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Urban Meyer, An Inspired Team, and a New Era at Ohio State
By Bill Rabinowitz
Triumph Books Copyright © 2013 Columbus Dispatch
All rights reserved.
in his perfect world, Gene Smith would not have hired a new coach after the 2011 season. If all had gone well, he would have been happy to extend the one-year contract for Luke Fickell and have him be the head coach for the foreseeable future. Smith asked the former Buckeyes nose guard, who first made a name for himself as a three-time state wrestling champion at DeSales High School in Columbus, to take over for Jim Tressel on May 30. At 37, Fickell had never been a head coach. He'd never been more than a co–defensive coordinator. Longtime defensive coordinator Jim Heacock had the ultimate authority over the Ohio State defense.
At 11:00 pm on May 29, Smith asked Fickell to arrange a staff meeting for the next morning with the other assistant coaches. Smith didn't tell Fickell that he'd asked for Tressel's resignation. He gave him no clue as to what their meeting would cover. Fickell guessed that the topic would be to discuss an upcoming Sports Illustrated story that the school feared would be a bombshell. (The story fizzled, blowing over quickly.) When the notion of Tressel leaving flitted through his mind, he dismissed it as unlikely.
"The whole night, I thought, Could it be? No. It couldn't be," he said. "I had no idea."
He barely fell asleep and resisted the urge to awaken his wife, Amy. His meeting with Smith was at 8:00. The staff meeting was supposed to begin 15 minutes later. Fickell had little time to process or weigh the offer when it came. Then again, it wasn't that tough a decision. How do you turn down the chance to be Ohio State's head coach, even under these circumstances?
"All I could think about was those [players]," Fickell said. "Yes, it's my university, where I went. But all I could think about was those guys. What, are you going to hold those guys hostage?"
That night, Fickell visited Tressel at his house. They talked for a little more than a half-hour. It would be their last conversation for a long time.
"He said it's best for you, for the program, for the team, that we not talk," Fickell recalled. "That way, you don't ever have to answer questions about, 'Have you talked to Coach?'"
Fickell was pretty much on his own. The job proved to be a dream and a nightmare. The end of May is no time to try to hire a staff, even if he'd wanted to. He hired his friend and ex-teammate, former New England Patriots three-time Super Bowl champion Mike Vrabel, to take over his job coaching linebackers. But otherwise, the staff remained intact. Tressel had always run the offense. Offensive coordinator/offensive-line coach Jim Bollman would take over those duties and became the lightning rod for criticism that most coordinators of struggling offenses become.
The coaching staff issues paled in comparison to the looming suspensions. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Daniel "Boom" Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, left tackle Mike Adams, and backup defensive lineman Solomon Thomas were all suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season for their involvement in the tattoo-and-memorabilia scandal. The suspensions of Herron (one game) and Posey (five) were later extended when the NCAA ruled that they'd been overpaid for part-time work from longtime Cleveland booster Bobby DiGeronimo, who was later banned from associating with the program. Pryor, regarded as the fulcrum for the transgressions, saw the writing on the wall and declared himself eligible for the NFL's supplemental draft eight days after Tressel's departure. The Oakland Raiders selected him in the third round. The departure of Pryor the person was not lamented. He was considered immature and a prima donna inside the walls of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. But Pryor the quarterback was irreplaceable, in part because Ohio State had no appealing successor. Joe Bauserman, a former minor league pitcher, was a little-used fifth-year senior. Braxton Miller was a true freshman. Kenny Guiton was an afterthought as a recruit a year earlier and remained that way. Taylor Graham was also unproven.
Without Herron, Posey, and Adams for the first half of the season, the offense figured to struggle, and it did. Bauserman played well in the opener against overmatched Akron, then faded badly. Miller eventually was handed the reins and showed both amazing running ability and rawness in the passing game, hurt by wide receivers who were as unprepared as he was. No one caught more than 14 passes all season.
Still, the Buckeyes had a realistic chance for the Big Ten championship until the 10 game of the season. Despite their typical superiority in talent, the Buckeyes usually struggle when they play Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium. That was the case again on November 12. But the Buckeyes appeared to have pulled off a dramatic victory when Miller somehow eluded pressure and lobbed a touchdown pass to running back Jordan Hall to tie the game with 55 seconds left. The glee was short-lived. The extra-point kick was blocked, and Purdue won in overtime. A home loss followed to Penn State, which was in the midst of the breaking Jerry Sandusky scandal. Ohio State's seven-game winning streak against Michigan then ended in a 40–34 loss that left the Buckeyes with a record of 6–6, its first non-winning season since 1999. Ohio State had a chance to pull out a last-minute victory, but Miller's deep pass to an open Posey landed just beyond the receiver's outstretched hands.
By then, Fickell's fate had been sealed. He won universal respect for handling a difficult job with dignity. He refused to indulge in self-pity and would not allow it for his players. But he needed a dream season to keep the job, and this was nobody's idea of a dream season for Ohio State, unless you were a Michigan Wolverines fan.
"It became clear after the 10 game, the Purdue game, that I needed to do something different," Smith said.
The week of the Penn State game, Smith started with what he called his "game plan." His wife, Sheila, the former associate athletics director at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was his sounding board.
"I would talk to her about my strategy because she's been with me before when I've done this at other places," said Smith, formerly the athletics director at Eastern Michigan, Iowa State, and Arizona State. "She challenges me on my process."
Smith had a list of four candidates and two backups. But one was clearly at the top of the list: Urban Meyer, who'd won two national championships at Florida before stepping down for health-related reasons after the 2010 season.
"Urban was our target from the start," Smith said.
Smith had played football at Notre Dame, and Meyer had coached there a generation later. They'd met at some functions over the years but had no real relationship. He didn't know for sure whether Meyer would even be interested. But he had a good hunch. Smith and Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley are close — as are Foley and Meyer — and they talked about the likelihood that Meyer would be receptive. Meyer was raised in Ashtabula in the far northeastern corner of Ohio. A lifelong Buckeyes fan, Meyer got his college coaching start as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 1986–1987.
"It was pretty easy for me to figure out that if I called, he'd be interested," Smith said.
This was all happening in mid-November. In the spread-the-news-before-it-happens world of the Internet, Meyer's coaching Ohio State was declared a fait accompli in October. Websites breathlessly declared that Meyer had already agreed to a contract. The conventional "wisdom" was that it was for six years and worth at least $40 million "It was all wrong," Smith said. "That was all wrong. I don't know where that stuff was coming from. It was so far off it was ridiculous."
That Meyer would be the prime candidate for the Ohio State job was hardly a stretch. Even before Tressel resigned, Meyer said he was inundated with phone calls from ESPN, friends, and colleagues.
"Fifty a day," he said. "I quit answering my phone. It was chaos. I'm at home in Gainesville. I said I'm not coaching this year and wasn't going to. I told the truth. There was nothing going on, and I don't know anything about it."
After resigning at Florida, Meyer was hired by ESPN as a color analyst for college football games. His first game was the Ohio State–Akron opener, but he rebuffed reporters seeking comment about his availability for the OSU job.
"I just wanted to do a good job for ESPN," Meyer said. "That's not easy. It certainly wasn't easy for me. I wanted to focus on that and nothing else."
But not even he could totally ignore the pangs of his former school during the game, and it had nothing to do with anything any Buckeyes player did during the 42–0 rout.
"When the band came out — The Best Damn Band In The Land — I remember I teared up a little bit," he said. "It was the first time I'd been back since 1987, and I remember how beautiful the stadium looked that day. It's everybody's dream to come back to your home stadium."
Meyer said he did his best to repel any impulse to think about the possibility of coaching the Buckeyes.
"If [any] did, I pushed it out real fast," he said.
But Meyer's game-day duties took him to Big Ten sites. He could not help but hear the scuttlebutt that the Ohio State job was increasingly likely to open or the premature reports that he'd already agreed to it.
"They had a couple of losses, and people were saying, 'I think they're going to make a change,'" he said. "Everybody thinks they know, but no one knew. The speculation was every day. Nowadays with social media, if you push 'enter' on your computer, you're a reporter. It's silly. I learned down at Florida to just kind of keep walking straight ahead. Don't look left and don't look right, because it'll drive you nuts. I didn't think twice about it."
But late in the season, on a visit to Cincinnati to see his ailing father, Bud, the topic became unavoidable. His father was on oxygen treatment, and Meyer knew his time was probably short. They were watching ESPN when a graphic appeared of Ohio State, speculating about the coaching job, along with a picture of Meyer.
"I remember sitting right next to him, looking at him, and he looks at that and then to me and he said, 'Are you going to do it?' I said, 'I don't know. What do you think?' He was quiet for about 20 seconds and looks over and goes, 'Nah, I kind of like it the way it is. I don't care who wins or loses.'"
For Bud Meyer, that was completely out of character.
"That tells you the wear and tear that games put on your family," Urban said. "So it was a very difficult time."
Bud Meyer died November 11 at age 79. Unfortunately, Gene Smith would soon have something in common with the coach he would pursue. A week later, Smith's mother, Elizabeth, died unexpectedly in Cleveland. Smith got a text on the evening of November 17, drove the two hours north, and stayed up all night. His mother died the next day.
Smith did not give himself time to grieve right away. The day after his mother's death, while Ohio State was losing to Penn State, Smith sent a text to Meyer asking him if he could call on Sunday. The next day, they spoke for the first time. The conversation lasted more than two and a half hours. They discussed philosophy, management style, the impending NCAA ruling, their families.
"I had a list of questions, but it went from there," Smith said. "What are his values in life? What does he cherish? What was it like to sit out a year?" Both men thought the conversation went well, and Smith told Meyer he wanted him to be the next Buckeyes coach. Given his résumé and general contentedness — regardless of his desire to coach again — Meyer wasn't willing to submit to the typical interview process that most coaches endure. Either Ohio State wanted him or it didn't. He wasn't going to put his wife Shelley or his three kids, Nicki, Gigi, and Nate, through a prolonged process. Ohio State hadn't been the only school to approach him in the previous month.
"Five or six on-the-table job offers," he said.
He declined all of them on the spot.
"If it wasn't for Ohio State, I wouldn't have coached," he said.
Smith and Meyer also discussed his ESPN contract, and whether that would be an obstacle. It wouldn't. His contract expired with the final game of the season. He was supposed to do the Ohio State–Michigan game but decided that might not be such a swell idea.
Smith arranged a meeting for Wednesday in Atlanta, where Meyer had a visit planned to see Nicki, a volleyball player at Georgia Tech. Smith was joined by Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee, chief OSU fundraiser Jeff Kaplan, and board of trustees members Robert Schottenstein and Alex Shumate. Meyer brought Shelley.
"We're a team," he said.
To ensure secrecy, Smith arranged to meet at the downtown Renaissance Hotel, partly because cars could pull into its underground garage and park just steps away from a meeting room. No chance for enterprising media to even get a sniff of anything.
"I didn't want to go someplace where they're taking pictures," Meyer said.
The conversation lasted about three hours.
"It was really a get-to-know-you," Meyer said. "Obviously, Ohio State has gone through a very difficult time in the program. I wanted to know what the future held. I had a lot of concerns."
So did Ohio State officials. They asked Meyer about his health and requested that his doctors send OSU his records vouching for his well-being. Meyer had no problem with that.
"It was a very productive, great meeting," Meyer said.
Shelley Meyer, still quite skeptical about her husband's ability to handle a high-stress coaching job, was mostly assuaged.
"It was a formal meeting, but after five minutes it didn't feel like a formal meeting," she said. "Nobody was stuffy or prim and proper. Gordon said, first of all, that this is not an interview. We're just talking. We're just getting to know each other. He kind of set the tone that way. And Gordon's always joking around. We laughed. It ended up being very relaxed."
By the end of the meeting, she knew, whatever her misgivings, that a deal would be consummated. Over the next day or two, the two sides worked out contract terms, which went smoothly. Meyer agreed to a six-year, $24 million contract. So much for the $40 million bandied about on the Internet.
"They offered me something, and I said sure, and that was it," Meyer said. "It's never been about that."
Smith's business wasn't done that Wednesday. He had to tell Fickell that he would not be retained as head coach. When Fickell took the job, he asked Smith to inform him right away if the athletics director decided not to keep him as head coach beyond the 2011 season. Smith had promised him he would. So he flew back to Columbus right after the meeting with Meyer ended. While the men's basketball team was hammering Virginia Military Institute at the Schottenstein Center, Smith met with Fickell in the women's locker room to tell him that the Michigan game and bowl game would be his last as OSU's head coach.
"It was an awkward meeting," Fickell said. "But I respected Gene for what he had to do and what he was going to do. All I wanted was what was best for the program."
But that didn't remove the sting. If Smith planned to tell him who was likely to become the coach, Fickell wasn't in the mood to hear it.
"He had told me a few weeks prior that was he was looking at two guys — three, including me," Fickell said. "I don't know if he wanted to talk to me about it, and I really didn't want to talk about it."
It wasn't until Fickell did his weekly radio show the next day at the on-campus Fawcett Center that he saw ESPN discussing the possibility of Meyer that he learned the identity of his likely successor. The whole world may have known, but little permeates the coaching bubble, especially during Michigan week.
"[My assistants] were coming up to me hearing rumors, and I said, 'Guys, quit listening to rumors.' I was like Tress. 'Who cares?' But that was the first time I thought, Well, maybe it is the case [that Meyer will take over]. I didn't care. I didn't worry about it. I wouldn't allow myself to think about it because it had no bearing on the outcome of that game, and that was the only thing that was important."
Smith could identify with Fickell's feelings. Many years earlier, Smith served as interim athletics director at Eastern Michigan, where he had to give tours to each of the six candidates interviewing for the permanent AD job. That Smith got the job didn't cause him to forget the stress of would-be replacements interviewing for the job.
"I know how hard that is — the emotions," he said. "Luke was masterful."
Fickell didn't tell anyone, not even Amy, that his time as OSU's head coach was ending. Asked about his job status in the postgame press conference in Ann Arbor, Fickell got choked up. But he declined to address his situation out of respect for the rivalry. Even on the bus ride back to Columbus with Amy, Fickell kept mum. He hadn't told her beforehand because he didn't want to burden her with the truth, knowing she'd have to make the trip to Michigan and have to keep the news to herself. Both Fickells pride themselves on honesty, and Luke had told people he'd let them know as soon as he knew. But it became impossible to keep that pledge, even to his wife.
Excerpted from Buckeye Rebirth by Bill Rabinowitz. Copyright © 2013 Columbus Dispatch. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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