Urban Meyer tiptoes around talk of national title but expects to improve on 12-0 first season at Ohio State
COLUMBUS, Ohio - The banner hanging on a wall at one end of Ohio State's indoor football practice facility offers an open-ended message: "The Chase . . . "
On the most simple level, it's a reminder that the Buckeyes, in their second year under coach Urban Meyer, are back in the hunt for the BCS national championship. Meyer's first OSU team was ineligible for bowls and the Big Ten championship because it was on probation for violations committed under former coach Jim Tressel, yet Meyer took a team that was 6-7 under interim coach Luke Fickell in 2011 and went 12-0.
That was an unexpected accomplishment even for a coach who won national titles at Florida in 2006 and 2008 before his six-year tenure there ended amid controversy. He resigned for one day at the end of the 2009 season, citing health concerns, then returned and coached one more year before resigning for good and taking a year to work as an ESPN commentator and recalibrate in terms of regaining a sense of self.
On a more complex level, Meyer is chasing a vision of the coach he wants to be -- one who can balance the values that led him to coaching in the first place while maintaining the level of success that made him a brand name. Through some combination of destiny and circumstance, Ohio native Meyer wound up back at the place his coaching career began in 1986 under Earle Bruce at a time when he and his family needed to return to their roots.
Sitting in his office recently at the practice facility named for coach Woody Hayes, Meyer said: "I'm a person of very strong faith, and I believe things don't just happen. And I'm trying to live up to that. I'm here, and I certainly didn't earn to be here. By the grace of being given this position, with that comes incredible responsibility. So absolutely I believe there is something to that."
Growing up in Buckeyes country, Meyer fondly says he could recite lineups from teams of the '60s, and he closely followed the "Ten-Year War" between Hayes and Michigan's Bo Schembechler into the '70s. Last season, Meyer allowed himself to revel in those memories.
"There were several profound moments last year," he said. "The first time I heard the Ohio State band play 'Hang on Sloopy' in the fourth quarter, it was really neat."
Meyer described the leadership on last year's team as "legendary." He made sure it was memorialized in the museum at the front of the football complex with a banner commemorating the undefeated season.
But the stakes are higher now, and there's a sense that if anyone can stop No. 1 Alabama and coach Nick Saban from winning a third straight BCS title, it's Meyer and the No. 2 Buckeyes. Meyer understands the raised expectations, but he doesn't want it to overwhelm his players or himself.
"I can't let it get to that," Meyer said. "We don't talk about national championship around here. That's when you get problems.
"Every year there's an example of some team that has high expectations and they fall apart. It's not because of bad coaches or bad players. There's something wrong with the infrastructure of the program.
"I watch that so close around here, closer than I ever have. That's the alignment of the staff, alignment of the players. I make sure everyone is saying the same things."
During the year he worked for ESPN, Meyer acknowledged he did "a lot of soul-searching." He spoke to coaches he trusts as he traveled the country but also talked with corporate leaders he knows.
The difficulty Meyer encountered at Florida was in coping with the success he achieved.
"There's a thrill to building," he said. "The maintenance part is exhaustive . . . What have I learned? I don't know. I hope we get to that phase. We're certainly not there yet, but we've built a solid program here."
During his coaching sabbatical, Meyer came across a novel titled "Lead . . . for God's Sake." It's about a high school basketball coach who loses touch with his players because of his obsession with success. It spoke to Meyer, and he keeps the book close at hand in his office.
Pointing to it, Meyer said: "That was a life-changer for me. You're coaching for the impact on people. You're not just coaching for the win. In that book, there's this high school coach who gets in it for the same reason I got in it 27 years ago, which was to make an impact, to build, to prepare guys for life after football, to see kids go from a broken home to understanding what a real home is.
"Then you start accelerating your career, and it's all about winning the prize, and that's dangerous. Because you have to go back, really, to why are you in it? I don't want to say it's come full circle, but that's true, and it's real."
While Meyer might be working to keep his own obsession with success in check, his competitive nature and attention to detail remain undiminished. In one year, he and offensive coordinator Tom Herman turned quarterback Braxton Miller into Big Ten player of the year and now a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Last season, Meyer ran more of a pro-style offense that revolved around Miller's talents. But this season, Meyer has the speed he needs to run the spread offense he prefers. Buckeyes veterans realize they will be challenged for playing time by the likes of freshman running backs Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliott and receiver Jalin Marshall.
Taking a page from former USC coach Pete Carroll, Meyer said he tells the best recruits in America that they'll have a chance to play right away if they're good enough. "That's a message to your players in here, too, that there's no seniority, there's no complacency, that we're always trying to recruit one better than you," Meyer said. "That's how you get competition. I think we've created that just in the one year. I can see that right now. On offense, it's a fight to get the ball."
Miller, too, sees the difference with all the playmakers around him. "Man, the tempo, the upgrade in speed is bringing a whole bunch of action to the game," Miller said with a laugh. "Everybody's got to touch the ball at least twice a game. We're going to get the ball out of my hands quick and let other guys make plays."
It's possible the Buckeyes might have to go undefeated again to reach the BCS championship game. Miller emphasized they're playing for a chance at the Big Ten title, but he knows the right approach can lead them to the ultimate goal.
"We've got to have that vision," Miller said. "We can't play blindfolded. Everybody's got to have the same mind-set and focus that you're the best and you have to go out and dominate."
For Meyer, "The Chase . . ." remains a step-by-step process. He tries not to look too far down the road. "That's an area I had to get better at because I started doing that in the past," Meyer said. "Stay grounded."
What Meyer will acknowledge is that there's a different kind of excitement this season at Ohio State. "Yeah, it was the unknown last year," Meyer said. "It's not about the [title] shot this year. It's the fact I've got my staff intact and I have players I know now. We're good. I kind of like where we're at. We've just got to get better."