Balancing Act: In-depth interview with Urban Meyer
Urban Meyer, Ohio State University
Photo by Will Shilling
He worked himself into the hospital while at the University of Florida, took a year off coaching to fix his life and returned to helm a Buckeyes program in chaos. After his first season, his record is perfect, he is healthy and his family life is strong. Did Urban Meyer finally find a way to have it all?
Sounds of punchy brass and pounding drums pour from the exits of St. John Arena, bouncing off the tall stone walls and marching over asphalt, as if following orders.
Through a cold, rain-soaked December twilight, fans follow the siren call toward the aging, gray arena from nearby dorms and crowded parking lots along Lane and Neil avenues. They’re relieved at the gates, shaking off the rain, giddy as they take their seats.
The Ohio State University Marching Band hosts a skull session before every home football game, but this one is special—a booming, ecstatic Friday night celebration of a 12-0 season sealed two weeks ago against Michigan. A de facto bowl game for a Buckeye team barred from post-season play by NCAA sanctions. Thirteen thousand tickets sold out a week beforehand.
Wild applause crescendos as the team enters the warm, bright arena, dressed in black warm-ups with red trim. They walk slowly and wave, the purposeful stride of athletes with nothing left to prove.
In front and beaming is coach Urban Meyer, who in his first year with the Buckeyes authored the sixth unbeaten season in school history. He stops to greet friends and special guests before grabbing a seat next to his wife, Shelley, and his son, Nate. He looks healthy, relaxed, slightly tan, as if he just finished a round of golf. He wears a white dress shirt, khakis and dark blazer and slaps hands with fans sitting nearby.
Event host and 10TV sports anchor Dom Tiberi steps to the podium.
“Are you ready to celebrate perfection?” he asks the crowd.
Meyer smiles. He has always defined terms like these more stringently than record books do, but he smiles. He’s learning to do that more often.
For him, moments like these used to vanish, torched by his consuming desire for greatness and titles. The drive that put him in the hospital with chest pains in December 2009 and forced him to step down from coaching at the University of Florida the following year. The drive that often left his mind, body and home life in tatters.
But since returning to Ohio State in 2011, after a year searching for answers and piecing together his life, Meyer’s learned to enjoy the wins, to snatch those fleeting moments when things work out and to savor them. He rediscovered his deep love for players. As football analysts, rival coaches and even his own family watched to see if the 48-year-old could survive his return to coaching, he made time for family, ate well, limited hours at the office.
Redefining yourself is a process, Meyer knows, but he’s learning.
“Somewhere in the season, it became clear to him that he needed to enjoy the win,” says OSU athletic director Gene Smith. “He just learned to relax, I think, and take things as they came, rather than control and attack things as they came.”
Even in a 12-0 year, there’s a part of Meyer that would go back and fix things, do them better, find the limit and then try to surpass it. A few years earlier, during a night like this, the fiery workaholic might’ve been watching film or grading recruits, enslaved to the need to perfect and polish.
But Meyer knows today is good. He is here. And he is enjoying himself.
The joy that reverberated through Buckeye Nation when Meyer was hired Nov. 28, 2011, partially obscured a program in disarray.
Under first-year head coach Luke Fickell, the 2011 Buckeyes nearly fell to unranked Toledo in week two, dropped their final four games (including their first loss to Michigan since 2003) and ended up 6-7. Less than a month after Meyer was hired, NCAA sanctions chastised the program for its tattoos-for-memorabilia scandal, stripping scholarships and banning the 2012 team from playing in the conference championship or a bowl game.
“Just like any individual without purpose, a team without purpose usually fails,” Meyer explains, admitting that he didn’t know what the team’s purpose would be. “It was rather obvious to me that this team was dysfunctional—but most teams are. That’s why there are very few great teams.”
Team chemistry improved in the summer, when players resolved to win for the seniors who stayed despite NCAA penalties. There’d be no titles this season, no trophies. Only seniors like Etienne Sabino, who stepped up as a team leader even after breaking his leg, and Zach Boren, who sacrificed a coveted offensive position to fill a defensive hole.
Morale change, though, is slow and grueling. As the opener approached, spirits waxed and waned. Problems continued into the regular season as players got to know new coaches and struggled with motivation. The inconsistency coaches saw in practice swept onto the field each Saturday.
The Buckeyes followed a predictable opening-day blowout against Miami (Ohio) with three games that were neither predictable nor blowouts. They limped past Central Florida, California and Alabama-Birmingham—unranked, non-conference opponents slated as a tune-up for the Big Ten schedule. Speaking to reporters after games, Meyer appeared stressed, even irritated. After UAB, when he critized his defense for being passive, a football crime, Meyer seemed physically pained.
Now, days before the start of conference play, fear sets in.
“Michigan State’s got as good of players as we got. Same with Nebraska,” Meyer explains. “We felt with Michigan State and Nebraska coming up in the next two weeks, unless we get this thing organized, we’re going to lose two games.”
Throughout his career, losing would crush him. He’d take on too much responsibility, then bear the guilt of failure. After a loss, he would toss and turn at night as the weight he shouldered for his team buried him.
Falling to MSU and Nebraska would haunt him, Meyer knows, but failing to motivate his team would be worse. A defeat could push him over the edge, but so would a player failing to realize potential or getting into trouble. So Meyer forges a turning point.
“He wants to be someone who helps kids,” says Earle Bruce, head coach at OSU when Meyer was hired in 1986 to take charge of tight ends. “The only way to do that is the way he is doing it. He likes the kids. He doesn’t pull any punches about what they are not doing.”
At the outset, Meyer was dedicated, tenacious and intelligent, Bruce says, quick to listen and act. He loved teaching, loved learning. After the two reunited at Colorado State in 1990, Bruce would assign Meyer to a troubled player. He and Shelley would befriend him, invite him over for meals and try to shield him from the temptations that come with college football. Together, they made recruits into leaders.
“I think he learned from that what results when you do a good job with a young person,” Bruce adds. “It’s a rewarding thing to help a young man become a better man.”
Since he took over at OSU, Meyer and the numerous coaches that followed him to Columbus had made a point to learn where players grew up, about their home lives, who they were dating. Meyer and his staff would invite their spouses and children to eat with the team every Thursday on Campus. Coaches turned even routine practice drills into competitions, pushing players to excel.
“You know that when he’s talking to you, he’s always real,” says senior John Simon, a 2012 lineman. “He is always going to tell you the truth. He’s the same person any time of the day. He never lies to you.”
With MSU looming, Meyer calls his team together and digs in. He’s candid and genuine. He spits hard truth but also love. He pleads with players to open their hearts to coaches, the university, their families. There’s purpose, and players buy in—not to a system as much as the man behind it and what he’s willing to give.
“There’s people that actually believe schemes win games—the spread offense is why we win or our 4-3 defense,” he says. “I’ve been around long enough to understand that has really minimal effect on the game. It’s motivation and management of the team. We spend more time, I think, than ’most anybody in the country on that.”
Meyer’s team beats the Spartans 17-16 on the road, then never looks back.
Meyer’s office is nestled deep within the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, at the end of a long hallway that doubles as a timeline of the football program. Team photos, autographed memorabilia and banners listing bowl histories line both sides, swaddling visitors in tradition and lore.
The office is a large, rectangular museum of accomplishments, memories and milestones. Autographed footballs commemorate landmark SEC wins and his two national titles at Florida. Photographs capture son Nate on a pitcher’s mound, his family’s lake house in Florida, White House visits and his mentor, Earle Bruce. A small shrine to Woody Hayes is set up in one corner. Mindful of history and tradition, Meyer lives beneath the weight of his own legacy, even as he works to redefine it.
At either end of the room is a door—one to the team locker room, one to his assistants—which puts Meyer in a constant stream of players and coaches, updates and details. Most of the time, both doors remain open.
In the middle of the room stands his desk, stacked with papers, playbooks, binders and reading glasses. Above it, in a wooden frame, hangs the famous family pact, handwritten on pink paper, a reminder of the way things were and could be again. The decade or so when he would shed weight, as much as 35 pounds, during a season. The final years at Florida when his drive to win championships would frighten even himself. Those days before Meyer started the long process of becoming a different man.
After he resigned from Florida in December 2010, admitting in a press release that football had warped his priorities, Meyer took a year off to piece together his life. He relaxed, spent time with family, slept in.
“He just loves coaching so much,” says Shelley, who met her husband at a house party in 1984 at Cincinnati, where they were students. “He knew he wanted to go back, so he knew in order to go back that he had to make changes in how he handled the stress of the job, which is immense.”
Eventually Meyer sought answers and advice, exploiting the same focus and drive that had caused his problems. He talked with coaches Mack Brown at Texas and Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and successful executives outside football about striking a balance among work, family and personal health.
“They’ve reached a point in their careers where they don’t have to please anyone,” he says. “They’re very comfortable with who they are, what they do and how they do it.”
When he was offered the OSU job in 2011, his wife and kids were willing to fight to have it both ways—to keep their dad and husband intact while allowing him to do what he loved. They’d seen him deteriorate, disconnecting from the things he really loved most. So they called a family meeting the day before Thanksgiving. Nate and Meyer’s college-aged daughters, Nicki and Gigi, challenged him to take care of himself, trust God’s plan for the family, watch them play sports, sleep with his phone on silent. They wondered if he’d be able to do it.
“There are things that I’ve done this year that I’ve never done before as the result of that conversation,” he says. “I want to work really hard, have a system that we believe in. If that works at Ohio State, then that’s what we’re going to do. If it doesn’t, so be it.”
On Sundays, Meyer took a few hours off from planning or watching film to see his son play football. He flew down to watch his daughters play volleyball, Nicki for Georgia Tech and Gigi for Florida Gulf Coast. Several nights a week, he came home early to catch up on sleep. He learned to delegate more to his assistants. He ate three meals a day and two snacks and worked out. Most mornings, Shelley says, he takes time to read his Bible.
Local leaders like Gov. John Kasich and Les Wexner checked in throughout the season, skipping football talk to ask about his family. They were genuine, Meyer says, they cared. Director Smith figured out how to calm Meyer after subpar games and help him say no to endless requests for guest appearances. During the Nov. 10 bye week, Smith sent Meyer home for family time.
The 2012 season will be remembered for what happened on the field. But Meyer’s success came partly by redefining it—by keeping sane and grounded, even when expectations rose with his unthinkable unbeaten streak. His season’s greatest moment, he says, was singing the OSU fight song with his players in the locker room after beating Michigan. His daughters stood by his side.
But a man who balances stands in danger of falling. The success he enjoyed on and off the field during his first season makes his newfound balance harder to maintain. It puts him closer to the claws of his inner drive and heightens the potentially crushing pressure facing a Big Ten football coach. Even as he sits to answer questions, he seems to fight a relentless urge to march forward.
“I’m well aware that it’s day-to-day,” Meyer admits. “The problem hasn’t been solved. The answer, I’ve found out, is never-ending.”
And, one day, the Buckeyes will lose, thrusting Meyer and his antagonist face to face.
“I don’t handle losing very well,” Meyer laments. “I can’t let it go. When that speed bump comes—and we all know it’s going to come—how am I going to handle that?”
Shelley waited for a loss all season, wondering about his reaction. When one comes, she believes, things will be different.
“It won’t be as devastating,” she says. “With the work he has done on himself and his different perspective, he’ll handle it better. You can’t win every single game your whole life.”
The day before the Michigan game is brisk and dry, with slivers of sunlight spackling Lane Avenue tailgates, backyard pick-up games played in lucky jerseys and strangers slapping hands as they pass on the sidewalk. Since notching an overtime win last week at Wisconsin, thoughts of a perfect season have swirled through town like the last autumn leaves and joyous chants of O-H-I-O.
By late morning, John Simon can’t hear them.
Deep inside team headquarters, far past the glass trophy wall visible from Olentangy River Road, the hulking lineman sits in a training room. Meyer’s by his side, his heart worried.
A small pouch of fluid that eases friction between bone and muscle had swelled in Simon’s right knee. He had re-aggravated the injury the previous week but played through the pain, tallying four sacks as teammates on the sideline watched the knee swell larger after each series.
During the past few days, the fluid stiffened. Simon hadn’t practiced. Medical staff tried to drain the knee several times, but the fluid was so thick it would clog the needle. Nothing helped.
The Youngstown defender who became a rare two-time captain was legendary for enduring pain. During his senior year, he’d played through a rolled ankle, a groin injury and ribs that would pop out and make it hard to breathe. Simon figured he could will himself into the Michigan game.
But Meyer knows the knee’s too much, even for Simon. He can hardly walk. In the training room next to his coach, game time drawing near, Simon starts to realize what his coach already knew.
“To tell someone who you have that much respect for that you’re not going to be able to go out and play for him,” Simon recalls, “that was tough for me.”
And it pierces Meyer. At his core, in parts honed by an exacting father who despised quitters, Meyer believes hard work should be rewarded, that he’s to care for players like family and that leaders should lead. Simon’s knee is a sucker-punch to the grueling bootstrap ethos that catapulted Meyer from coaching Bowling Green to his current job in 10 years and threatens to define his every moment.
Heartbroken, Meyer can see the pain in Simon’s face. So he sits with his injured, emotional student leader in a room where he had been pieced together so many times before, comforting him as only a coach can. He loses track of time.
Soon an assistant taps Meyer, reminding him that he’s due to speak at a fundraiser. Thousands of fans cheer when they see Meyer walk into Earle Bruce’s Beat Michigan Tailgate, but he can barely remember where he is. He doesn’t care. His mind never leaves the training room where Simon sits with a swollen knee and crumpled dream. His voice echoes through French Field House, but his somber expression sulks from giant projector screens on either side.
“All I got was the vision of what these seniors did for our program and then the fact that the head senior—the head guy—is not going to be able to play,” he later recalls. “You love someone that much, your players that much, you’re going to lose it.”
And he loses it.
He launches into earnest praise for his seniors, then stops short, visibly shaken. Seconds tick. Fans are silent, shocked at the rare glimpse past the coach’s no-nonsense persona. Meyer fidgets and looks down at the podium, pushing his hand through his hair, emotion battling resolve. The crowd cheers him on, and Bruce walks slowly over to put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. Meyer pauses, his heart still blocks away with Simon.
“There’s reasons why you do what you do. These kids love this school, they love each other, and we can’t forget that,” he says shakily, fighting tears and already preparing to leave. “Let’s beat the shit out of Michigan.”
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