meyer compiled three classes ranked either No. 1 or 2 nationally. His '06 and '07 groups included two future Heisman winners (Tim Tebow and Cam Newton) and a dozen NFL starters, including two, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Spikes, who will be playing for the New England Patriots in Sunday's Super Bowl. During that time, Meyer developed a reputation as one of the sport's most competitive and energetic recruiters.
It shouldn't have been a surprise, then, that the 47-year-old immediately galvanized Ohio State's 2012 recruiting efforts upon arriving in Columbus. And yet in some ways, it was. Our last images of Meyer as football coach were those of a dispirited, burnt-out guy who "retired" from coaching in December 2010 and spoke frequently -- then and now -- of his desire for more work-family balance. How could we be sure the coach who used to manically text recruits while attending the Super Bowl (back when texting recruits was still legal) would be the same guy to hit the recruiting trail this winter?
Any such doubts were quickly removed when a series of elite recruits -- many of whom were previously committed to other schools -- pledged to the Buckeyes in December and January, usually during or shortly after a visit with the new coach.
"You talk to him for a few minutes and he's got you hooked," said four-star defensive tackle Tommy Schutt from Glen Ellyn, Ill., who switched his allegiance from Penn State to Ohio State following a mid-December visit to Columbus. "You want to go play for him."
By Jan. 30, Meyer was still trying to land three more blue-chippers, but had run out of time to woo them (no more in-person contact was permitted prior to Signing Day). "Now you're down to creative recruiting," Meyer said. One prospect, four-star tackle Kyle Dodson, had made it known his brother would play an important role in his decision. "I'm trying to get to know the brother, but the only way you can do that is through the phone," Meyer said.
It must have worked. Dodson, a 6-foot-6, 315-pound Cleveland native, reneged on his Wisconsin commitment to sign with the Buckeyes. "This one's a HUGE deal," Meyer said by phone upon hearing the news midday Wednesday.
"I love it," Meyer said of recruiting. "Not like, love. It's competition."
On Nov. 28, two days after suffering its first loss in eight years to archrival Michigan, Ohio State hired Urban Meyer as its head football coach.
The night before his introductory press conference, Meyer and his wife, Shelley, spent nearly four hours with the man he'd be replacing, interim coach Luke Fickell, and Fickell's wife, Amy. As many fans had hoped, Meyer offered the 38-year-old Fickell a spot on his staff (he would later be named co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach), a potentially awkward situation that's proven the opposite.
"It wasn't difficult because we're more similar personality-wise than we are different," said Fickell. "It wasn't like I was taking a step back. This place is special to me." The former Buckeye defensive lineman would soon become Meyer's most important recruiter, accompanying him on nearly every one of his home visits.
In those first hurried days, Fickell and holdover receivers coach Stan Drayton -- one of Meyer's former Florida assistants who had joined Tressel's staff a year earlier -- brought the new boss up to speed on the state of the Buckeyes' roster. They identified three areas in need of immediate recruiting attention: defensive end, offensive tackle and linebacker.
"I told Mark [Pantoni, Meyer's director of player personnel], 'Get me [tape of] the best tackles,'" Meyer said of his first night on the job. "So we watched the top 10 tackles, the top 10 defensive ends from this part of the country."
That Monday and Tuesday night were a blur, as the coaches took turns handing Meyer their phones for introductory conversations with the players they'd spent months recruiting. He leaned on the returning assistants (Fickell, Drayton, defensive line coach Mike Vrabel and since-departed cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson) for background on the players they were already recruiting, many of whom had cooled on Ohio State following Tressel's dismissal.
"The whole thought process throughout the year was, just stay in the ballgame, build a relationship with these guys, and whenever we get clarity [on who would be the permanent head coach], all we need is that crack to get our foot back through the door," said Fickell.
The staff also made cold calls to prospects it hadn't previously dealt with. One of the first went to Noah Spence, a five-star defensive end for Bishop McDevitt High in Harrisburg, Pa., who many expected would sign with Penn State before the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal devastated that program in early November. Meyer's staff called despite the fact that Spence had expressed almost no interest in the Buckeyes previously, focusing instead on Maryland and others.
"You can tell right away from the [first] phone call whether there's interest," said Meyer. "But we didn't know anything about each other. Usually recruiting takes place over a year, year-and-a-half. With Noah Spence, it was a two-week relationship."
Head coaches are allowed only one off-campus contact date with a prospect, and Meyer likes to save his for the last two weeks before Signing Day. He made an exception, however, when Spence's father, Greg, indicated the coach might make an impression if he attended Bishop McDevitt's Dec. 16 state championship game. Meyer, Fickell and Vrabel caravanned together that night to Hershey, Pa., where Meyer spoke to Noah afterward and posed for pictures.
"[The visit] made Noah feel that, hey, we're not just giving you lip service, we really want you to be here," Bishop McDevitt coach Jeff Weachter told SI.com. "If it wouldn't have been for Urban and his efforts, [Spence] probably wouldn't have even went out and visited [Ohio State]."
Spence took that visit the next day. By weekend's end, he'd committed. Coming on the heels of commitments a week earlier from two top 10 defensive linemen -- Schutt and Canton, Ohio, native Se'Von Pittman (a Michigan State commit) -- Spence, Rivals' top-ranked defensive end and No. 9 overall prospect, immediately became Meyer's signature recruit.
Eight of the 10 players who pledged to Ohio State after Meyer's hiring had previously committed elsewhere. Flipping committed recruits from other schools is an increasingly common practice, but Meyer can come off as particularly aggressive. At least two Big Ten coaches did not take kindly to Meyer snatching a committed player.
"Jim Tressel and [Michigan State coach] Mark Dantonio would never call or talk to each other's commitments," Dantonio's defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi,
Meyer doesn't see his methods as anything unusual.
"How can you go recruit a young guy committed to another school?" Meyer said Wednesday. "You ask a question: 'Are you interested?' If they say, 'No,' you move on. If they say, 'Yes, very interested,' then you throw that hook out there."
That hook proved particularly hard for most players to turn down. Drayton has seen the Meyer effect with his own eyes when joining him for an in-home visit.
"I could be the recruiter that's spent all this time recruiting that individual, getting to know what makes the kid tick," Drayton said. "All of a sudden I get in a home visit and Urban Meyer gets a comfort level with the kid and the family and [the recruit] lets his hair down and opens himself up completely.
"When that happens, Urban Meyer's been undefeated in my experience with him."
While Meyer's one-year coaching hiatus remains puzzling to much of the college football world, it didn't seem to faze recruits, who knew his track record well. But they did have other concerns.
Meyer said he usually addressed the NCAA sanctions preemptively before the players even asked.
"Every kid has a dream, and never once have I heard 'play in a bowl game my freshman year' as their dream," Meyer said. "It's 'have a great collegiate experience, graduate and go to the NFL.' All the penalties in place have no impact on the kids' dream."
Meyer said he had not anticipated the bowl ban, which came down Dec. 20, shortly after the initial flurry of commitments. But, "as long as this makes college football better, I'm behind it," Meyer said. "It has a serious impact on me, on my family, on my players, but ... I was a very vocal proponent before I came here about willful and intended violations need to be dealt with in a very severe manner."
He has a more lighthearted response to another "negative" he often hears rival recruiters use against him: That his spread offense is detrimental to players' pro aspirations.
"It's one of the most absurd things I've ever heard," Meyer said. "We had two quarterbacks -- Alex Smith and Tim Tebow -- playing in the [playoffs]." From Florida's 2008 national championship team alone, four offensive linemen (Maurkice and Mike Pouncey, Maurice Hurt and Marcus Gilbert), four receivers (Louis Murphy, Percy Harvin, Riley Cooper and David Nelson) and a tight end (Hernandez) have gone on to start at the next level.
"And they say you have to play in a pro style offense to get to the NFL?" said Meyer. "When we get done laughing, we say let's get through this, and it doesn't take long."
Not everyone was receptive to Meyer's pitch. Five-star offensive tackle Kyle Kalis, a Lakewood, Ohio, native who made a much-publicized switch from Ohio State to Michigan following Tressel's ouster, took Meyer's call but declined to reconsider. So the Buckeyes looked elsewhere for offensive line help.
Besides Spence, Meyer's No. 1 target was 6-8 tackle Taylor Decker, a Vandalia, Ohio, native who had committed to Notre Dame. "He's a tall, angular tackle," said Meyer. "He's exactly what we wanted."
Decker's primary recruiter in South Bend had been running backs coach Tim Hinton. On Jan. 2, Meyer hired two Notre Dame assistants: Hinton and offensive line coach Ed Warriner.
"Taylor Decker recruited us," said Meyer. "He called me and said, 'I want to be a Buckeye.' Whoa, what are you talking about? ... Then his high school coach called us said, He wants to come to Ohio State."
Decker arrived Jan. 14 for a visit and committed the next day.
Then, a couple of days later, along came the linebacker reinforcements: David Perkins (South Bend, Ind.) and Camren Williams (West Roxbury, Mass.), the latter another Penn State defector. The staff's only (thin) connection to Williams was that the player's father, Brent, once played for the New England Patriots, as did Vrabel a decade later.
"That was a long process," said Meyer. "They came back twice to visit." When Meyer had to dismiss two reserve cornerbacks for disciplinary issues, he stepped up his pursuit of Williams' teammate, four-star cornerback Armani Reeves, who wound up choosing the Buckeyes over archrival Michigan.
Meyer said Wednesday that Ohio State still has room for one more signee, presumably Stefon Diggs, a five-star receiver from Olney, Md., who visited Columbus last weekend. He's expected to announce his choice Feb. 10.
Meyer admits he cares where his class finishes in the recruiting services' rankings. Asked if he was pleased with being No. 3 [as of Monday], Meyer said, "Sure. We want to finish ahead of our rival."
Michigan, which assembled its own stellar class under Brady Hoke, finished sixth.
As he dashed around the country in December and January, Meyer watched several Ohio State games from last season he'd loaded on his iPad. He also broadcast one of the Buckeyes' games for ESPN. While he won't know for sure until he sees his players perform this spring, he believes the Buckeyes' mediocre 2011 season was due largely to the "chaos" of Tressel's dismissal, Terrelle Pryor's unexpected departure and the NCAA suspensions of several key players.
But he also senses the program that won six straight Big Ten championships from 2005-10 (the last one since vacated) suffered a talent drop-off.
"The question I have is, do we have that dynamic player on offense?" said Meyer. "Where's the Ted Ginns of the world? Were they hiding [last] year? I hope we have those guys. That's a big concern of mine right now."
One player he's thrilled with is rising sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller, who served as an ace recruiter when prospects visited campus and whose skill set seems an ideal fit for the up-tempo offense Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman (formerly of Iowa State) plan to install.
But Ohio State will need more than Miller. Meyer didn't shy away from putting true freshmen in key roles at Florida, and if the 2012 class doesn't entirely fill the void, he's got a jumpstart on 2013. Two of the state's top juniors, quarterback Jalin Marshall (Middletown) and defensive back Cameron Burrows (Trotwood) -- both of whom have already garnered five-star designations from Rivals or Scout.com -- have already committed to the Buckeyes.
"We already know the '13 class. Done," said Meyer.
Meyer also said it was around this time last year that he began to miss coaching. "I was really convinced I was done," he said, though few outside of his own home believed him. He speaks fondly of his time with ESPN, and had anyone besides his home-state school come calling he may well have spent this year's Signing Day in a studio, too.
Wife Shelley and son Nate, 13, plan to move up from Florida by March. Spring football awaits shortly thereafter.
"I feel great. Awesome," Meyer said. "Without getting too deep -- I believe that things don't just happen by luck. There's a plan."
The 2012 Ohio State recruiting class, at least, went off almost exactly as Meyer planned.