By Todd Jones
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- He's deep in the jungle now, way up there, long gone where Colonel Kurtz has a coaching headset waiting. No surprise. This is Michigan week, and this is where you go if you're the football coach at Ohio State. You venture far from sanity, where the world shrinks and only beating the Wolverines matters.
Urban Meyer knows the terrain, likes it, craves it. He's an Ohio boy, born and raised. His father worshipped Woody Hayes, who wouldn't even mutter the name of That School Up North. So neither does Meyer now that he's back home in the same job once held by his father's idol, coach at Ohio State, where his own career began as a graduate assistant. Eleven games into his first season and already the masses have anointed him like a pagan idol for inheriting a group of Buckeyes -- all shaken by scandal and defeat -- and pushing them to the brink of perfection. Of course, Michigan stands in the way on Saturday. Michigan, always Michigan. Those Wolverines, 8-3 and ranked No. 19, will be invading, intent on setting the record straight for a home team waiting at 11-0.
"Will we be defined by this one game? You usually are," Meyer said.
So he's gone into that dark place where duty beckons even if those outside Ohio aren't aware. The Buckeyes are the nation's only remaining undefeated team besides Notre Dame, yet they toil in a parallel universe of insignificance because of NCAA sanctions. The tattoo scandal that led to popular Jim Tressel's ouster as Ohio State coach in May 2011 still lingers in punishment. The Buckeyes are banned from playing in a bowl this season, leaving them to attach their own importance to being ranked No. 4 in the AP poll and winners of the Big Ten's Leaders Division. They're not even allowed to play in the league's championship game. Their season ends Saturday at Ohio Stadium, where they'll meet the hated Wolverines with a chance to become only the sixth team in the 123 years of Ohio State football to go unbeaten and untied. History, at least, could offer healing.
The opportunity for immortality is a testament to Meyer's rival skills. The Buckeyes were 6-7 last year under interim coach Luke Fickell, now their co-defensive coordinator. Ohio State's worst record since 1988 caused a zeroing in on a lone savior, one who was peaceful but restless in his one-year sabbatical from coaching. Meyer had quit for the second and final time at Florida, where two national championships only caused him to end up crumpled on the floor with chest pains, his wife, Shelley, dialing 911. His health returned in the less stressful year of analyzing games for ESPN. Still, Meyer couldn't resist his dream job. He said yes to Ohio State last November, three days after the funeral of his father, Bud, dead from lung disease. Meyer, 48, signed on to coach the Buckeyes only after signing another contract, one written by Nicki, the oldest of his two college-aged daughters. He agreed to 10 promises aimed at improving his life by better balancing demands, always certain that his family remained at the core. Then he was off leading his new football team to victories, just as he had in 10 prior seasons at Florida, Utah and Bowling Green.
Only this time total victory hasn't seized total control of Meyer. His family sees it. So does his tight circle of close friends.
"He's different at Ohio State than he was at Florida," said Chris Spielman, a Columbus resident and former Ohio State and NFL star who served as Meyer's broadcast partner at ESPN last year. "I see joy in his eyes coaching again. There's stress, but at Florida, the stress was overriding the joy of coaching."
His eyes looked like an assassin's this week, as every Michigan week requires. Meyer stared through reporters who lobbed queries about the Wolverines as if he was somewhere else. At times he was just that, propelled back into the past when asked to recall his graduate assistant days in 1986 and '87 under Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, a mentor who remains a close friend at age 81. Meyer was in the press box at Michigan Stadium 25 years ago, looking down as the Buckeyes, including Spielman, carried the victorious Bruce off the field on their shoulders five days after Ohio State told him that this would be his last game as Buckeyes coach. Asked about it, Meyer mentioned how Rick Bay informed the staff that he was resigning as the school's athletic director in protest of the decision to fire Bruce.
"It was right there, right out that door," Meyer said.
He was miles away, deep into the jungle of Michigan week. Can he get himself out after Saturday?
* * *
Columbus, Ohio, is about the last place you'd expect someone seeking balance in his life to coach football. Might as well send a wino to a tavern for rehabilitation. This city of 1.8 million in and around it is where the local symphony has played the Ohio State fight song at its Christmas show, where nurses at a senior citizen's home have been seen pushing old folks in wheelchairs in script Ohio formation to mimic The Best Damn Band In The Land's performances at halftime of Buckeyes games. Only Woody Hayes' body died, unless those really aren't impostors running the streets in black ball caps and scarlet windbreakers, whistles around their adult necks. The myopic obsession on Ohio State football reaches fever pitch annually in late November when you'll find a block M in urinals. And throughout the Ohio State football complex, you'll see signs plastered on walls, all exhorting the destruction of all things maize-and-blue.
You'll also see the weight room at that gargantuan campus complex. Meyer sees it as soon as he walks in upon arriving at work. It's the domain manned by his longtime friend, Mickey Marotti, the football team's strength coach. Actually, his title is assistant athletic director for football sports performance, but he also serves as Meyer's conscious. His boss comes in to chat each day. Meyer sits on a couch and decompresses, chomping on the nuts, dried fruit and tuna salad that Marotti makes available on purpose. Hey, did you get your workout in? What are you doing? Are you eating right? Marotti peppers Meyer with such questions as a safety net, a reminder that the demon of overwork can't happen again as it did at Florida, where everything spiraled into resignation for health reasons. Meyer lost 35 pounds during his final season with the Gators. Anxiety beat him down. Stress caused him head pains due to a cyst on his brain. Esophageal spasms made him think he was having a heart attack. All for football.
"I think the year off helped him," Marotti said. "He was able to step back, take a look at everything, and re-evaluate. He was able to say, 'I'm not going to let it consume me. I'm going to take care of myself. I'm going to breathe.' You've got to have self-discipline. You've got to be able to take care of yourself. He's done a great job of that."
The dragon, however, lives most working hours. Meyer is still all fire when he needs to be, which is most of the time. Nobody at Ohio State practices is sitting around holding hands, singing “Kumbaya.”
"There's a lot of yelling, a lot of screaming," said Jim Lachey, a former Ohio State and NFL offensive lineman and the Buckeyes' longtime radio analyst. "They get after it. It's old-school football. You're getting coached hard. There's a lot of demanding. It's kind of what Woody used to do."
Meyer parachuted into the Ohio State rubble one year ago, smacked his championship rings on the table and declared war.
"Right off the bat, he let us know that he wasn't going to stand for anything that went on last year," senior offensive lineman Reid Fragel said. "Right away he put us in hell. We had 5 a.m. workouts in the freezing cold. Right then and there, everybody knew what we were getting into. That's when we started bonding."
Ohio State's success is due in part to the wondrous skills of quarterback Braxton Miller, who has forged into the Heisman Trophy discussion as a sophomore. An offense that seemed as sophisticated as a cave drawing last year is now 18 points away from a top-five scoring season in school history. The defense, fueled by the relentless motor of senior lineman John Simon, has shown recent improvement since Meyer demanded a more aggressive attack after Indiana's 49 points six weeks ago were the most the Hoosiers ever scored against Ohio State. Still, the Buckeyes are a Monet only from afar. Up close, they've won two overtime games and another by one point. Meyer recently said his team "has a lot of holes," but those have been patched up by the toughness demanded by the new coach. Garbage cans were set up to puke in during off-season workouts, and the pace hasn't lightened. Meyer races against players to see who can be first out onto the practice field. He's forever pushing, prodding, demanding more, more, more.
"He's always in competitive mode," said senior safety Orhian Johnson. "You bind to it. It rubs off. You kind of emulate your coach when you go out and play."
The gears never shifted down before. Meyer couldn't help himself in prior coaching stops, even as an assistant. Fourteen years ago, he was working the Notre Dame sideline when he went to one knee because of a headache's searing pain during the game, which was against Michigan, of course. Those headaches hounded him throughout his coaching career, until this year. There hasn't been an episode. Instead, there have been times when Meyer left the football complex earlier than anyone expected. He's been a regular at his 13-year-old son Nate's football games. Once, he even convinced the parish to move its Saturday night bingo so Nate's school team could play that night, allowing Meyer to be in attendance after Ohio State beat Illinois 52-22 on the afternoon of Nov. 3. A week later, with the Buckeyes enjoying a bye week, Meyer flew to Atlanta to attend his daughter Nicki's final volleyball game at Georgia Tech. Players see him relaxing with Shelley and Nate when coaches bring their spouses and children to the team's dinner after every Thursday practice.
"He's done remarkably well with what he's promised he'd do," Spielman said. "He's done a good job of surrounding himself with his family and a circle of people outside his family who care a lot about him and hold him accountable. He has all the tools in place to maintain the proper perspective. I'm really happy for him, not because of the team's record, but because I'm happy when anybody is able to live passionately and enjoy the passion."
This week's enjoyment takes the form of laser focus. The Wolverines are lurking. All Meyer sees are winged helmets.
"This is all I knew growing up," said Meyer, born in Toledo and raised in Ashtabula, Ohio. "It's all anybody knew. In the era when I grew up, there really wasn't much other than three channels on your television and this game. It was Bo Schembechler. Woody Hayes. Pete Johnson. Archie Griffin. That's all. I remember the games. I remember it coming down the pipe. I remember everybody talking about it."
As always, the jungle is thick. For now, all that matters is what is here.
"This is just a pure, intense rivalry," Meyer said.
So will that drug become more intense if, holy hell, Ohio State loses Saturday? What if the Buckeyes win?
* * *
The path into the dense foliage has been a speed trap. On Nov. 10, 2011, Bud Meyer died in his son's arms. At that time, Urban was still employed by ESPN, but his name was swirling among rumors about the Ohio State job. Days later, he was promising his own family that he'd take care of himself and keep them close to heart in the coaching grind. He signed a six-year contract to become the 24th Buckeyes coach, hit the recruiting trail, moved from Florida to Columbus, ran through spring practice, won 11 games . . . and ended up in this week's jungle, surrounded by Wolverines and a fan base that sees no need for conventional weapons when it comes to Michigan.
"It's been a whirlwind and emotional year for him," Marotti said. "He excels in that on-going, always-something-going-on mode. That's his deal. That's what he likes to do."
The pace is no greater than during this week. Michigan allows a man to tunnel into himself. Even Tressel, he of the Mr. Rogers demeanor, was able to channel the fury annually against the Wolverines, beating them consistently like a conga drum. Spielman knows the beat. He's an Ohio guy, too. He made 29 tackles in one game against Michigan. He wrote EARLE on his headband in honor of his coach and led the Buckeyes to an unexpected win in Ann Arbor that glorious afternoon of 1987. He took a roaring fire into the NFL as a stellar linebacker for the Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills. He knows a kindred spirit in Meyer.
"With all passionate people who love what they do, it can consume you," Spielman said. "One thing I've learned is that whatever it is, either you control it or it controls you. One of two things are going to happen. It will never stop trying to control you. It will always try. Our egos sometimes don't let us put things in their proper place. I learned a very valuable lesson from my late wife after an NFL game. She told me, 'I've never seen somebody who is living their dream, so miserable.' It humbled me."
The irony for Meyer is that the more he wins at Ohio State, the more will be expected of him. Coal must forever be shoveled into this beast of a machine. So maintaining excellence looms as the perpetual challenge for someone who on Saturday can tie Caroll Widdoes -- who won his first 12 games with the Buckeyes in 1944 and '45 -- for the best start by a coach in Ohio State's long, storied history of football. And if he fails Saturday, and hated Michigan leaves town singing "Hail to the Victors" …
"I don't know if he's really been tested yet," Spielman said. "He hasn't lost a game. He's been tested, but not tested yet with a loss. For great competitors, losing is hard. That being said, I have all the confidence in the world that whenever he has his first loss or first controversy or first conflict, he'll deal with it and pass the test."
Those who know him best, like Spielman and Marotti, bear witness to a more well-rounded Meyer. He's older, knows the view from bottoming out, and is now comfortable at home again in Ohio.
"He's been through stuff at Florida as a head coach," Marotti said. "A lot of wisdom comes with years of experience of being a head coach. Here, he knows the lay of the land and what he's up against. He knows what's important to do and what you don't have to do."
What he must do now, more than anything, is beat Michigan. Meyer knows it. Questions came at him fast and furious this week from the media. What about this? What about that? He spoke with an even voice, eyes intense.
"I've been coaching for a while now, and there's nothing you can control other than getting ready to go play the game," Meyer said. "So I think you learn that along the journey. I think, if it was my first rodeo and all that, I'd be worried about this, worried about that. We're going to have a really, really hard practice, and that's going to take care of all worrying about those other things. So I am concerned, but you've got to move forward and do the best you can."
Pondering the path to this jungle doesn't help this week. Recalling the past year doesn't interest him.
"I haven't had much chance to reflect because I want to put these guys in position to go win a game," Meyer said. "So there hasn't been a lot of reflection. But I'm very appreciative of where I'm at and who I'm doing it with."
After Saturday, win or lose, it's up to him to go home again. On peaceful terms. Out of the jungle.
* * *
Todd Jones is a senior reporter for the Columbus Dispatch.