Behind the scenes of Ohio State's leadership training, the Buckeyes' key to success
COLUMBUS, Ohio—At 5:59 a.m. on a Tuesday in mid-May, Urban Meyer briskly enters the staff meeting room at Ohio State. There's no greeting. No salutation. No small talk. Meyer begins speaking before he even sits down. He squints with an intense focus, like he does in the seconds prior to a fourth-down play. "I've been at a place before where I've seen things slip," Meyer says. "I promise you one thing, things aren't going to slip around here."
Meyer eventually takes his seat at the head of an oversized staff table in the windowless room. In front of his nine bleary-eyed assistant coaches sit steaming, plastic-foam cups of coffee. Meyer is concerned this morning because two players arrived late to a team meeting the day before. To him, the incident represents a symptom of the off-season's most ominous opponents—complacency and entitlement.
Ohio State begins the 2015 campaign as the defending national champion and the unanimous preseason No. 1. The Buckeyes return 14 starters, including seven potential first-round NFL draft picks and three quarterbacks talented enough to start for almost any team in the country. But they also begin the season with four players suspended for the opener at Virginia Tech on Sept. 7 for off-field transgressions, tangible signs of players forgetting the discipline that led to the title. "We've thrown out enough first pitches," Meyer tells his staff. "We need to think about why we won. We're not going to let that slip."
The reality of Ohio State's title defense is that the stiffest challenge facing the Buckeyes won't come from the Hokies, Michigan State or any potential opponents in the College Football Playoff. Ohio State's most daunting adversaries may just be the Buckeyes themselves—and how they deal with success. There is the malaise inherent to winning, the temptations that accompany being exalted in a college town and the delicate task of keeping winning fun when it has become the expectation of everyone. "We have all the players, all the potential, and the program is run the right way to where we should win every game we play," Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker says. "But the human element is there."
The pre-dawn meeting of the coaching staff kicks off Meyer's third season of leadership training in Columbus. It is key to Meyer's plan to defeat the human element, something he could not do when attempting to defend the 2006 and '08 national championships at Florida. As he enters his 14th season as a head coach, Meyer's philosophy has evolved to the point where he believes chemistry and culture trump schemes and star rankings. Having great players is a necessity for winning, but so is having the cohesiveness to maximize that talent.
The extent to which Meyer believes in consultant Tim Kight's Focus 3 leadership training can be seen through how much time the Buckeyes dedicate to it. Players and staff met weekly in the off-season, from May through July, to learn leadership principles. There were study guides and written tests, and there was even a graduation ceremony. The most clear sign of Meyer's belief in the training is all of his assistants returned from recruiting one day a week in May to teach leadership to their units. Meyer even wrote a leadership-centric book, Above The Line, which will be released in October. The book shows how leadership principles aided the Buckeyes through adversity en route to the 2014 title. "From the bottom of our souls all the way through our body, we have to believe in [the training] and feel it," Meyer tells his coaches. "I want to make sure we're nine strong. If we line up next year, nine strong, who is going to beat this team?"
"At some point, contact will be made. Contact. Will. Be. Made. It might be Sept. 7 when we play a team that beat us last year. Contact will be made. You and someone else will be in a situation where contact will be made. It's absolutely unavoidable in the career you chose, football. Something's going to happen. And you've been trained over and over, and you're going to restart today. The training starts today. Contact will be made, right? And what happens? You resort back to your training. Because you've been trained your whole life to put chemicals and crap in your body, what do you do? You go put chemicals and crap in your body because that's acceptable. If you turn and run scared, guess what you do when contact is made? You turn and run. At Ohio State, you walk in the door as a freshman you're trained."
At 7 a.m. the Buckeyes staff meeting on leadership transitions to a team meeting. Meyer delivers the above words with a volume and intensity that make the moment feel like there are 30 minutes remaining until kickoff against Michigan. The Buckeyes' players lean forward, transfixed by Meyer's passion. He hits hard on his obvious theme—"contact will be made"—by repeating some version of the phrase more than 35 times in 15 minutes.
Following Meyer's opening monologue, players watch a video about New England Patriots Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler. ("I want a little extra volume," Meyer had said earlier in the staff meeting.) When the video ends, Kight takes the floor. He runs a performance consulting firm, called Focus 3, with one of his sons, Brian. Kight ran track in 1974 and '75 at UCLA, where he studied John Wooden from a distance. He has spent the majority of his career training such companies as Ernst & Young, Nationwide Insurance and Bank of America. Kight is in his third season working with Ohio State, where Meyer values him like an extra assistant. Kight's company also works with the football programs at Washington and James Madison; last year it worked with Boston College and New Mexico.
Butler offers a perfect prism through which to view Kight's teachings. On the Seattle Seahawks' final drive of last February's Super Bowl, Butler didn't put his palms up in disbelief or act impulsively after receiver Jermaine Kearse made a 33-yard circus catch on the five-yard line. Instead, Kight notes, Butler's response was to return to the sideline, lock in and get ready to help his team. He did that two plays later, intercepting a pass at the two-yard line to seal the victory for New England. "He pressed pause, he got his mind right," Kight tells the team. "And stepped up and made maybe the biggest play in all of professional football history."
The basic tenet of Kight's training is E + R = O, which means that event plus response equals outcome. When Butler was beaten two plays before his game-winning interception—on a ball that appeared to be tipped four times—he chose what Kight calls "above the line behavior." In the best interest of the team, he returned to the Patriots' sideline and kept his cool. He didn't choose "below the line behavior," which would have consisted of sulking, complaining and losing focus. Butler's trained response, as opposed to an impulsive one, led to a victorious outcome.
Kight also finds a teaching point in Butler's backstory—he came to New England as an undrafted free agent from Division II West Alabama after attending junior college. Kight tells the Buckeyes that no player in the Super Bowl ranked as a consensus five-star recruit coming out of high school, and points out that in the first three rounds of the 2015 NFL draft 65% of the players had been ranked as three-star prospects or lower. "It's not about talent," he tells the country's most talented team. "If you want to be great, talent isn't enough."
"You're in rare air right here. You're on a preseason No. 1 team, getting ready to take ownership of this team. This wasn't winning the Liberty Bowl and getting a winning record. You're talking about the highest, highest level of anything we're asked to do. … How cool is that? That's what you're asked to do. There's no other athlete in America asked to do what you're doing. Name him. Name him. Name the other preseason No. 1 team in America, returning national champion loaded with players. Name another team that has the opportunity we have. I'll help you. It doesn't exist. So take this serious, and I'm going to watch very closely because you are my pupils. You carry our message."
Earlier the same day, at 4:50 a.m., Decker picks up fellow offensive lineman Jamarco Jones. They arrive at the football facility to lift weights at 5:30, which isn't Decker's assigned time. But the outreach of Decker, a senior, to Jones, a sophomore, is a manifestation of the culture at Ohio State. "I didn't wake up at 4:30 this morning because I wanted to," Decker says. "I woke up this morning because that's what needed to be done."
Early in his career with the Buckeyes, Decker worked out daily with stalwart lineman Jack Mewhort, who now starts at right tackle for the Indianapolis Colts. In the beginning, Decker couldn't match Mewhort's strength and talent. "He would hold me to that same standard," Decker says of Mewhort. "And it worked wonders for me, and it only makes sense that [it would] be applied to someone else."
Around the Ohio State football facility, the slogan "Power of the Unit" is used hundreds of times a day. The real-world application of the phrase plays out in different ways. An assistant is as responsible for his players going to class as he is for having them prepared to have a productive practice. Same goes for the players. Jones struggled to gain weight early in his career. When he failed, his punishment included pushing a wooden board the 53-yard width of the field up to 12 times. "It's terrible," Decker says of the drill. "It's not the fact it weighs anything, but the friction on the grass."
Decker knows this because the other Buckeyes' linemen also had to push the board when Jones didn't make weight. That created peer pressure, and after Jones saw his teammates being punished, he began taking more seriously the task of packing the adequate weight on his 6' 5", 310-pound frame.
Decker is living proof of another Ohio State mantra: 10-80-10. Ten percent of the team is elite, 80% is average and 10% is resistant to conformity. Decker represents the top 10% and is attempting to pull Jones there from the middle 80%. "That's the big thing," Decker says. "Your actions don't only affect you, they affect everyone around you, and I think that can build a cohesiveness."
Meyer's favorite quote of this off-season came from the mother of Amy Nicol, his longtime football administration coordinator. Lisa Halpin, an elementary school teacher in Alabama, emailed Meyer a quote from British philosopher G.K. Chesterton: "The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him." Meyer took it as the ultimate compliment to the clarity of his program's culture that Nicol's mom could summarize it with a quote he proceeded to hang all around the football facility. "Wow," he says. "How cool is that?"
Kight cites the case of former linebacker Curtis Grant as an example of the culture of Meyer's program. As a senior last season, Grant tenuously held on to a starting job in the final year of a career that never lived up to its five-star billing. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, who arrived as a similarly heralded freshman, was expected to take Grant's snaps. Instead of shunning McMillan, however, Grant drove him to the facility, tutored him on the playbook and mentored him without concern for how it might impact his playing time. Grant finished 2014 with by far the best year of his career, even recording 10 tackles in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama. McMillan also played well and is now poised to star for years in Columbus. "If you don't have that within the team," linebacker Josh Perry says, "I don't think Raekwon is going to be in the position he is now to step up as a leader himself."
When Perry reflects on the adversity that the Buckeyes endured on and off the field during their national title run, he credits the leadership training for how players responded. Ohio State lost starting quarterback Braxton Miller to injury during the preseason, fell to Virginia Tech at home in Week 2 and lost quarterback J.T. Barrett to a broken ankle in the regular-season finale against Michigan. The Buckeyes also dealt with the death of walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge, who took his own life last November.
"If that season didn't [have all that adversity], I don't know if we would've seen leadership that strong because the events weren't that big," Perry says. "After a big event, you need a big response."
"Why does a great athlete fail? Does he just not jump high enough? How many great athletes are not performing well? We just showed you. Where's all the five-stars? They're not playing pro football in Super Bowls. You need to learn to train for when contact is made. Name a situation where you don't need Rs (responses). You're going to need more Rs than the average guy who is a sociology major here at Ohio State. The demon isn't attacking him. Are they attacking you? How often? Every day. And we can attack you and your behavior and all that, and that doesn't work. I've [told my teams] that for 20 years. 'Don't do that stuff!' O.K., yeah right. Or you can create a culture where you can't do it. And if you do it, that makes you a bad guy because you're letting people down."
At 12:30 p.m. Meyer walks through the hallways of the Buckeyes' facility on his way to get in a workout. He shakes his head, looks around and sums up the precarious nature of being the favorite. "It's all so fragile," he says. "So fragile."
In 2007 and '09, Meyer faced the formidable task of repeating as national champion. The '07 Florida team lost four games, including one at LSU in which coach Les Miles's Tigers converted five of five fourth-down attempts. The '09 team went undefeated during the regular season, but its defining moment came when star defensive end Carlos Dunlap got arrested for DUI at 3:25 a.m. on the Tuesday before the SEC Championship Game. Alabama blew out the Gators 32-13. Meyer stepped down for health reasons later that month. "Once you're at the top, you get pummeled," Meyer says. "It's much more fun to run up the hill than be on top of it."
Ohio State strength coach Mickey Marotti, who was with Meyer at Florida, recalls little things from 2007 and '09, including players warming up in individualized shirts. Looking back, the presence of too many rock stars ended up being symptomatic of an entitled environment. Marotti and Meyer have vehemently fought against any signs of that this year. "I just think with the amount of personnel we got coming back, it's going to be harder than last year, harder from now until the end," Marotti says. "I think when something might not go good, they can always say, 'We won a championship last year. We're good.'"
A few hours before the national title game last January, the Buckeyes gathered in front of a giant screen to watch the season's final hype video. The sound of thumping helicopter blades reverberated through the room as the final scene of Zero Dark Thirty played. When a Navy SEAL kills Osama Bin Laden, another asks: "Do you realize what you just did?"
The video came courtesy of David Trichel, whose role within the program transcends his mundane title, director of post-production. The 30-year-old Trichel, whom Meyer hired from LSU's video department in 2012, is, in the words of Marotti, the team's "hype coach." He makes daily mash-up motivational videos using everything from football clips to mobster movies. "My job is to keep our guys stimulated, keep them motivated, keep them everyday feeling fresh," Trichel says.
Trichel is a pivotal part of Meyer's leadership cabinet, which has expanded since his days at Florida. Back then, Meyer met with Marotti to talk about whether to crank up the intensity of practice or dial it back. They pondered which players needed prodding. These days, the expanded cabinet meets regularly and exchanges thoughts and emails, with the mantra of "energy and creativity." Along with Marotti, Kight and Trichel, it includes Ryan Stamper, a former Gators linebacker under Meyer. Stamper was hired in 2012 as the program's coordinator of player development to help guide the Buckeyes off the field. Longtime director of football operations Brian Voltolini also contributes, while director of player personnel Mark Pantoni meets with 10 interns every morning to come up with creative ideas for social media, graphics and videos. (The video of a mannequin scaring Cardale Jones got 1.4 million views.)
Instead of focusing on chasing a title, Meyer has shifted the priority to chasing away complacency and entitlement and empowering all nine units. "We don't say national championship," Meyer says. "Just nine units. That's the singular focus. If your running back coach is worried about winning national titles, he's not worried about his unit."
When Ezekiel Elliott ran across the goal line to seal Ohio State's 42-20 victory over Oregon in the waning moments of the national title game, former Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman asked him over the headset: "Do you realize what you just did?"
When Ohio State makes contact with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Sept. 7, we'll see how well-equipped the Buckeyes are for a sequel.