COLUMBUS — Urban Meyer will not refer to his birth city by name.
The coach is reflecting on a favorite photo, taken after one of his most meaningful victories — “a win over our rivals,” he says now. In it are his 14 seniors on the 2001 Bowling Green State University football team, playfully bunched together in the home locker room after vanquishing That School Up North (the other one).
Before Meyer — who was born in Toledo but grew up in Ashtabula — won two national championships at Florida or buzz-sawed through the Big Ten at Ohio State, he arrived in Bowling Green as a little-known wide receivers coach from Notre Dame. These were the players with whom Meyer waded into the unknown, and those most responsible for whether the 36-year-old coach’s hard-driving blueprint to reverse years of losing would succeed.
In the photo, a sign in the background blares, “TRUST.” Meyer had told his players, “Just trust me,” even if the faith was sometimes blind.
Falcons linebacker Mitch Hewitt remembers thinking, “Who does this guy think he is?”
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One winter morning, after a couple of players missed study table, Meyer ordered the team to the fieldhouse at 5 a.m. for three hours of running — with breaks reserved only for use of the trash cans that lined the walls.
By the end of his first spring camp, Meyer had chased off 21 players unwilling to meet his demands. The roster grew so thin that an ad was placed in the student newspaper summoning walk-on help for the kickoff team.
But those who stayed would reap sweet reward, the season ending with a 56-21 win against Toledo, students ripping down the goalposts at Doyt Perry Stadium, and ultimately the picture of joy that hangs today in Meyer’s suburban Columbus home.
“It’s always one of the first photos that goes up in my house,” Meyer said in a recent interview with The Blade. “That’s probably the team I stay in touch with as much as anybody, maybe more. Those guys, the thing that I appreciated most is nowadays, it’s all about the media. It’s all about, I got one T-shirt, why didn’t I get two? There was no expectation level, other than a group of kids that I found out wanted to win in the worst way.
“And to this day, I’m forever ... When I see them, I tear up sometimes because I love these guys so much.”
More than a decade later, Meyer is a world — and about $4 million per year — removed from his stop in Bowling Green. His 17 wins in two seasons at BG only foreshadowed bigger success to come. He is the highest-profile figure in the state and enters his second season at OSU with a still-perfect record and a team expected to contend for a national title.
Yet the legacy of his time at Bowling Green lives strong.
Meyer has said many times he is thankful he made his mistakes as a first-time head coach in the Mid-American Conference, not under the relentless glare at Ohio State. It was in those two seasons that he forged his leadership and coaching style, learning how hard he could push a team and, more important, how players would respond if he showed them how much he cared.
“There’s no question they were the most formative years of my career,” Meyer said. “Everything I’ve done and everything I do with my family or my job is something I learned in those two years at Bowling Green.”
A starting spot
Meyer says he could have seen himself staying at Bowling Green forever.
But at first, he could not see himself there — period. When BG athletic director Paul Krebs reached out in December, 2000, Meyer had little interest. The Falcons program had just plodded through six straight losing seasons under former coach Gary Blackney. Could Meyer really win there, or would his career as a college head coach be over before it began?
“This is not a very good job,” he told Lou Holtz, who had hired him at Notre Dame in 1996.
Holtz was beside himself.
“Of course it’s not,” he replied. “If it was, why would they call you?”
So Meyer went on the interview, meeting with Krebs and deputy Scott Seeliger at a Holiday Inn off the interstate outside Fort Wayne, Ind.
At dinner, the BG officials ordered ribs; Meyer just water. He was all business. Though the youngest of three finalists — Krebs also interviewed Purdue offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and Indianapolis Colts receivers coach Jay Norvell — Meyer was by far the most prepared. He rattled off the nine assistants he wanted on his staff, outlined his plans for discipline, even scribbled out his vision for the spread offense on a yellow legal pad stained with Seeliger’s barbecue sauce.
“On the sidewalk afterward, Paul and I looked at each other, like, ‘This guy is something special,’ ” said Seeliger, now the football coach at Bowling Green High School.
Meyer’s new players would reserve judgment.
“We didn’t get a head coach, we didn’t get a coordinator, we got a position coach from Notre Dame?” Hewitt recalls thinking. “What? I remember the first time he walked into the meeting room like it was yesterday.”
Added Dennis Wendel, then a junior offensive tackle: “As soon as he started speaking, it struck me this is going to be very different. And at first, it was a little worrisome.”
Players would go to class, get good grades, and work like never before ... or else. Or else they would be told to show up predawn on a winter morning that became known as Black Wednesday, the day Meyer once and for all would determine who was committed and who wasn’t.
“We ran and ran and ran,” Wendel said. “One guy, instead of stopping at the line, ran straight out of the building. I don’t think I ever saw him again.”
Looking back, Meyer calls the morning dangerous.
“You go in there at 5 in the morning and leave at 8, running,” Meyer said. “I don’t even think about doing something like that nowadays. With the constant scrutiny, there’s nothing that stays within the team anymore. Coaches are more and more cautious than ever. It’s for all the right reasons, and it’s for discipline and all that. But now with the Internet, you’ve got to be very careful.”
‘Fair is not equal’
At the time, though, it was just what the program needed.
The players who remained past spring rallied together. Those who left? “Good riddance,” Meyer said at the time, betraying the blunt edge that has since been sanded (slightly). “If they’re not as committed as the guy next to them, we don’t want them.”
And no one was more committed than Meyer. While he respected his staff — including offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon (his successor at BG), defensive coordinator Tim Beckman (now the coach at Illinois), and quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen (now at Mississippi State) — the head coach had his hand on every corner of the program.
Meyer, who earned a base annual salary of $125,000, spent a couple months as the team’s strength coach, slept in the dorms during preseason camp, and interrupted position drills to demonstrate proper technique ... to the offensive line. He often spent nights tutoring players, one time spending 9 to 11 with Jovon Burkes reviewing the material for a statistics test the sophomore linebacker needed to pass the next day.
“And I was just a kid on the kickoff team,” Burkes said.
Added Krebs, now the AD at New Mexico: “As I reflected back, I never saw the guy just let his hair down and relax and take a deep breath and enjoy himself. He burned it pretty hard, and I wasn’t sure how long he was going to be able to sustain that.”
Meyer was more direct.
“ ‘Maniac’ might be the most appropriate term when I first took over,” he said. “It was 24-7 Bowling Green football.”
Yet the players steadily bought in, until there was little either side would not do for the other. Meyer said he learned “the more you care about someone, the more you can push them. We were so close, that team and I and our coaches.”
His BG legacy included the earliest version of his insiders club — a tradition that continues at Ohio State with high achievers enjoying steak off fine china at the team’s semi-annual Champions dinner while the others eat relative slop off paper plates.
“There’s been [recent reports] about how certain players get treated one way and others another way,” said Wendel, who recently became the athletic director at St. Henry (Ohio) High. “That’s true. Fair is not equal. Everybody got treated fairly. But if you did things the right way, you got treated very differently.”
Burkes was among the many players who went from out to in.
Though good-natured, the Highland Park, Mich., native had stopped going to class and pushed back at the new staff’s demands. Burkes told Meyer he was leaving, only to have the coach set him straight.
“No, you’re going to go to class, you’re going to get good grades, you’re going to be a great man, and you're going to win a bunch of football games here,” Burkes recalled Meyer saying. “I’m like, OK, whatever. In my head, I’m still transferring. But I figured, all right, I’ll do everything he said, and if they still treat me the same, I’m leaving.
“So I went to class, I busted my butt on the field, I stayed out of trouble in the offseason, and I went from a 1.8 GPA to a 2.9 to a 3.0 to a 4.0. I went from not starting to becoming a two-year captain, a three-year starter, and ended up graduating with my master’s.”
The Falcons program set off on a similar rise. In Meyer’s first game, they stunned Missouri 20-13 in Columbia to spoil the Tigers debut of Gary Pinkel — the same Pinkel whose Toledo team walloped the Falcons 51-17 in Blackney’s final game.
Though on paper the Falcons were a poor man’s version of their 2-9 team from a year earlier, this group was closer, tougher, and had the pieces — players like sophomore dual-threat quarterback Josh Harris and receivers Robert Redd and Cole Magner — to let loose Meyer’s spread offense.
The Falcons just kept winning, all the while displaying a new swagger.
Later that season, when BG trailed 42-28 late in the fourth quarter at defending co-Big Ten champion Northwestern, Meyer knew he had the offense to answer. In fact, he would be satisfied with nothing short of a win ... in regulation. When the Falcons pulled within seven points with 2 minutes, 30 seconds remaining, Krebs heard Meyer tell his players, “When we get the ball and score, we’re going for two.”
“And I said, ‘What!?’ ” Krebs recalled, laughing.
But BG did just that, with Harris tossing a 5-yard touchdown pass to Redd with 36 seconds left, then handing off to Magner for a reverse that lifted the Falcons to a 43-42 win.
BG finished the year 8-3 to complete the biggest turnaround in the nation and became the first MAC school to beat three BCS schools. Meyer was named the league’s coach of the year. The next year, the Falcons went 9-3 and provided the foundation for back-to-back, bowl-winning teams under Brandon in 2003 and 2004.
“I could have stayed there forever,” Meyer said of BG in his biography, Urban’s Way. “But they don’t have the budget. The weather’s difficult, but it’s a great place. Great place to raise a family. Not a good place, a great place. To the point where it’s like a magnet.”
Today, Meyer, who left for Utah after the 2002 season, remains in close touch with dozens of his BG players, a group he calls “arguably the greatest group of kids I’ve ever been around.”
Burkes, a sales manager for Chrysler in Chicago, said Meyer changed his life and spent a week in Columbus with his old coach earlier this year. Wendel and Hewitt are both now coaches themselves who turn to Meyer the same way Meyer once turned to mentors like Holtz and Earle Bruce.
They see in Meyer a man who is more even-tempered, a man who has attempted to find balance after burning out at Florida, a man who is more comfortable in the spotlight. Imagine the heat Meyer would take today if he told OSU officials he wasn’t going to a postgame news conference, the way he did after BG suffered its first loss deep into the 2002 season at Northern Illinois. (Krebs nudged him in.)
Mostly, though, Meyer is just as the players remember, including in his affection for the place where it all started. Seeliger said Meyer has helped with the school’s major fundraisers “whenever asked.”
As a head coach at Chardon (Ohio) High, Hewitt said it can be daunting when a rival school wins the get-off-the-bus contest with bigger and stronger players.
“But then I think back to Urban and the BG days,” he said. “It gives some hope. He didn’t have any five-star recruits, but he got five-star results.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.