URBAN MEYER WILL TELL YOU THIS MUCH: THERE IS A PICTURE OF WOODY HAYES hanging in his Florida home. Ask him which room of the house it's in, and the coach flashes a trace of Hayes-like gruffness: "That's personal," he says. "That's a secret." Before he broke its heart, Meyer was a card-carrying member of Buckeye Nation. The Ashtabula, Ohio, native had grown up cheering for Ohio State. ("You got beat up in school" if you didn't, he recalls.) As a tailback and defensive back at St. John High he wore number 45, an homage to Archie Griffin. Meyer played in the secondary at Cincinnati, where he graduated in 1986 with a degree in psychology. Weeks later he drove north to Columbus. He would be a graduate assistant for the football team while pursuing a master's degree in sports administration.
Upon his arrival at the football offices a fellow graduate assistant gave him the skinny: Two GA positions were open—one with the tight ends, the other with the secondary. If he took the job with the defensive backs, Meyer was told, his responsibilities would consist of making coffee and drawing up scout-team plays. "On offense," his new colleague told Meyer, "you actually get to coach."
He took the tight ends job. And to make a sparkling impression on then coach Earle Bruce, Meyer spent the summer devouring the Buckeyes' playbook. "I memorized that son of a gun from A to Z," he recalls with a grim smile.
On the first day of practice Bruce barked at him, saying, "Give me a four-technique." The eager young coach put a blocking dummy directly over the tackle—just as it said under "four-technique" in the playbook that he'd painstakingly committed to memory. In Bruce's mind, however, the bag belonged on the tackle's inside shoulder. "He just started cursing and screaming at me," recalls Meyer. "He berated me and beat me to death."
Meyer was getting paid big money ($6,000 that season) to take whatever guff the headman served up. He now keeps a portrait of Bruce in his office. Aside from Meyer's father, Urban II, no one has been a more valued career counselor to him than the fedora-sporting martinet who bit his head off on that hot August morning in 1986.
Two years ago, on a fateful Thursday evening in Utah in December, Meyer spent close to two hours on the phone with Bruce. Together they weighed the pros and cons of two great jobs. More than anyone else, Bruce helped his prot�g� answer the question: Gainesville or South Bend?
Ron Zook's firing at Florida had preceded by five weeks the dismissal of Ty Willingham at Notre Dame. It was assumed that Meyer—a devout Catholic named for a pope; a guy who'd put in five seasons as an assistant in South Bend—would jump at the job if it were offered. Yet Meyer left the Irish at the alter.
Asked why he chose Florida over Notre Dame, the coach replies, "That's in-house." Very well then, let us surmise what he must have been thinking. While Zook had lost an inordinate number of games as the coach at Florida, Meyer could see he was doing it with damned good athletes. It wasn't as if the cupboard was bare in South Bend, either. But Meyer perceived that his path to the national championship would be more direct through Gainesville.
But seriously, did anyone expect this? That Meyer took this team to the mountaintop in his second season, with just a single recruiting class in place, is a testament to both the recruiting acumen of Zook and the resourcefulness of his successor. Meyer had to compromise and synthesize. He reined in his spread option offense to better suit the more conventional skills of senior quarterback Chris Leak. When production from his tailbacks proved to be erratic, Meyer figured out a way to get the ball in the hands of his two freshman playmakers, whether it was on handoffs to receiver Percy Harvin or direct snaps to backup quarterback Tim Tebow. The coach was open to even the most out-there suggestions (a fake punt in the SEC title game on your own 15-yard line?). And, when the occasion called for it, he could be as inflexible as Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus.
When star senior defensive tackle Marcus Thomas violated team rules against drug use, then balked at entering rehab, Meyer threw his best defensive player—a future NFL first-round pick—off the team in November. A more typical example of Meyer's discipline can be found in the story of Steve Harris, a senior noseguard who was suspended from the team last spring and summer for personal issues. After "earning" his way onto the practice field, Harris served a one-game suspension. With his life reordered, thanks in part to his coach, Harris has played the best football of his career. His elevated play (along with that of sophomore defensive end Derrick Harvey) has removed the sting from the exit of Thomas.