COLUMBUS — In Tom Herman’s first dozen years of coaching, each of his quarterbacks carried themselves like, well, quarterbacks.
“There’s always been kind of an alpha male attitude with that position,” he said.
Then he met Braxton Miller, who was as understated off the field as he was electric on it.
The quiet Ohio State star was reluctant to speak up in the huddle, much less to the masses of reporters he politely fed one-sentence answers.
“He’s the best player on the football field, and you wouldn’t know if he was walking next to you in the hallway,” said Herman, the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator. “It’s a first for me, having his unique persona.”
For Ohio State, it made Miller the most important test of an age-old question: Are leaders born or made?
Could a player without natural leadership skills be built into a guidepost for the offense?
Coach Urban Meyer believes the answer is yes and dedicates time each day to the nebulous concept of what makes a good leader, even holding a weekly course on the subject in which his top players study the traits of everyone from Tom Brady and Kobe Bryant to military and business leaders.
Meyer sees the Buckeyes’ ability to fill the void left by the graduation of its most influential voices — including defensive end John Simon — as the difference between a good team and one capable of contending for a national championship.
Of the idea that leaders are born, assistant coach Kerry Coombs said, “What a silly thing to think.”
“If we can develop all of our skills, why would we think we couldn’t develop leadership?” he said. “And coach Meyer is as good as anybody I’ve ever been around. He has made it a focal point. He talks about the great leaders we lost last year, but that wasn’t accidental. Those kids weren’t necessarily all great and gifted leaders. He molded that in those kids, and that’s exactly what he’s doing now.”
Take the weekly meeting Meyer leads for 20 or so players. The main message: Lead by example first, then attempt to branch out and demand the same effort and preparation from teammates.
To that end, Meyer brings in guest speakers and shares stories and video clips of leaders he respects, including Michael Jordan — who once said, “Earn your leadership every day” — Bill Belichick, and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
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“It’s different,” said former OSU receiver Joey Galloway, who occasionally sits in on the sessions and recently addressed the group.
“These meetings are with guys he considers the leaders on the team, and he’s brutally honest with you at times on, ‘This is what I expect. If we want to get to where we expect to be, where we want to be, this is the way it has to be done.’ ”
To gain true influence, the 16-year-NFL veteran spoke of displaying an unceasing commitment away from the spotlight. Galloway, now an ESPN analyst, said it is no secret why he endured so long — his goatee speckled with gray by his final season in 2010. Few matched his drive.
Galloway told OSU’s players he still burns from the one time in his career a cornerback incontestably jammed him off the line of scrimmage. No matter, he said, that it was in practice. He wanted to make his teammate “look foolish.”
“I know the guy’s name, I know what year it was, I know where I was, I know what yard line I was on,” he said in a phone interview. “It was a one-on-one drill. I immediately got back on the line and made sure that guy pays not just that time, but the next five times.”
Meyer wants likeminded players and, according to Coombs, addresses the development of OSU’s leadership in every coaches’ meeting. Strategies to speed up the process include encouraging those who act the part to wield a big stick and ... speak loudly — Coombs said safety Christian Bryant earned recognition as a leader with an impassioned speech to the defense after last year’s Indiana game — and heaping added responsibility onto veterans.
Coaches, for instance, identified senior left tackle and St. John’s Jesuit graduate Jack Mewhort as an exemplar of how an OSU player should act and train, then helped build him into a pillar teammates looked to for direction.
“We’d put him in situations where he’s the head of a group, the head of a drill, the head of a meeting, and force him to exert himself verbally,” offensive line coach Ed Warinner said. “You just put those guys in those situations, and then you help them by giving them examples of how to manage those situations. Like anything, people get better at it.”
And perhaps no one has gotten better at it than Miller, who enters his junior season as a Heisman Trophy candidate. The Big Man on Campus still could do without the media glare — “He hates it,” Herman said — but Miller is steadily becoming a more complete quarterback.
A year ago, with what Herman called a “rudimentary level of understanding” of the offense, Miller relied almost solely on his innate gifts to earn Big Ten offensive player of the year honors. This offseason, he has redoubled his commitment, spending a week in California with quarterback guru George Whitfield, Jr., organizing on-the-side throwing sessions with receivers, and carving out more time in the film room.
Herman said Miller is more confident with the offense and, in turn, guiding those around him.
“I’ve seen him this spring grab a guy by the collar and say, ‘Hey, you need to step up how you’re playing,’ ” Mewhort said. "That’s something he wouldn’t have done a year ago.”
Another day this spring, he displayed a never-before-seen fire after taking a hard shot from defensive end Noah Spence. Miller, whose black jersey made him off limits to contact, stalked over to the defensive sideline, only to be restrained by teammates.
“His biggest improvement is [understanding] the value of that position,” Meyer said. “He’s doing a much better job of communication with players, and as far as leadership. ... He was a guy where practice started at 3, he got there at 2:59 because he was getting taped and taking care of his business. Now, he’s one of the first guys out there with energy.”
So can leadership be taught? Herman sees the beginnings of an answer in Miller.
“I think it can be,” Herman said. “I think all of us have the potential to be at a certain level of leadership, and it’s our job as coaches to make sure you’re as close to that potential as you can.”
And how close is Miller — on and off the field — to that potential?
“If Braxton was a one on a scale of one to 10 when I got here, then maybe he finished the season around a four and maybe he finished spring ball around a six,” Herman said. “The cool thing with him is he can be a 12.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.