COLUMBUS — Urban Meyer wanted the loudest, wildest student section in the Mid-American Conference.
So after he arrived at Bowling Green State University in 2001, the new Falcons football coach thundered through every fraternity, sorority, and student organization on campus. No setting was too humble.
"I never said no," Meyer once told The Blade. "The basketball coach, Dan Dakich, said he turned on cable once and I was giving a passionate speech and getting after it pretty good, and then they scanned the crowd and there were four people there. I would do that. You had to do that."
More than a decade later, Meyer’s zeal as a marketer lives strong at Ohio State.
At a time when declining student attendance is baffling many of the nation’s top football programs, Meyer remains in search of unique ways to draw in his most important gameday constituency.
On Saturday, the Buckeyes held their third annual student appreciation day, replete with a two-hour open practice, a co-ed flag football game — Delta Sigma Pi met C’Mon Man for the spring championship — and a 40-yard dash to determine which intramural warrior will race OSU burner Dontre Wilson at next weekend’s Scarlet and Gray game.
It was half football, half party at the Buckeyes’ indoor facility. A DJ blared everything from rap to country while about 2,500 students stood more than 10 deep along the 30-yard line watching practice. The masses later encircled the team during live goal-line drills.
"Let’s have some fun in front of these students,” Meyer told his players before the practice. "This doesn’t happen anywhere else and I want you to let them know how much you appreciate them.”
Heck, if he finds a student who can help the cause, all the better.
Before the student races Saturday, Meyer told OSU offensive coordinator Tom Herman, "Tom, you’ve got to find a guy faster than Dontre."
"I’ll take him," Herman replied.
Malcolm Branson vows to be that guy. A senior criminology major who ran track at Massillon Perry, he dusted the field of students.
Just how fast can he run the 40?
"Would you believe me if I told you," Branson said, smiling. "4.28 seconds."
Branson believes he’s got a chance against Wilson, the sophomore receiver and former Texas track star.
"I do," he said. "[Wilson] is very fast, probably the fastest player on the team, so I know I have to come with it."
At Bowling Green, longtime Falcons booster Tim Dunn said, "Urban used to tell the students this is your football team, and it was just an awesome thing to witness them buy in."
Meyer has an easier sell in Columbus, though few major programs are resting on their outsized tradition these days.
While more fans than ever attend NCAA football games, student attendance is no longer a given in a changing entertainment landscape. At Michigan, for instance, ESPN reported that 26 percent of the 19,850 students who bought season tickets stayed home for an average game last season. The student no-show rate was even higher at Oklahoma (28 percent), Georgia (28.8 percent), and Iowa. (Figures were not immediately for Ohio State, which, like Michigan, sells out all of its games.)
Meyer does not want a generation to slip away.
"The one group of people that I think often get overlooked are the students," he said. "That's why we always do something for them. We want students to take ownership of this team. That’s real important."
EXTRA POINTS: Former OSU left tackle and St. John’s Jesuit graduate Jack Mewhort and ex-Buckeyes lineman Andrew Norwell will be signing autographs from 1-3 p.m. on April 13 at the Buckeye Store and More, 5700 Monroe St., Sylvania. ... Top tight end Jeff Heuerman will miss the rest of spring practice after undergoing surgery for a foot sprain. Meyer said the senior should be "full speed" by June.