By now, a one-man storm of charisma and skill has blown through four American college towns in the 21st century. In winter 2000-01, first-year head coach Urban Meyer hit Bowling Green, Ohio. In winter 2002-03, he reached Salt Lake City. In winter 2004-05, he crossed down to Gainesville, Fla. In winter 2011-12, he hit Columbus, the big one in Ohio.
With each walk into each first-meeting room, he has seemed to present his young and muscular listeners with a presence. And from the time he changed from Notre Dame receivers coach to Bowling Green head coach at 36 and issued a geeky official statement — “We want to force the opposition to defend the entire field using spread formations” — he seemed a threat to cause players to drag out the word “aura.”
Last Thursday night in a dizzying Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Alabama, it grew clear again that Meyer, 50, belongs at the tiptop of any discussion of football’s top head coaches. Ohio State’s 45-38 rally and upset not only rocketed the Buckeyes into the national championship game; it bolstered the list of the feats of the once-anonymous defensive back at Cincinnati who spent 15 seasons assistant-coaching mostly receivers.
Take Ohio State’s presence in the first title game under the sport’s first four-team playoff. Add that Ohio State went 12-0 under bowl-less NCAA probation in 2012. Add that Florida won national championships under Meyer in 2006-07 and 2008-09, and that in 2004 — maybe even headiest of all — Meyer’s Utah became the first “non-BCS” team to qualify for a BCS bowl game, finishing 12-0 then, too. Add that Bowling Green had gone 24-42 in six consecutive losing seasons between 1994 and 1999, then went 17-5 in two seasons under Meyer.
“When he walks into the room,” said Dave Revill, a captain on Meyer’s first Utah team, “there’s a presence that’s pretty strong.”
In the room with the university president before Bowling Green’s opener at Missouri in 2001, as Meyer later told it at Utah, the president stressed to the players that winning or losing weren’t paramount. When the president left, Meyer said, “That is not the intent of this game.”
Visiting Bowling Green upset Missouri, 20-13.
It goes from there.
By a two-game swatch of September 2002, Missouri and Kansas had felt the Bowling Green wrath by 51-28 and by 39-16.
Many good coaches can motivate and strategize at many levels, but through the years with Meyer, players have detected a loftier tier. They legitimately can rave about him while refraining from disparaging other coaches.
“To be honest, the biggest thing about Urban is he instilled more confidence in players than I’ve ever seen before,” said Revill, 34, a then-defensive back. “You could be a very average football player and he could make you feel like you were an all-star. Really, every player felt like we could be the best team in the country when before we knew our statistics didn’t show that. He basically said, ‘We have a scheme in place that literally, if you buy into the system and we execute it properly, we will not lose …’
“People that had negative attitudes the year before were buying in and people you wouldn’t expect to buy into a system like that bought in.” Tardiness ebbed. “He got guys who completely changed their lifestyle and got them where they were 100-percent involved.”
In Revill’s words and in others, that seems to have combined with an accessibility to players infrequent in the icons of last century if more common nowadays. All along the way, Meyer seemed to understand football as a collaborative human experience, and that understanding it that way actually might help the football.
When Florida reached the BCS Championship Game in Meyer’s second season, players there told of atmospheric shifts in the program. Linebacker Brandon Siler said the emphasis had changed to value togetherness so that, “We play for each other and we care about the guy next to us.” Receiver Jemalle Cornelius managed to mention “going bowling and hanging out all the time.” Offensive tackle Steve Rissler said, “I didn’t really go to my coach’s house in the last coaching staff. This time, I have been numerous times and hung out with their kids. I know his wife.”
To this day, Revill values dinners he had, as a captain, with Meyer, Meyer’s wife, Shelley, and Revill’s wife, Carlye.
“He is a good guy,” Revill said of Meyer, “but I don’t think him going with the captain of the team to dinner is because he wants to be nice. It’s because it’s a part of his plan, a part of him wanting to get people super-involved in what he’s doing.”
When the players voted for the Utah captaincy post, Meyer announced the results at a barbecue in his backyard. Such things do seem to matter. “Things like that, that’s really cool,” Revill said.
As with many coaches of legend and reality and movies, practice tales tell of ramped-up rigor (and dismissed laggers). Early on, Bowling Green players spoke of trying to avoid having to run on “The Hill,” which apparently doubled as the Bowling Green golf course. “Practices are extremely intense,” Bowling Green quarterback Andy Sahm told the Columbus Dispatch in August 2001. “The littlest thing, and you’re running.”
Revill recalls with horror the weekly, off-season, 5 a.m. wrestling routine designed to “weed out the least committed,” as Revill put it.
“So he killed us,” Revill said, “and we just wanted to strangle him, but then he had some good moments where you’re going to his house and having barbecues and whatnot.”
Ohio State players undoubtedly had that sense of their own worth against Alabama. One after another, they told of a sense of belonging-in-the-game even as they trailed a No. 1 team by 21-6 in the second quarter and the end was nigh according to tweeting witnesses. While the country had turned its attention largely to the Southeastern Conference and to the rare excellence of Alabama Coach Nick Saban, Ohio State had its own, confidence-instilling force.
Even a guy who played in only one Meyer season could see that.
“I miss him,” Revill said.