This inside look at an unprecedented season follows Ohio State's road to the inaugural College Football Playoff and the national championshipIn The Chase, Bill Rabinowitz takes readers inside Ohio State's improbable championship season, from the final moments of their 2014 Orange Bowl loss to Clemson to the championship celebration in Texas a year later. Fans will learn how Ohio State overcame the loss of not one but two quarterbacks—gaining inside perspective behind the dynamic between Miller, J. T. Barrett, and Cardale Jones. Rabinowitz captures the mood of the team in late November following the tragic death of Kosta Karageorge, and profiles other Ohio State stars, including Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett, Ezekiel Elliott, and more.
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About the Author
Bill Rabinowitz has covered the Ohio State Buckeyes football team for the Columbus Dispatch since 2011. He is the author of Buckeye Rebirth about the undefeated 2012 Ohio State team and the forthcoming The Chase, the inside story of Ohio State's 2014 national championship season. Rabinowitz is a native of Dayton, Ohio, and graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a history degree and from the Medill School of Journalism's master’s program at Northwestern University. He has been a sportswriter since 1988 and has been with the Dispatch since 1999 after 10 years with the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania. Rabinowitz has won numerous state and national awards, including Best Sports Writer in the 2014 Ohio Associated Press Media Editors' contest and the same honor in 2011 by the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists. Kirk Herbstreit is the lead college football analyst for ABC Sports and ESPN. A former quarterback at Ohio State, Herbstreit was a four-year letter winner under head coach John Cooper. As a senior in 1992 he was voted team MVP. Herbstreit lives in Franklin, Tennessee.
Read an Excerpt
How Ohio State Captures the First College Football Playoff
By Bill Rabinowitz
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2015 the Columbus Dispatch
All rights reserved.
Back from the Brink
Those who knew Urban Meyer best weren't worried, though history told them they should have been. But the Meyer after the 2013 season was a different coach than he had been at the end of his six years at Florida. He was just as passionate, just as intense, just as demanding. But he had perspective and self-awareness. He had stared into the abyss. It scared him to his core.
Even though his Florida teams won national championships in 2006 — crushing Jim Tressel's favored Buckeyes 41–14 — and 2008, the thrill of victory dissipated for Meyer after a stunning coaching ascent that began at Bowling Green and then Utah. After losses, Meyer would stay up until the wee hours of the morning diagramming punt plays, desperate to find solutions that might not exist. He ate poorly and lost weight, about 30 pounds one year. He needed sleeping pills and a beer to fall asleep. When his older daughter, Nicki, came home from Georgia Tech for winter break in 2009 after not seeing him for months, she was shocked by how gaunt he was. The low point came that year after Florida lost in the Southeastern Conference title game to Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide. Late that night, Meyer was stricken by chest pains. Shelley called 911. It turned out that the pain was caused by esophageal spasms and could be treated. But Meyer knew he couldn't go on long like this. He announced his resignation, only to rescind it days later. He coached the Gators in 2010, but after a disappointing season, he resigned again, this time for good. Losing and the pressure — imposed internally and externally — to avoid defeats had driven him to the brink.
"It was going to be a bad ending," Meyer said of the path he was on.
After Ohio State's 12–0 season in 2012, Meyer's wife, Shelley, admitted that a part of her wouldn't have minded a loss that year. With no postseason possibility, there were no lasting consequences from a defeat. Even though she was confident that her husband had learned from his past, a loss in a season like that would have served as a test.
"I thought it was more of a [for-]fun season," she said. "Let's just go see how we can do. Then we went 12–0, and you go, 'Why did we have to go 12–0 the first season?' How do you follow that up? Then the pressure's on because the next season you are playing for the Big Ten championship, hopefully."
When Ohio State did lose to Michigan State in the 2013 Big Ten title game and then to Clemson, the reckoning was at hand. But Shelley, head strength coach and longtime Meyer right-hand man Mickey Marotti, and others closest to Meyer had come to believe he could handle it.
"Urban was of course very disappointed, but he didn't react as devastatingly as he did at Florida when we'd lose a game," Shelley said. "At Florida, if we lost a game, he really shut down. He didn't do that after the Michigan State game. I was totally fine with how he felt about losing that game, which was very disappointed, but [only concerned with], 'What could we have done better?'"
That was how Marotti viewed it as well.
"I didn't worry about that one bit," Marotti said. "He was great. He approached it great. It was, 'Here are the problems. What's the solution?' Then we went to work."
* * *
It had taken a long time to reach that point of serenity. Urban Meyer was born in 1964 in Toledo to Urban "Bud" Meyer and his wife, Gisela. The family then moved to Ashtabula in the far northeastern corner of Ohio. Bud, a chemical engineer, was a loving father to Urban and his sisters, Gigi and Erika, but also demanding — particularly of his son. On Friday nights after Urban's high school football games for Saint John, Bud would make his son analyze game film with him, questioning him about plays he messed up. One time in high school, Meyer brought home a C from school. His father read him the riot act.
"I grew up in a very driven household," Urban said. "Any lack of effort was unacceptable."
Baseball was his best sport. The Atlanta Braves drafted Meyer as a shortstop in the 13 round of the 1982 draft. But his pro career washed out in two seasons after an elbow injury. He enrolled at the University of Cincinnati and became a walk-on defensive back and special-teamer on the Bearcats football team. Meyer had an undistinguished playing career, but it wasn't because of lack of effort.
"Urban was gifted in terms of being motivated, and not as gifted athletically," said Dan Sellers, a UC teammate. "He was always the first guy in drills. He was the kind of guy who'd run through a brick wall for a coach. I had a lot of respect for him."
His football career may have been forgettable, but he left UC with a degree that would prove invaluable. Meyer switched from major to major until settling on psychology. He was particularly fascinated by theories about what motivated people.
Meyer left Cincinnati with more than a degree. He also found his future wife. The first time Meyer saw Shelley Mather, she was holding a Playboy magazine with the centerfold open. It was at a Greek Derby Day mixer, and her sorority was in a competition to get a Sigma Chi to smile or laugh without touching him.
"That was so unlike me," she said. "I was this farm girl. I was so conservative. But I had to help my sorority win the competition. Comparing me to the centerfold of Playboy magazine was very funny, so I just flipped over this centerfold. I had to stop him because he was going to fly right by me. I said, 'Does this look like me?'"
Meyer did crack a big smile but didn't stop long enough to introduce himself. A day or two later at another Derby Day event, Meyer did notice Shelley and struck up a conversation with her, though he didn't connect her with the Playboy stunt.
"He didn't even remember that it was me who did that," she said with a laugh.
Soon enough, though, he was smitten.
"I do know that very early on I knew she was the one," Meyer said. "She was tough. I loved her toughness. She was beautiful. She was real smart."
Meyer was hired as a graduate assistant at Ohio State under Earle Bruce. Shelley, who became a psychiatric nurse, followed him to Columbus, though they didn't see each other that much because of their busy work schedules. To make ends meet, Meyer took an additional job on the graveyard shift for Consolidated Freightways, operating a forklift and loading trucks. They were married in 1989 and would eventually have three children, Nicki, Gigi, and Nate. Meyer climbed the coaching ladder as a college assistant, starting at Illinois State and then Colorado State, where he again coached under Bruce, and then Notre Dame under Lou Holtz. In 2001 he was offered the Bowling Green head coaching job.
Meyer contemplated turning down the Falcons job. Bowling Green was a downtrodden program. Holtz set him straight. Of course, it's a bad job, he told Meyer. If it were a better job, Bowling Green would have offered it to someone more proven. Meyer had become enamored with the spread offense as an assistant coach and set about implementing it at Bowling Green. The basic concept behind the spread is to force a defense to have to defend the entire width as well as length of the field to create mismatches. It was wildly successful. Meyer spent two years at Bowling Green before Utah hired him. In his second season in 2004, Utah went undefeated. Florida then hired him, and he reached the pinnacle twice before it all crashed down. Even his seemingly unshakable self-confidence was rattled.
"To be a successful coach — we've got to be honest here — you've got to be a little cocky," Shelley said. "I always thought Urban was a little cocky, even the moment I met him. Cocky in a very, very confident way, not a jerk, not narcissistic. But you have to be confident, and that comes off as being a little cocky sometimes.
"He lost that. When things went bad at Florida, he lost that part of him and that was what really scared and upset me. If you lose that, it's hard to get it back."
When Meyer stepped down for the second time at Florida, he did not foresee returning to coaching anytime soon. "I planned on at least five years [off]," he said. But after only a couple of months, the itch to coach returned, and he told Shelley, "I can't take this anymore." Her reaction? "She looked at me and said, 'You're out of your mind.'"
Because of her training as a psychiatric nurse, Shelley understood that he needed time to decompress and sort through the withdrawal from coaching. She cautioned patience, as hard as it was for him. ESPN hired Meyer as an analyst, and part of his duties involved traveling to programs and meeting with coaches and players to see what made them successful. One of the trips was to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, to talk with Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck.
It would be a trip that would change his life, though not because of Luck. Before leaving for California, Meyer had lunch with ESPN football analyst Todd Blackledge, a friend. Blackledge gave Meyer a book, Lead ... for God's Sake! by an obscure author named Todd Gongwer. Meyer is given books all the time. Most collect dust. He stuck Gongwer's book in his briefcase and didn't give it much thought. On the flight to California, looking for a way to pass the time, he pulled it out. Gongwer's book is a parable about a high school basketball coach who loses his way. Expected to compete for a state championship, the team gets off to a slow start. The coach pushes harder and harder, figuring that only that can produce results. It proves counterproductive. His team flounders and his life begins to spiral out of control. Counsel from the school's mysteriously wise custodian gradually helps the coach realize that the relationship with his players, not the single-minded pursuit of victories, is the essence of successful coaching.
Gongwer did not set out to write such a book. He spent his early adulthood in rural Indiana as a business executive and assistant basketball coach at Bethel College, an NAIA school. He did not think of himself as an author. "I'd experienced a number of disappointments in my life — business failures and not achieving what I'd wanted to in any of those spheres in my life," he said.
In 2002, at age 32, he was living in Cincinnati when he hit rock bottom, questioning his life's purpose. One day, he got on his knees and cried in his bedroom. Gongwer's two-and-a-half-year-old son saw him, put his hand on his dad's shoulder, and said, "It's okay, Daddy. It's okay."
At that moment, he had an epiphany.
"I've told that story hundreds and hundreds of times, and still I usually get choked up telling it," Gongwer said. "I remember how powerful that was to me. It was like God sent him into the room and said, 'You want an answer? Open your eyes. You're so caught up in pursuing all these other things and you're letting all these other things destroy your health, your relationship with your wife, and your relationship with others closest to you.'"
Gongwer had always been interested in leadership philosophy, and over time came to believe that he should write a book on the subject. For two weeks, he sat down to write a fairly standard leadership book. It went nowhere. Gongwer then decided to write it as a fictional short story.
"It just poured out," he said. "By the time I got two-thirds through the book — I didn't have plot or characters; I did not know where it was going — I was telling my wife, 'This story is unbelievable. Something is going to happen with it.' It was weird."
Gongwer believes that God had used him as a vessel to tell the story. Though the story has a strong faith component to it, he is wary of describing it as a Christian book because of the way he believes that term has been twisted. Living in tiny Wakarusa, Indiana, and knowing publishers' rejection rate of first-time authors, Gongwer decided to self-publish in 2010. Slowly, the book began to find an audience, particularly among coaches. One of the early readers was Jim Tressel, who made the book mandatory reading for his Ohio State assistants.
"My recommendation would be that every coach at every level read this book," Tressel said. "I have given dozens of them to coaches all over the country."
Gongwer watched Meyer's 2009 resignation press conference from his parents' house. He told his dad and brothers then that he wished he could get Meyer a copy of his book. Unbeknownst to Gongwer, Blackledge eventually would. When Meyer finally pulled it out on the flight to Stanford and began reading, it hit him like a thunderbolt. He felt as if Gongwer had written the book for him, which Gongwer said is a common response. At dinner that night with Stanford coach David Shaw, Meyer found himself wanting to cut it short so he could get back to his hotel room and finish the book. After dozing briefly — Meyer doesn't sleep much anyway — he got up at 4:00 am and finished the book while walking across the Stanford campus, his cell phone light illuminating the book.
"It kind of rebooted everything," Meyer said. "The story of that high school coach is kind of a similar thing that a lot of guys go through."
When he got back to his hotel room, Meyer saw Gongwer's email on the book jacket and fired off an email. He wrote that he considered the book essential reading for any coach and offered to help promote it. When Meyer's email popped into his account, Gongwer at first thought some friends had pranked him until he read the message.
"I about fell out of my chair," he said.
When they spoke on the phone right after Gongwer read the email, he realized what an impact the book had on Meyer. "This was a guy who was scared for his health, knew what he was doing to his relationships around him, both his family and the people he was working with," Gongwer said.
To Meyer, one scene in the book particularly resonated. "When the coach kicks the Gatorade and then the star player goes in and punches the wall and breaks his hand ..." he said, "it was a spiritual rebirth for me right there. I felt God was talking to me, saying, 'You've got to reorganize.'
"I forgot the 'why.' I got caught up in how many games we won and [forgot] the real reason — and that was the players. There was no money. I never dreamed of having [a $4.5 million salary, his base compensation in 2014]. I got in because I love players. Getting involved with them has always been my passion."
Meyer and Gongwer, along with Blackledge, met in Chicago when Meyer was there for ESPN. Gongwer later flew to Meyer's home in Florida to shoot a promotional interview for the book. Meyer wrote the foreword when a publisher agreed to distribute the book. They still stay in contact. Gongwer said he's careful not to infringe on Meyer's time, but will send Meyer a text if he sees something potentially problematic.
"He'll very graciously say, 'Stay on me,'" Gongwer said.
Said Meyer, "He's my unpaid sports psychologist."
Shelley Meyer said that the book's impact made it easier for her and her children to endorse the idea of Meyer returning to coaching. "I could sense some peace in him after reading the book," she said. "He was in the middle of this mess. He just had a lot of questions about his life. That book really helped him get started settling down and [focused on] where he wanted to go."
When Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith called in late November 2011 to discuss the Buckeyes' opening, Meyer knew he was ready. He missed the competition, but he understood that winning, however important, did not supersede everything else. His family, however, still had reservations about his ability to coach while retaining balance in his life. One day while in class at Georgia Tech, Nicki Meyer wrote a list of rules in her pink notebook that her father would have to agree to before she would give her blessing. Rule No. 1: My family will always come first. Meyer treated Nicki's rules, which became known as the Pink Contract, seriously. He signed it, and it would be prominently displayed in his office as a constant reminder of the coach and man he wanted and needed to be.CHAPTER 2
Turning the Page
The mood after the Orange Bowl was somber, not just because of the loss but because of the departures to come. The 2013 Buckeyes had rolled through the regular season undefeated. They had to rally to beat Northwestern and Iowa and had a narrow escape against archrival Michigan when Tyvis Powell intercepted a two-point conversion attempt in the final minute in a 42–41 victory. Otherwise, the Buckeyes were seldom challenged. Ohio State outscored opponents by almost 23 points per game. The Buckeyes had a powerful ground game with running back Carlos Hyde and wondrously elusive quarterback Braxton Miller behind an offensive line featuring four multi-year starters. Three of them — Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley, and Andrew Norwell — would start in the NFL as rookies. The defense featured linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby, who'd be first-round picks, and a stout defensive line. But the secondary never recovered from the loss to injury of its leader, safety Christian Bryant, early in the season. The pass defense was exposed in the Michigan game and then bludgeoned in the postseason. Ohio State finished 110 nationally in yards allowed through the air in 2013.
Excerpted from The Chase by Bill Rabinowitz. Copyright © 2015 the Columbus Dispatch. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Kirk Herbstreit,
1. Back from the Brink,
2. Turning the Page,
3. A Class for the Ages,
4. Pieces Aligning,
5. Brotherhood of Trust,
6. Braxton Down,
7. Barrett's Debut,
8. The Debacle,
9. For Jacob,
10. Big Ten Beckons,
11. The Turning Point,
12. The Slobs,
13. On a Mission,
14. Frozen Escape,
15. Rescued by Marshall,
16. Rivalry and Tragedy,
19. Selection Day,
20. Ready for 'Bama,
21. Sweet Sugar,
22. Solving the Mystery,
23. Completing the Chase,