You Carry Our Message, Urban Meyer

Urban Meyer’s third title increased the pressure on new nemesis Jim Harbaugh — and returned the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry to where it should be. (Tim Heitman, USA TODAY Sports)

Pete Thamel, Campus Rush (https://www.campusrush.com/ohio-state-leadership-training-urban-meyer-1311015832.html)

Meyer eventually takes his seat at the head of an oversized staff table in the windowless room. In front of his nine bleary-eyed assistant coaches sit steaming, plastic-foam cups of coffee. Meyer is concerned this morning because two players arrived late to a team meeting the day before. To him, the incident represents a symptom of the off-season’s most ominous opponents—complacency and entitlement.

The pre-dawn meeting of the coaching staff kicks off Meyer’s third season of leadership training in Columbus. It is key to Meyer’s plan to defeat the human element, something he could not do when attempting to defend the 2006 and ’08 national championships at Florida. As he enters his 14th season as a head coach, Meyer’s philosophy has evolved to the point where he believes chemistry and culture trump schemes and star rankings. Having great players is a necessity for winning, but so is having the cohesiveness to maximize that talent.

The extent to which Meyer believes in consultant Tim Kight’s Focus 3 leadership training can be seen through how much time the Buckeyes dedicate to it. Players and staff met weekly in the off-season, from May through July, to learn leadership principles. There were study guides and written tests, and there was even a graduation ceremony. The most clear sign of Meyer’s belief in the training is all of his assistants returned from recruiting one day a week in May to teach leadership to their units. Meyer even wrote a leadership-centric book, Above The Line, which will be released in October. The book shows how leadership principles aided the Buckeyes through adversity en route to the 2014 title. “From the bottom of our souls all the way through our body, we have to believe in [the training] and feel it,” Meyer tells his coaches. “I want to make sure we’re nine strong. If we line up next year, nine strong, who is going to beat this team?”

At 7 a.m. the Buckeyes staff meeting on leadership transitions to a team meeting. Meyer delivers the above words with a volume and intensity that make the moment feel like there are 30 minutes remaining until kickoff against Michigan. The Buckeyes’ players lean forward, transfixed by Meyer’s passion. He hits hard on his obvious theme—”contact will be made”—by repeating some version of the phrase more than 35 times in 15 minutes.

At 7 a.m. the Buckeyes staff meeting on leadership transitions to a team meeting. Meyer delivers the above words with a volume and intensity that make the moment feel like there are 30 minutes remaining until kickoff against Michigan. The Buckeyes’ players lean forward, transfixed by Meyer’s passion. He hits hard on his obvious theme—”contact will be made”—by repeating some version of the phrase more than 35 times in 15 minutes.

Following Meyer’s opening monologue, players watch a video about New England Patriots Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler. (“I want a little extra volume,” Meyer had said earlier in the staff meeting.) When the video ends, Kight takes the floor. He runs a performance consulting firm, called Focus 3, with one of his sons, Brian. Kight ran track in 1974 and ’75 at UCLA, where he studied John Wooden from a distance. He has spent the majority of his career training such companies as Ernst & Young, Nationwide Insurance and Bank of America. Kight is in his third season working with Ohio State, where Meyer values him like an extra assistant. Kight’s company also works with the football programs at Washington and James Madison; last year it worked with Boston College and New Mexico.

Butler offers a perfect prism through which to view Kight’s teachings. On the Seattle Seahawks’ final drive of last February’s Super Bowl, Butler didn’t put his palms up in disbelief or act impulsively after receiver Jermaine Kearse made a 33-yard circus catch on the five-yard line. Instead, Kight notes, Butler’s response was to return to the sideline, lock in and get ready to help his team. He did that two plays later, intercepting a pass at the two-yard line to seal the victory for New England. “He pressed pause, he got his mind right,” Kight tells the team. “And stepped up and made maybe the biggest play in all of professional football history.”

The basic tenet of Kight’s training is E + R = O, which means that event plus response equals outcome. When Butler was beaten two plays before his game-winning interception—on a ball that appeared to be tipped four times—he chose what Kight calls “above the line behavior.” In the best interest of the team, he returned to the Patriots’ sideline and kept his cool. He didn’t choose “below the line behavior,” which would have consisted of sulking, complaining and losing focus. Butler’s trained response, as opposed to an impulsive one, led to a victorious outcome.

Kight also finds a teaching point in Butler’s backstory—he came to New England as an undrafted free agent from Division II West Alabama after attending junior college. Kight tells the Buckeyes that no player in the Super Bowl ranked as a consensus five-star recruit coming out of high school, and points out that in the first three rounds of the 2015 NFL draft 65% of the players had been ranked as three-star prospects or lower. “It’s not about talent,” he tells the country’s most talented team. “If you want to be great, talent isn’t enough.”.

Decker is living proof of another Ohio State mantra: 10-80-10. Ten percent of the team is elite, 80% is average and 10% is resistant to conformity. Decker represents the top 10% and is attempting to pull Jones there from the middle 80%. “That’s the big thing,” Decker says. “Your actions don’t only affect you, they affect everyone around you, and I think that can build a cohesiveness.”

Meyer’s favorite quote of this off-season came from the mother of Amy Nicol, his longtime football administration coordinator. Lisa Halpin, an elementary school teacher in Alabama, emailed Meyer a quote from British philosopher G.K. Chesterton: “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” Meyer took it as the ultimate compliment to the clarity of his program’s culture that Nicol’s mom could summarize it with a quote he proceeded to hang all around the football facility. “Wow,” he says. “How cool is that?”

“Why does a great athlete fail? Does he just not jump high enough? How many great athletes are not performing well? We just showed you. Where’s all the five-stars? They’re not playing pro football in Super Bowls. You need to learn to train for when contact is made. Name a situation where you don’t need Rs (responses). You’re going to need more Rs than the average guy who is a sociology major here at Ohio State. The demon isn’t attacking him. Are they attacking you? How often? Every day. And we can attack you and your behavior and all that, and that doesn’t work. I’ve [told my teams] that for 20 years. ‘Don’t do that stuff!’ O.K., yeah right. Or you can create a culture where you can’t do it. And if you do it, that makes you a bad guy because you’re letting people down.”

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