DALLAS - When Urban Meyer took over Ohio State's foundering football program three years ago, it was coping with NCAA probation and a sharp decline in performance and morale. The critics Meyer acquired in his tenure at Florida wondered if he was a shambles emotionally following his resignation partly for stress-related reasons.
But during his year off from the coaching grind, Meyer recalibrated his personal approach and became re-energized by the task of transforming his home state university. He brought his impressive CEO skills to what he describes as the "complicated machine of college football," overcame every obstacle, including the perception of the Big Ten as second-class football, and led the Buckeyes' improbable climb to win the inaugural College Football Playoff championship over Oregon on Monday night.
Meyer made just one major miscalculation along the way: He didn't think he could get the program to the top this fast.
He lost starting quarterback Braxton Miller in training camp, but built J.T. Barrett into a Heisman Trophy candidate. When Barrett was lost to injury in the regular-season finale, Meyer prepared third-stringer Cardale Jones well enough to beat Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon by a combined 143-55.
"To say we had this vision in September or even August, no, not a chance," Meyer said. "I thought we could find a way to win a bunch of games and then, a year later, go make a run at it . . . This team wasn't supposed to do this, but they fought through adversity and got stronger and stronger. We finished the year a great team. I've never seen anything like it."
It's a truly remarkable story that began with Meyer going 12-0 in 2012 when OSU was on probation and had no bowl or national championship incentive to drive it. When the Buckeyes became eligible last season, Meyer put up a big sign in their indoor practice facility that said, "The chase . . ."
It left no doubt about where he planned to take the program. But after a second consecutive undefeated regular season, the Buckeyes lost the Big Ten title game to Michigan State. In the process of upgrading the talent to compete with the SEC at the national level, Meyer blended in his recruits to the point where half the starting 22 on offense and defense against Oregon were freshmen and sophomores.
"If our sophomore class didn't step up, we wouldn't be where we are," Meyer said. "I certainly did not see that happening after spring practice and early in the season. I undervalued . . . I didn't quite understand the improvement these guys could make."
But as a CEO who covered all the bases from physical training to mental training to team bonding, Meyer laid the groundwork for it to happen. Then the athletes came through for him. "He taught us about being selfless and playing for each other," safety Tyvis Powell said. "When you play for somebody else, you play even harder. The leadership took over, and the team just became unbelievable."
Jones added, "He gets the best out of us in different ways, and that's why we're sitting here today."
Meyer swore Tuesday that he will make sure he and the team take time to fully enjoy what they accomplished better than he did after consecutive titles at Florida. But before the news conference ended, he was looking ahead to next season and the talented core of returning players and talking about mission statements.
Someone asked how this win will affect recruiting, and Meyer grinned and said: "I can't wait to go out recruiting. If you can't recruit to this, you're officially a bad recruiter."
Look out, world, Urban Meyer is back, and so is Ohio State.