The Ohio State football program may have an exclamation point waiting behind the curtain, but right now the Buckeyes are a team with no answers.
Since knocking off Wisconsin in stunning fashion on Oct. 15, OSU has sunk to 6-5 overall and 3-4 in Big Ten play with a lackluster win over Indiana and frustrating losses to Purdue and Penn State.
The latter was a 20-14 setback in which the Buckeyes dug a 10-0 hole for the third straight week and looked psychologically drained.
Why? And where was the fire?
“I can’t answer that; I really don’t know,” co-defensive coordinator Jim Heacock
said Saturday after the loss to the Nittany Lions at Ohio Stadium. “We weren’t tackling. We didn’t play well. I can’t come up with any one thing or any reason behind it. I thought we were prepared and that guys worked hard to play this game but we didn’t do well enough. There’s no excuse for that first half.”
Well, actually there may be one. Despite the Buckeyes preparing to face rival PSU on Senior Day, it’s fairly clear this team is either running out of emotional juice or finally has found the trip wire of distraction.
Ironically, the result of the funk could be a grand payoff for the program – but we’ll get to where Ohio State stands with Urban Meyer
in a moment.
First, there is a final game remaining on the regular-season docket and it happens to be against archrival Michigan on Saturday (noon Eastern, ABC). Head coach Luke Fickell
knows it likely will be his last as head coach of the Buckeyes – at least for now.
However, Fickell has run a no-excuse outfit since taking over after the stunning resignation-under-fire of 10-year coach Jim Tressel
on May 30. Not surprisingly, when reporters asked him to address swirling rumors about Meyer being courted as the new boss, Fickell didn’t bite.
“I don’t talk about it,” the 38-year-old coach said moments after OSU’s loss to Penn State. “I don’t think this is the time nor the place. We’re talking about the game, and we’re going to move on and talk about Michigan. And when that comes a point in time, then those are things that are out of my control. Like I told you, I don’t turn the TV on a whole lot. I don’t open up the Internet other than the recruiting side of things. Those are the things that I have no control over. So I’m not going to waste a whole lot of my energy on it.”
Heacock, who has been on the OSU staff since Fickell’s senior season of 1996, echoed the sentiment. When asked if he walked off the field following the PSU loss wondering if he, too, should be bidding the fans farewell, Heacock said, “I really didn’t. I don’t think anybody’s thinking about that. I think maybe people outside (the program) might be thinking about that. We’re in the coaching profession and we’re 100 percent committed to these players.
“When we went through the week this week that was the only thing on any of our minds, being committed to them and giving them the opportunity to win. The last thing in the world any of us are thinking about is what’s going to happen tomorrow, the next day or whatever. That’s just not the way coaches operate; it’s not the way I operate.
“Tomorrow we’ll be in there early and stay late. We’ll just keep banging away at it and see if we can’t this ship righted and end the season on the right note.”
Still, the Buckeyes appear to be limping to the finish line. When asked if the emotional well was running dry, senior center Mike Brewster
didn’t shoot down the theory.
“You want to say no,” Brewster said. “But at the end of the day we’re college kids. That’s not an excuse, that’s just the fact.
“I just think these guys have done a great job of staying together. It’d be easy at this point to tear apart and point fingers, but I think Coach Fick has done a great job of making sure that didn’t happen. It is amazing how this team has stuck together through everything – through the offseason and through the ups and downs this year. I think that’s what I’ll remember most about this year.”
Of course, the Buckeyes can do that one better by knocking off No. 17 Michigan (9-2, 5-2), which is coming off a dominating win over Nebraska.
“Everybody in the locker room right now is just focusing on the next game, and the next game is most important right now,” freshman linebacker Ryan Shazier
said. “It’s Michigan, and we want to finish up strong in the Big House and mess up their Senior Night.”
Added senior left tackle Mike Adams
, “To end the season on a good note would be great, and then to continue the win streak that we have against them is something that we all want to do. This is the biggest game of the year – every year, no matter what’s going on. It would be the way to end the season right.” More Pressing Matters
The onset of The Game trumping all other plot lines surrounding the Ohio State program would be normal in any other season but this year from Bizarro World. Since OSU’s thrilling win over SEC foe Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, a game that already is being wiped from the record books, turmoil has overrun the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Fickell has tried his very best to keep the team focused but each week seems to bring injuries, players suspensions, off-the-field upheaval, deeper NCAA probes. And now with the regular season coming to a close, it’s only fitting that updates on the potential takeover of Fickell’s coaching whistle have come daily, even hourly.
At his quick-hit press conference on Wednesday, he was asked if he had been told of any hiring for next year’s staff.
“I know there’s a game at noon on Saturday, and my ass will be there,” he said emphatically.
Fickell said he won’t address the situation out of respect for the importance and tradition of the Michigan game, which, of course, he holds in very high esteem.
But it lingers – and it’s clear now that Meyer already is ticketed to take over.
The strangeness and, quite frankly, embarrassment of the Ohio State season and how the university has botched much of the oversight of it also connected to the horror going on in State College. Less than three short weeks ago, a source close to Meyer confirmed that he was in serious discussion with PSU representatives about becoming the next head coach there. That’s when all hell broke loose with the indictment of former PSU coordinator Jerry Sandusky
on sexual abuse of children charges, the arrest of university administrators Tim Curley
and Gary Schultz
on perjury in dealings with a state grand jury, and the dismissal of legendary coach Joe Paterno
on suspicion that he also had a hand in the cover-up.
Even after that nightmare cast a dark pall over the program, Meyer was being courted by a prominent Penn State booster on behalf of the school – and was still listening intently.
“Why in the world would he do that?” Buckeye fans asked repeatedly.
Well, consider the following:
* Even amid the worst turmoil imaginable, Penn State was prepared to make Meyer the highest-paid head coach in the history of college football. Charles Robinson
of Yahoo! Sports confirmed talks were intensifying but tweeted that he believed money would be a sticking point. However, SRU’s source said Meyer was told he would be offered as much as $5 million a year salary and that the school wanted an initial contract of six or seven years to quell concerns about his long-term commitment to the job. This is where the seven-year, $35 million figure originated.
* At the time, the school also was not dealing with any NCAA infractions on record. Meanwhile, Ohio State is still awaiting its fate, which could include extended probation and a future bowl ban along with the loss of at least five scholarships over the next three years, fines and other penalties and restrictions.
* Meyer was in position to follow the winningest Division I head coach in the history of the sport and yet still be welcomed as a savior – truly a remarkable situation.
* The move almost certainly would have had the blessing of Paterno, who has expressed his affection for Meyer as a coach and man of character.
* Meyer was in a power position to virtually handpick his boss as he was promised major input on Penn State’s hiring of a new athletic director and other key positions.
* And, maybe most significant of all, the same well-placed source said Meyer was beginning to harbor serious doubts as to how serious Ohio State’s interest was in him.
Two huge factors altered the brewing relationship with Penn State: 1) NCAA executive director Mark Emmert
sent a letter to Penn State University officials informing them that the school was now subject to an investigation to determine if it broke bylaws and displayed a lack of institutional control, and 2) the Buckeyes started losing.
The first development daggered Penn State’s chances with Meyer and possibly any prominent head coaching candidate.
“I’m telling you, this looks like a slam dunk for Ohio State now, but until that letter of inquiry comes in from the NCAA I’m not sure Urban doesn’t take the Penn State job,” the source close to Meyer said. “It was still a major consideration.”
As previously reported by SportsRappUp.com back on Oct 7 (for a link to that lengthy article, click here
), the Ohio State administration has been splintered for months. Some weren’t sure of what course to take regarding a head coach, especially considering the shaky status of athletic director Gene Smith
. Some were firmly entrenched in the get-Urban camp; others wanted Fickell to have a legitimate shot to be retained.
But the Ohio State board of trustees met Nov. 3-4 and put a clearer plan in place with the realization that Meyer had to be made fully aware he was the priority candidate. Then, as it turned out, the Buckeyes lost in overtime at Purdue on Nov. 12, more or less ending their run at a Leaders Division title and date in the inaugural Big Ten Football Championship Game. It Finally Falls Into Place
Whether or not Meyer spoke with Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne
in Miami (Fla.) about the U of A job in early November and continued to discuss the Penn State opening with officials of that school merely to leverage his position with Ohio State is debatable.
The Byrne meeting, according to multiple sources, was more of a favor. Meyer was a consultant for Byrne, who was trying to position Arizona for a frontline coach after talks with Mike Leach
broke down. U of A just hired former West Virginia and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez
, who, like Meyer, spent this season away from coaching and in the broadcast booth.
Ohio State board members Lex Wexner
, Alex Shumate
and Robert Schottenstein
have met with Meyer according to sources and another source claims the highly coveted coach also met with university president Gordon Gee
last week. Smith spoke with Meyer when Meyer was on campus to broadcast an Ohio State football game at the beginning of the season, but the AD has not been greatly involved since.
In fact, according to a trusted source, Smith was still exploring the option of hiring Nebraska coach and former Buckeye safety Bo Pelini
and as recently as late last week was putting out feelers to other conference administrators asking if they would approve of Ohio State going after a current conference head coach. The source said that information got back to Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne
and when Pelini admitted he was contacted by OSU and expressing interest in the job, the two went at it verbally.
Still, the Pelini experiment was short-lived and not well-received by the OSU board of trustees, who continued to placate Meyer and his agent, Trace Armstrong
, a former NFL defensive lineman.
Meanwhile, Meyer looked into the situation at the University of Texas, which he considers to be another prime destination. The source close to Meyer said he was informed that UT has no plans to remove coach Mack Brown
, which effectively closed the door on that possibility.
And so the focus only tightened on Columbus.
Multiple sources have told SRU that Meyer already has agreed to become Ohio State’s next coach and that he likely will sign a deal for seven years and somewhere in the neighborhood of $37-40 million. Incentives could bring the total well above that.
There don’t appear to be any remaining sticking points but it’s highly doubtful Meyer would ever report to Smith, who is likely to be reassigned within the university and would be in position to retire on his own terms as soon as this summer. Another SRU source said Smith and his wife, Sheila, recently purchased a million-dollar home in the Phoenix area.
Smith is also a vice president of the university and received glowing praise recently from Gee. A possible replacement for Smith is Jeff Kaplan
, who was named Ohio State’s senior vice president for development in April. Kaplan is a master fundraiser and a favorite of Gee.
Former Columbus radio analyst Bruce Hooley
, who blogs and hosts a sports radio show for the ESPN-affiliated station WKNR (850 AM) in Cleveland, is reporting that former Ohio State administrator Paul Krebs
also is on the radar. Krebs was the ticket director at Ohio State, hired Meyer to become the head coach at Bowling Green as AD at that school and currently holds the AD position at New Mexico.
It’s likely that name has surfaced because Meyer has been given the authority to tab his own athletic director at Ohio State, a contingency first offered by Penn State.
Meyer also has made it clear that he wants the freedom to hire an all-star staff that would require Ohio State to significantly boost the payroll. Some of the reported names – former Buckeyes and current television analysts Kirk Herbstreit
and Chris Spielman
, for example – appear far-fetched at this point.
Spielman is Meyer’s television partner but likely wouldn’t pursue coaching unless he was offered at least a coordinator position, if then. Herbstreit, who does primetime games with Brent Musburger
for ABC and ESPN, has admitted telling Meyer he would be tempted to scratch his coaching itch and work for the former Florida coach, but he would be leaving the highest analyst pedestal in the country to do so. In other words, that’s not going to happen.
“I’ve talked to Urban Meyer just like I’ve talked to a lot of other coaches in the past about getting into coaching,” Herbstreit told ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd
Monday. “It’s in my blood, I’d love to coach. But at this point, do you think I’m crazy? I’ve got the best job, for me, in television.”
Multiple sources have informed SRU that Ohio State officials have requested that Meyer retain Fickell and there is reason to believe the first-year head coach would consider the demotion to stay at his alma mater. However, Meyer is not obligated to do so and Fickell would be foolish to not at least keep open the possibility of accepting a head coaching job elsewhere.
One source told SRU “Luke is livid” about all the staff realignment talks overshadowing The Game with Michigan, possibly to the point that he would leave regardless of what Meyer might offer. Another factor, of course, is money.
Fickell’s pay has been bumped to $775,000 and it’s not known if the university would retain him at that salary as an assistant, especially if he is not named defensive coordinator. Still, there are ways around the issue. Fickell could be appointed as a linebackers coach who also carries the title of associate head coach. He also could be put in charge of recruiting.
Several reports claim that Meyer already has identified his coordinators. Greg Studwara
, the offensive line coach at LSU, appears to be OSU offensive coordinator in waiting. A native of Fostoria, Ohio, Studwara played collegiately at Bowling Green, was a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 1997, served as the offensive line coach at BG under Meyer in 2001 and ’02, and became the OC at his alma mater and LSU in the years following.
Meyer’s defensive coordinator reportedly will be 32-year-old D.J. Durkin
, currently the linebackers coach at Florida. A product of Youngstown (Ohio) Boardman, Durkin also played at BG and began coaching there as a defensive graduate assistant under Meyer. He also served as the special teams coordinator and defensive ends coach at Stanford before rejoining Meyer at UF in 2010.
Durkin and Stan Drayton
were appointed to the Florida staff on the same day last year and are about to be reunited at Ohio State. Drayton is Ohio State’s current wide receivers coach after serving for one year as Meyer’s recruiting coordinator at Florida.
Back in September, SportsRappUp.com asked Meyer about Drayton.
“He’s got it all,” Meyer told SRU. “He’s on top of everything. The word ‘character’ is the first thing I think about with Stan. He’s a great husband and a great father, which is rule No. 1 when I went out trying to hire a coach, that he’s going to be standing in front of our players. He was great. I never had him as a receiver coach but his guys play hard, he loves the game and he loves doing the work. He’s one of the best I’ve had.”
Not surprisingly, word is that Meyer will retain Drayton in some capacity, possibly as running backs coach. He could ticket Temple wide receivers coach Zach Smith
for the same role at Ohio State. Smith also is in charge of special teams for coach Steve Addazio
. Smith is a native of Dublin, Ohio, and the grandson of former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce
, Meyer’s mentor.
Drayton makes roughly a quarter of a million dollars at Ohio State. Heacock, who earns right around $350,000 annually, is the only other OSU staff member who could be staying put. He is an award-winning assistant coach who has put up consistently impressive results at the forefront of the Buckeyes defense. He also is a former head coach at Illinois State, where he once had Meyer on his staff. Columbus Elates, Gainesville Bristles
Meyer has tried to deflect rumors and respect Fickell’s current role at the helm of the program, even going so far as to put out statements saying he is not Ohio State’s coach-in-waiting.
Still, the rumor mill has churned too rapidly to slow down the notion.
Highly rated recruit Adolphus Washington
, a defensive lineman from Cincinnati Taft, committed to the Buckeyes on Tuesday and admitted he expects to play for Meyer. He said a close friend of Meyer’s helped recruit him to the school.
On Monday, reporter Pat Dooley
, a friend of Meyer’s, interviewed the coach for the Gainesville Sun and said Meyer claimed he had not interviewed for the Ohio State job.
However, he also quoted Meyer saying the following, “The concerns are still there. No. 1, my health. No. 2, my family. No. 3, the state of college football. I’ve done some research into the second one. I’ve found that it is possible to have balance between your job and your family, that there are coaches out there who are doing it.
“I’m in a good place right now mentally and physically. So if something happens with Ohio State, I’ll have a decision to make. But there has been no interview. There has been no offer to make a decision about.”
Meyer did go on and admit he misses football, though. That, of course, is stomach-churning for Gator fans. Still just 47 years old, Meyer resigned at Florida at the end of last season, citing health and family concerns. SRU’s well-connected source said Meyer actually was growing increasingly annoyed with the high expectations of Florida fans and the rampant cheating in the SEC that continues unflagged by the NCAA.
Florida fans long were well aware of Meyer’s Ohio roots. He was born in Ashtabula, played defensive back at the University of Cincinnati, was a graduate assistant at OSU under Bruce in 1986, and became a hot coaching commodity after two impressing years at Bowling Green.
He has a 104-23 record in 10 years as a head coach at BG (2001-02), Utah (2003-04) and Florida (2005-10). That includes marks of 7-1 in bowl games and 4-0 in Bowl Championship Series contests.
Meyer directed the Gators to the 2006 BCS title after Florida wiped out Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, 41-14. Two years later, he captured another national championship with an Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma.
When rumors of Meyer taking the OSU job persisted one Florida player basically called his former coach a liar. Meanwhile, Gators coach Will Muschamp
seemed put off by the idea.
“With his deteriorating health and his family being as important as it is to him, I wouldn’t think he would (come back so soon),” Muschamp said.
As fate would have it, Gator Bowl officials apparently are salivating at the thought of matching Florida and Ohio State on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla., despite their recent struggles. Florida (6-5, 3-5 in the SEC) has a date with rival Florida State on Saturday.
Meyer was scheduled to broadcast the Ohio State-Michigan game but has pulled off of that assignment and will comment on several games from ESPN’s studio in Bristol. He’ll actually be in Ohio Friday but not for pleasant reasons. His father died a couple weeks ago but the family decided to have a second wake and funeral service in Cincinnati this week so more could take advantage of the day after Thanksgiving to attend. Bruce will deliver the eulogy.
After this weekend, Ohio State fans will greatly anticipate the announcement that Urban Meyer is the new head football coach at The Ohio State University. And that news is coming soon.