COLUMBUS — Warren G. Harding rode his “Return to Normalcy” campaign all the way to the White House in 1920.
Can the Buckeyes follow the same blueprint as one of the state’s native sons almost a century later?
Their return to normalcy began Monday when Urban Meyer returned to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. And it was accelerated Tuesday when Meyer stepped onto the practice field for the first time since April.
“I gave him a high-five, a big hug, and said, ‘Welcome back, coach,’” junior defensive end Jonathon Cooper said. “He was the same coach. I didn’t expect him to change. In the meetings and stuff, when he’s standing there talking, it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s coach Meyer. That’s the guy.’”
Meyer arrived at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center before sunrise Monday, greeting acting head coach Ryan Day two days after the team’s 77-31 win vs. Oregon State by saying, “You only had to punt once, huh? That’s a pretty good day.” At morning meetings, assistant coaches who had only seen Meyer once in the past month exchanged pleasantries and got down to business. Meyer didn’t need much time getting up to speed — he’s been paying attention from afar.
“Coach is coach, you know?” Day said Monday. “He talked to the staff about moving forward. We debriefed on Saturday’s game, and now we’re working at game planning.”
Day’s second game as Meyer’s temporary fill-in is Saturday against Rutgers (1-0) in Ohio Stadium.
Meyer was put on paid administrative leave Aug. 1 for his handling of former receivers coach Zach Smith, who was fired July 23 amid the publication of multiple domestic abuse allegations. On Aug. 22, after a two-week investigation, Ohio State formally suspended Meyer.
You won’t see him roaming the sideline for another three weeks, as he’s barred from coaching in games until Sept. 22 against Tulane. Meyer isn’t permitted to be with the team from midnight Saturday to midnight Sunday. However, Sunday through Friday will feel like any other week from 2012 to now.
He wasn’t seen by reporters, as Ohio State’s media relations department ushered reporters off the indoor practice field before the team walked by from the outdoor fields and into the locker room. After Meyer made his way into a restricted area, reporters were taken back to the indoor fields for interviews.
“It felt good [to have Meyer back],” junior running back Mike Weber said. “It was like he never left, really. It was the same as always. He had his head forward and didn’t bring anything up. His job was to coach, and that’s what he did today.”
Game-week preparation is when most of the heavy lifting is done, which is why it’s so advantageous for No. 4 Ohio State (1-0) to have Meyer back in the building. He can contribute to the game plan, coach during practice, and be involved in the decision-making process. The daily and weekly routine shouldn’t be altered.
“So much of coaching is done during the week,” Day said. “And then once we get on the field, the game plan’s in. Now, it’s just a matter of calling the plays and going from there. So yeah, it’s kind of, ‘Coach is back and we’re going with coach,’ and then once we get to the game, the decisions are almost made before we get there.”
Ohio State collaborates on offensive play-calling, with Meyer, Day, co-offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, and running backs coach Tony Alford all providing input. With Meyer cut out of the equation, Day, Wilson, and Alford had little difficulty devising a game plan that executed at a high level — the Buckeyes racked up 721 yards against Oregon State.
“Everybody has a certain area that they work on,” Day said. “So somebody might have third downs, somebody might have short-yardage, somebody has the run game, first and second down. So everybody adds that into the game plan, and that’s what you see on Saturday.”
But on this day, players and coaches saw a familiar figure overseeing operations. After a turbulent month that saw Meyer come under attack from all angles and Ohio State’s status as a college football kingpin teeter on the brink, the spirit at OSU is returning to customary levels.
“He brought good energy,” junior receiver K.J. Hill said of Meyer. “It wasn’t anything special. He just did his role like he always does.”
Said Day: “Things are back to normal. Obviously he won’t be there for game day, but everything else is back to normal.”
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