Behind the scenes at Ohio State: 10 lessons from the Buckeyes
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- To understand how frenetic a college football game-day operation can get, consider the belt loops on Ohio State coach Urban Meyer's pants. At times on fall Saturdays, those loops become the most important resources on the Buckeyes' sideline.
Brian Voltolini, Ohio State's director of football operations, shadows Meyer on the field during games, something he has done since their days together at Bowling Green more than a decade ago. As both Meyer and Voltolini's hair has faded from pepper to salt, they have refined a react-and-respond system for when Meyer's temper boils over at officials.
"You have to pull him, you can't just nudge him," Voltolini said, wedging two fingers into one of his own belt loops to demonstrate. "He'll look at me like he doesn't know who I am."
Voltolini added with a smile, "The good part is that he doesn't remember any of it the next day."
The Buckeyes granted me behind-the-scenes access during the week leading up to their season-opening 40-20 win over Buffalo on Aug. 31, an experience I wrote about for this week's issue of Sports Illustrated. In all, I spent four days with the team, culminating with game-day access to the coaches' headsets. I got to listen in on what an FBS game really feels like for coaches. Here are 10 things I learned from my time with Ohio State.
1. What happens on the headset stays on the headset. On game day, there are volatile swings of emotion. There is arguing. There is cursing. But everything is forgotten soon after. "You can't take anything personal that happens on game day," Voltolini said. "If you do, you're done."
2. The word grind is overused in the football lexicon -- but there are few better ways to describe how a coaching staff prepares for Saturday. As the word is used in locker rooms at all levels of the game, grind has evolved from a noun into a verb, from a grind to the grind. To grind through a game week with the Buckeyes' coaches lends some perspective, as the Ohio State staff fought a constant battle against fatigue while attempting to keep its edge. The coaches began their 7 a.m. meetings with steaming cups of McDonald's coffee, moved on to Propel water around mid-morning and turned to all sorts of caffeinated additives throughout the rest of the day.
The most extreme measure I saw was indulged in by wide receivers coach Zach Smith and some of the support staff, who gulped MiO Energy directly from the bottle. MiO is a concentrated syrup that is supposed to be mixed with water, but Smith and the Buckeyes GAs squirted it into their mouths for an extra jolt -- and a bitter-beer-face expression.
Whatever grinds a coach through his day.
3. Ohio State's focus on hydration borders on maniacal. The soundtrack to every practice drill, meeting and huddle was a coach, trainer or strength staffer yelling, "Hydrate! Make sure you hydrate!"
A phalanx of managers scurried around the Buckeyes' practice field with bottles of water and Gatorade. Booths were set up at the end of the field -- like open bars at a wedding reception -- with a full spectrum of flavors of Gatorade and G2. The chorus of "Make sure you hydrate!" is so incessant that when a special teams meeting ended one day, offensive coordinator Tom Herman heard the door swing open and said quietly, "Hydrate, make sure you hydrate." A split second later, a booming voice answered back, "Hydrate! Make sure you hydrate!"
"Hydration is like safety in a steel mill," said Mickey Marotti, Ohio State's head strength coach. "It never takes a day off."
He added: "Muscles and the body function more efficiently when you are hydrated. Muscles are about 70 to 75 percent water. All those intricate parts and sodium pumps. It has to be hydrated."
Of course, as he spoke at about 9 a.m. on game day, Marotti was sipping not from a water bottle, but from a can of Diet Mountain Dew. (He allows himself one per day.) And, naturally, star quarterback Braxton Miller left the game twice with cramps. Marotti conceded that sometimes the body sweats out fluids faster than they can be replaced, but the Buckeyes' hydration chorus will certainly continue.
4. Herman doesn't appear destined to be at Ohio State much longer. Two Division I schools inquired about the offensive coordinator's interest in head-coaching positions last year, but Herman had committed to Meyer for two seasons and elected not to pursue any job offers. Herman, who brought an electrifying no-huddle system with him from Iowa State, calls the plays for the Buckeyes. (Ohio State currently ranks 15th nationally in total offense even though it has been playing mostly with backup quarterback Kenny Guiton. That's up from 107th in 2011, the year before Herman arrived.)
Media reports frequently cite Herman's membership in Mensa, but his most impressive feature is his ability as a teacher. (When Herman interviewed at Ohio State, Meyer threw the Florida playbook at him and said, "Learn the empty-protection packages. I'm coming back in an hour and you're going to teach them to me.") During quarterback meetings, the professorial Herman constantly engaged his players in conversation, quizzing them while splicing movie quotes (Anchorman was a favorite), random pop culture references (Saturday Night Live's Simon and his "drawings") and four different languages into his patter. (Why say, take it "to the house" when "a la casa" is available?)
Ed Warinner, Herman's co-offensive coordinator, should also attract job offers. He called plays and ran successful offenses at Army and Kansas, where he and the Jayhawks won the Orange Bowl after the 2007 season. Warinner also overhauled Ohio State's offensive line last year, the biggest improvement of any unit under Meyer.
5. Calling plays from the booth doesn't always go according to plan. Herman knows what it's like when things go horribly wrong on the headset. In 2009, during his first season as Iowa State's offensive coordinator, the Cyclones opened with North Dakota State.
"[I've made it to] the show," Herman -- who played at Cal-Lutheran and coached at Sam Houston State, Texas State and Rice before coming to Ames -- recalled thinking to himself. "This is big-time ball. I'm in the Big 12."
He put on his headset a few minutes before the start of the game and heard radio silence. "Nothing," he said. "I literally called the first quarter of my first game as a BCS coordinator from my cellphone."
Even worse, Herman's BlackBerry wasn't fully charged. In order to keep it plugged in while speaking into the phone, he needed to duck down about two feet. When he ducked, he couldn't see the field. Anyone who has ever tried to talk on a cellphone in a stadium knows that the service is less reliable than an email from Nigeria about winning a British lottery.
Herman recalls getting everyone in the booth to call people on the field to keep as many lines open as possible: "It was, 'You call this person. You call that person. You're breaking up. Gimme that phone.'" Welcome to big-time college football.
6. Former Buckeyes share their experiences. Ex-Ohio State receiver Joey Galloway did color commentary for Ohio State's game against Buffalo on ESPN2 and sat in on a quarterbacks meeting. Herman quizzed him a bit, for the benefit of his players, on what he did to be able to play 16 years in the NFL. The most eye-opening thing Galloway said? "I've never had a drink of alcohol or smoked anything in my life."
7. Recruiting never stops. At every meeting throughout the day, the din of vibrating cellphones provided background noise. Recruiting never stops at Ohio State, as coaches would see a call pop up -- either from a high school coach or a player -- and duck out of the meeting room to answer it.
When assistants would get a player on the phone, they'd hand him off to Meyer, who frequently stopped meetings to have a chat with a prospect. He ended one call memorably: "Don't bet against the Buckeyes this year." Then he stopped himself and smiled, "Well, actually, don't bet at all."
8. The evolution of Braxton Miller is a major storyline this season. Miller, who has been recovering from a knee injury, is expected to return to the starting lineup on Saturday against Wisconsin, and he'll do so as a more mature quarterback.
There are little things, like Miller throwing a 47-yard touchdown pass on his first throw of the game against Buffalo. Herman admits he would have never have called that play last year. Miller's familiarity with the offense has led to his evolution.
"I'm a lot better, I know what's going on," Miller said. "I know what's going on from the left side to the right side. I know what the offensive line is doing, I know what the farthest receiver on the opposite side is doing. I know what type of coverage that they like to line up in. They can't bait me any more. Last year, I was second-guessing myself. It's just little tips like that."
9. The offensive staff room at Ohio State is a circle of life. Sitting in the back of the room one day was Earle Bruce, the legendary Buckeyes coach who first hired Meyer as a GA at the school in 1986. Meyer's mentor back then was current running backs coach Tim Hinton, with whom he shared office space under the bleachers at old St. John Arena. "I had to duck to walk in," recalled Hinton, "and I'm short."
Meyer's main sustenance in those days came from egg rolls at happy hour -- a spartan existence to which the rest of Ohio State's coaches can relate. Herman slept in Texas' locker room for half the year during his one season as a GA for Mack Brown. Herman recalls breaking down his pay that year in Austin as 72 cents an hour. Smith, who is Bruce's grandson and a former Florida GA, slept in the Gators locker room one year in Gainesville.
The current Ohio State offensive GAs -- Drew Mehringer and Parker Fleming, both 25 -- don't sleep in the Buckeyes' facility. (Their GA office is dubbed the "G Spot," a racy nickname that belies the room's cramped, storage closet vibe.) They work about 17 hours a day, attend graduate school classes and occasionally sleep. All for $24,000 a year. They also never complain.
One of the GAs' primary responsibilities is putting together the practice scripts (as dictated by the coaches), and Fleming said not a day goes by when he's not sprinting to the copier to make sure they're delivered on time. "It's a pretty bleak existence," admitted Herman.
Even lower in the football caste system are the offensive interns, one for each position coach: Quinn Tempel, 22, Matt Merritt, 25, Austin Bell, 23, Dan Carrel, 26, and Sean Buckley, 27. Tempel and Bell are undergrads who sacrifice any semblance of a normal social life to work 65 hours a week. The others are enrolled in a mix of undergraduate or graduate classes; they work for no pay.
One big takeaway from my time in Columbus was how important the grunts are to the entire operation. Mehringer, Tempel and Merritt signal in plays on game day, while Fleming sits in the booth answering Meyer's special teams questions on the headset.
Meyer: "Parker, was that a field or boundary return?"
Fleming: "Field, sir!"
The others are indispensible to the day-to-day operation, doing everything from making copies to serving as in-practice signalers. Herman realizes their value, and treats them accordingly.
"I promised myself that... there were some guys when I was a GA that treated me like humans shouldn't be treated," he said. "I promised myself if I ever got to the position that I'm in, I wouldn't let history repeat itself."
10. A lot of time and effort goes into one play call. Herman drew up a basic zone-read running play that he called Rooster 45. It's a bread-and-butter Buckeyes' play that the team had practiced nearly 300 times between spring ball and the season opener. So what goes into one play? Here's Herman's abbreviated explanation of an Ohio State zone read:
"The key to our zone read. We are very vertical with the back and very vertical with the offensive line. We want to create a double team up front. Get the defense moving laterally. We're almost, for lack of a better term, we're going to double-team the down guys, displace them vertically off the ball. Basically, the front side of the line is going to zone to the left. They will block the guy in the play-side gap. If there's a down lineman in their gap, if I'm the left-side guard, I'm going to push it at an angle vertically and a bit horizontally. Same thing with the left tackle. The center and the right guard, they're going to try like hell to push the nose tackle vertically and come off late for a frontside linebacker. The backside tackle, he is responsible for the backside linebacker, wherever he goes. In a perfect world, they all play their gaps. We want it very downhill to create a quick read on the DE. He has to immediately take the dive or stand here and play the QB. The QB pulls the ball out of his gut, and then takes off running and sets up these blocks and finds a crease vertically if he can. If he takes the dive, the quarterback pulls the ball out of his gut and takes off running and sets up a block and finds a crease vertically as we go. If he's stagnant at all, the back is going to hug the heel line of the offensive line and then read that double team of the nose."
Got all that? Me neither. For all that philosophy, all those reps, all the film study, all the discussion of read keys, Ohio State ran the play just three times against Buffalo.
The first time Herman called it, Buffalo blitzed and no one was home -- Jordan Hall ran untouched 49 yards for a touchdown. The second? Miller got sacked for a three-yard loss. The third time came when Ohio State was bleeding out the clock in the fourth quarter. Freshman Dontre Wilson ran for five yards. Simple, right?