He couldn't stand the heat, so he got out of the kitchen. No shame in that. Urban Meyer burned out after six seasons at Florida, then took some time off. Now that he's back—he was hired at Ohio State on Nov. 28—he knows there are people watching him to see if he has gone soft, if he still has his edge. He knows he's got something to prove.
This is an article from the April 23, 2012 issue
"Of course that motivates me," says Meyer, who has gone soft. Not physically. Physically he's lean and fit but not gaunt the way he'd get at Florida, when his Gators were winning two national titles in three years and his most trusted assistants were leaving for head coaching gigs elsewhere. Lacking the same level of trust in their replacements, Meyer found himself trying to do everyone's job—micromanaging, forgetting to eat. Neglecting his health, failing to delegate, he worked himself sick. In December 2010 he resigned from Florida (for the second time, but the first time officially), citing the need to spend more time with his family, to find a new balance in his life.
He is also striving to find a different kind of balance—with mixed results, according to a recent critical story in the Sporting News. Meyer and his new staff are trying to walk that fine line between aggressive recruiting and falling afoul of NCAA bylaws governing contact with high school players. Citing unnamed sources, SN reported that Wisconsin accused ex-Buckeyes now in the NFL of phoning recruits, and that Ohio State coaches accidentally-on-purpose "bumped" into a four-star lineman during a "dead" period. Both forms of contact are NCAA no-nos.
Meyer forcefully refuted those allegations last week. "I want to say this real clear: There is no violation that we had as far as that whole conversation. I'm not sure why that keeps coming up. If you would bold that for me, underline it, there is no NCAA violation. There was not one turned in."
Well, that didn't take long. Before coaching one game in the Big Ten, Meyer had trod on toes from Madison to Ann Arbor. To anyone who has watched him turn around programs at Bowling Green, then Utah, then in Gainesville, this comes as zero surprise. Meyer has always operated with a near-total absence of regard for what others think of him. While he may be a bit of a loner—his intensity makes him slightly awkward socially—he's very comfortable venturing up to the edge of the rules, but never crossing the line, he insists. In the convocation of Big Ten coaches he is very much the unpolished arriviste. Between that glower and his SEC pedigree, there seems to be something Machiavellian and cutthroat about him. His coaching peers are right to feel threatened.
After spending the 2011 season as an analyst for ESPN, this son of Ashtabula, Ohio, was hired to take over a Buckeyes program still reeling from Tattoogate, which forced the resignation last May of Jim Tressel, the program's most successful coach since Woody Hayes. The gimlet-eyed Meyer took the Ohio State job when many of the nation's blue-chip players had already given nonbinding verbal commitments to other schools. But they'd made their decisions before Meyer arrived in Columbus. Perhaps, then, they would like to reconsider?
His instructions to his new staff were simple, recalls defensive line coach and ex--New England Patriot Mike Vrabel, one of three holdovers from Tressel's staff: "Let's talk to the best players in the country. Let's tell 'em who we are, tell 'em who we got, show 'em our excitement."
As Meyer's new offensive coordinator, Tom Herman, points out, it helps that "to some of these kids, he's kind of a rock star. And there's a lot of substance beneath the flair." Meyer's winning percentage (.819) is the second highest of any active coach, behind Boise State's Chris Petersen (.926). He's one of only two active coaches with multiple national titles. (His old 'Bama nemesis, Nick Saban, has three.) High school studs tend to take his calls.
With his new staff, Meyer transformed what was shaping up to be a below-average collection of talent for the Buckeyes, into the nation's No. 4 class, reeling in nine Rivals.com four- or five-star recruits who committed during the two months after Meyer was hired. That list included four-star, 6'6", 310-pound Kyle Dodson, an offensive tackle from Cleveland who'd previously pledged his troth to Wisconsin. During his national signing day news conference, Badgers coach Bret Bielema accused Meyer of "illegal" recruiting practices, though he did not delve into specifics. Two days later, at a meeting of Big Ten coaches in Chicago, Meyer and Bielema talked. "There are no hard feelings," reports Meyer, who may well have been speaking only for himself.
Meyer took the Ohio State job after signing two contracts: one from the university, which will pay him $24 million over six years, and another, composed on pink binder paper, from his daughter Nicki, a junior at Georgia Tech. Now framed and hanging on the wall behind his desk, the contract stipulates, among other things, that the 47-year-old Meyer eat three meals a day, exercise regularly and sleep with his phone turned off.
Working a full slate of games for ESPN may not sound like an ideal way to decompress, but it worked for Meyer, who laughs at a suggestion that his job in television was remotely as demanding as coaching. "I mean, Monday and Tuesday are four- or five-hour sessions, Wednesday not as much," he says. "Thursday's for travel. Friday's a couple hours of production meetings. Saturday's the game, then you fold your book up and you go watch your daughters play volleyball."
Nicki is a defensive specialist for the Yellow Jackets; Gigi is a setter at Florida Gulf Coast who'll be entering her sophomore season. Little brother Nate, 13, is a seventh-grader and fireballing righthanded pitcher. Their dad could always make it from his ESPN gig to a Sunday game; sometimes he finished early enough to make it to a Saturday-night match. And there was the memorable occasion last September, when—on the eve of calling the Auburn-Clemson game—he walked into Clemson's Jervey Gym, where Nicki was playing in her team's ACC opener.
Nicki reports that her old man has done a "great" job abiding by the contract. "If we call him and he's in a meeting, he'll pick up, even if it's just to tell us he'll call us right back. When he was at Florida, he just wouldn't pick up."
But is this new Urban permanent? "We will see," says Shelley, his wife of 23 years. "We haven't played any games yet."
That's Nate on the mound in the glossy photo in his dad's office, throwing gas in some Little League game. He and Shelley moved from Florida to Ohio in mid-March, even though Nate still had two months of school. Why not wait until June?
For one thing, says Urban, Nate's new travel baseball team starts practice before then. For another, the coach admits, "I can't go much longer without them." He had been commuting between Gainesville and Columbus for three months. "I want 'em here."
The old Meyer—the supremely driven young coach—would not have allowed himself such a tender, unspartan sentiment. Or if he did, he wouldn't have vocalized it. But this is the new Urban. At the first meeting of his newly assembled staff, recalls Vrabel, Meyer said, "'I want you guys to be great husbands, fathers and football coaches.' He wants the players to be around our families, to know our wives and our kids. It's an important part of the program."
Such friendships knit closer coach-player bonds. Meyer also hopes that they give his players pause before they make off-the-field decisions that might affect the livelihoods of those assistants. This strategy met with only mixed success during his years in Gainesville, during which the program was embarrassed by at least 31 arrests involving 25 players, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Many were garden-variety offenses, from alcohol possession to disorderly conduct. But more than a dozen involved initial charges of felonies or violent misdemeanors. Those arrests, and Meyer's perceived lenience with the lawbreakers, opened him to criticism repeated, most recently, in SN. But he has always defended his willingness to give his charges second "and even third" chances.
The sins of the Buckeyes during the brief reign of Urban have been venial, so far as we know. In February five players were late for a meeting. This tardiness, paired with what Meyer called "a couple of incorrect decisions" made by players over the following weekend, resulted in a harsh consequence: The entire team was subjected to a week of 5 a.m. outdoor conditioning drills in 10° weather. "You only get so many chances in life to make a first impression," says Meyer, "and we wanted to make this one stick."
It stuck. "Those workouts were a big step for us," says junior offensive lineman Jack Mewhort, who describes the grueling winter workouts as "a cleansing period. I think [Meyer] was disappointed with what had gone on here, and he wanted to work it out of us."
Early last month Mewhort reported that the team had "lost 457 pounds of total fat, and gained 500-odd pounds of muscle."
That would make the Buckeyes college football's equivalent of the biggest losers, which is fitting: The team's 6--7 record last season was its worst since it went 4--6--1 in 1988.
People try to be nice," says Luke Fickell, the ex-Buckeyes noseguard who took over as interim coach for Tressel. "They say, 'You did a great job.' Well, no. We were 6--7. You don't have to bulls--- me. That's not a great job. I'm not happy about it.
"People are looking for positives, they say, 'You did it with class.' I'd rather have done it with [less class] and won a little more."
During one of his first conversations with Meyer, Buckeyes athletic director Gene Smith mentioned Fickell and spoke of the fine job he'd done under trying circumstances.
Meyer didn't give a fig about any of that. "I want the best guy running my defense," he says. Yes, he would interview Fickell for the defensive coordinator's job, but Smith's endorsement would have no bearing on the decision. Meyer frequently mentions the importance of "alignment" on his staff. Fickell was close to Vrabel; both are immensely popular ex-players. Meyer couldn't help but consider the possibility, however remote, that they might someday undermine him. "There were red flags all over the place," he says.
Fickell was, if anything, more skeptical about his chances of working smoothly with the new guy. At their Nov. 27 meeting, the day after the Buckeyes' season-ending 40--34 loss at Michigan, Fickell didn't exactly plead for his position.
"You'll be just fine with or without me," he told Meyer. "If I'm right for you and what you've got planned for the program, then it's right for me. If it's not right for you, it's not going to be right for me, either. You sure as hell don't need me."
Meyer liked him immediately. Fickell was one of his first hires and will run a defense that brings back nine starters, including the entire defensive line.
The defense will need to be stout, because the Buckeyes are the opposite of loaded on offense. While Meyer likes the "skill level" of dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller, who flashed promise last year as a true freshman, "my biggest concern is the guys around him." Ohio State's leading receiver last year had 14 catches, and the Buckeyes finished the year ranked 115th in passing offense. While some incoming freshmen may spice things up, there are no difference-makers at the skill positions.
"Those first three days [of spring ball] are gonna be very depressing," Meyer said in mid-March, "or I'm gonna be very excited."
A week into spring ball he seemed closer to the former, feeding local reporters such sound bites as "I'd expect our offense to be a little bit more competitive right now" and "I just wish we would make more plays."
Ohio State fans have reason to be excited, regardless, and not just because Herman is an offensive genius—literally, he is a Mensa member—with a record of breathing life into moribund attacks. In two years at Rice, his offenses broke 40 school records, and in his last three seasons, coordinating the offense at overachieving Iowa State, the Cyclones racked up wins over Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Texas. Herman warns the Buckeyes faithful that the offense "might look different than what you're used to." Miller will operate primarily out of the shotgun; the offense will no longer huddle. Usually. Like Alex Smith, Chris Leak and Tim Tebow—all ex-pupils of Meyer's—Miller will run a zone-read option, "to give us that extra-hat advantage," says Herman.
Traditionalists unsettled by these developments can take comfort in the assurance that Herman is quick to add: "We're coming off the football, we're hitting people in the mouth, we're bloodying noses, and we're gonna be the most physical offense in the country. Those premises will never change around here."
Asked for early impressions of Meyer, Herman replies, "Intense. Very intense. But not irrational. There are a lot of intense, irrational people."
It was, of course, a burst of irrational intensity that ended the career of Woody Hayes, who punched a Clemson noseguard in the throat in 1978 and never coached again. Hayes was quickly forgiven by many of the faithful, including one Bud Meyer, Urban's father, a chemical engineer who idolized the legend and, at times, emulated him. As Urban recalled for SI in 2009, he once took a called third strike during his senior baseball season at St. John High. As punishment, Bud made him run the eight miles home.
Like Hayes, Meyer prefers not to let the word Michigan cross his lips, referring to it only as "that school up north." When a reporter recently arrived at his office in a navy button-down, the coach declared, "We might have to find you a different shirt." When the reporter smiled, Meyer turned to an assistant and said, without smiling, "He thinks I'm kidding."
After playing tailback and defensive back at St. John (he wore number 45, his homage to the Buckeyes' two-time Heisman winner, Archie Griffin), Meyer played in the secondary at Cincinnati, from which he graduated in 1986. Not long after he moved to Columbus, where he was a graduate assistant for coach Earle Bruce, who entrusted him with such tasks as flushing out spies from rival schools. The week before Ohio State played Illinois, Bruce instructed Meyer to scour parking lots around the football facility, making note of cars with plates from the Land of Lincoln.
In those days Hayes still roamed the campus. Meyer made it his business to introduce himself to the great man. "Any chance I could get," he says, "I'd talk to him." One night at a recruiting dinner, a throng of admirers clustered around the old coach, now wheelchair-bound. Shelley, who hails from Frankfort, Ohio, was Meyer's date and pleaded for an introduction.
Noting the crowd around him, Meyer suggested they wait. He promised to take her to Hayes's office in the ROTC building. "But he passed away that spring. She never got to meet him."
"Urban took it harder than I did," she recalls. His connection to the old coach, however tenuous, helps reassure Ohio State fans—it makes Meyer seem like an ideological descendant of Woody—which, of course, he is not. While his roots are in the heartland, the Big Ten, Meyer's philosophy and methods were honed to a razor's edge in the SEC.
In the end it won't come down to how well he recruits, or how cunningly he deploys X's and O's. We know Meyer can do those things. His long-term success in Columbus will be determined by how he handles the tension between the demands of a huge job and the bullet points on the pink contract hanging on his office wall. Gene Smith is watching.
"I don't want him working long hours so much as I want him working smart hours," says the athletic director. "When I'm looking at those worksheets at the end of the fiscal year, and I see someone's only taken four or five days of vacation, that's a problem for me."
The early returns are encouraging. Last month Adam Breneman, a four-star tight end from Camp Hill, Pa., chose Penn State over Ohio State. Yet Meyer was all smiles when a visitor entered his office that day. Georgia Tech women's volleyball coach Tonya Johnson had moved her team's Senior Day to, coincidentally, the Buckeyes' bye week.
"I just got the call," effused Meyer. "I get to go to my daughter's Senior Day! How cool is that?"
SPRING-LOADED FOR FOOTBALL ON SI.COM
SI's team of college football writers have criss-crossed the country and returned with spring-practice reports from Northern California to South Carolina. Here's what you can read now at SI.com/cfb:
[The following text appears within a map. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual map.]
Stories from Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska and South Carolina spring practice coming soon.
The search to replace Andrew Luck begins
A trim Landry Jones has unfinished business
Frogs fight negative perception as they enter Big 12
Elite defense has the Longhorns on the brink
Cowboys look to build on the success of 2011
Ragin' Cajuns' program has hit a high note
A challenging new day dawns on the Aggies
Photos and observations from the Tigers' spring game
Will Muschamp, Gators enter critical season