Henning: Harbaugh puts UM on par with gifted Meyer, OSU

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer.

You see him from afar. Sometimes at closer range. And it is easy to have wondered through the years, in studying a coach named Urban Meyer, if he dallies with that wide range of experiences common to most folks.

Does he dance at weddings (bonus points if he gets into “Shout”)? Ever hit the grocery store? Take walks? Grill on the patio and pour down a libation or two with friends? Tell crazy stories from student days?

To some of us, Ohio State’s football coach has never seemed even close to mainstream. You wouldn’t call him alien. But, to borrow from the politician’s fuzzy-and-warm litmus test, he has come across as a guy you wouldn’t necessarily want to have a beer with.

And that perhaps has not been fair. Not at all to a coach whose record at Columbus is a staggering 60-5 and whose team Saturday will play Michigan at Ohio Stadium in what is moving closer to a rivalry on a par with what it was during the blood-and-guts Woody Hayes-Bo Schembechler days.

Meyer stepped into his news conference late Monday morning at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, short-cropped hair rigidly coiffed, hands in pockets, wearing a gray sweatshirt logoed with a scarlet-and-gray Ohio State insignia.

By the end of the session, he was smiling at length, talking warmly about Schembechler, cracking a couple of dry jokes, including a quip about linebackers Joe Burger and Craig Fada, whose last names are normally mentioned in tandem.

“If I have any more children,” Meyer said, “I’m gonna name ‘em Burger Fada.”

OK, Jay Leno’s safe, but the line was so well-timed it cracked up everyone. Same as when he was asked about something specific about Michigan and he said, with mock deflection: “And I hope our two tackles’ ankles have healed and they’ve received their scouting reports …”

Match of equals

It was simple, silly stuff. And that’s what you don’t expect from Meyer, whose coaching and program-building skills are there with Alabama’s Nick Saban, or with those men whose battles preceded his in the Ohio State-Michigan cauldron, Hayes and Schembecher.

Now, though, equilibrium is back. As it was with Lloyd Carr and Jim Tressel. As it was with Carr and John Cooper, even if Carr dominated Cooper, the softer shoe whose personality was probably the most opposite of any Buckeyes coach the past 60 years.

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Jim Harbaugh now is in Ann Arbor and Meyer knows each day how much has changed. On the recruiting map. Within the conference. And on that last Saturday of November.

He realizes, he has to realize, his program is still on top. Saturday’s point spread — 6 1/2 points — is a superficial indicator of the simple fact Meyer has had five seasons to design and tweak the Buckeyes while Harbaugh has been on the job 22 months.

He knows this might be the last year Ohio State holds an edge. In personnel. In big-game experience. Harbaugh’s recruiting classes are getting steadily mightier and his stamp is becoming more deeply and indelibly punched into the Wolverines’ DNA.

That means Ohio State and Michigan, if not quite on even footing in 2016, are all but there. These games in most years probably will be played for national championships, just as this Saturday’s will help sort out college football’s final four.

It’s terrific drama. Crafted not only by two schools and their century-plus histories, but also by two coaches who have learned to optimize every bit of tradition, every resource, and just about every speck of football expertise in building two football superpowers.

Meyer is different, so different, from his predecessors. Even those in Columbus draw the distinctions.

Hayes, of course, was ruthless, intellectual, and merciless in harnessing his players like domestics to an effort built on labor and devotion. Earle Bruce had three-quarters of Hayes’ acumen, which was enough to win big at OSU, but not enough to be memorialized. Cooper was too gentle to overly excel. Jim Tressel was sophisticated and human and a splendid match for OSU’s qualities until slip-ups ended his time there.

Now, it is the Ohio-born Meyer who is the most artful of successors, just as Harbaugh has been the ideal man for Michigan.

Changed with the times

Knowing the times in which you live and coach is the whole story. Meyer understands what has changed. The fact you can no longer be a brutal taskmaster in the fashion of Hayes, or, to a lesser degree, Schembechler, who galvanized players because of his amazing talent for, after breathing fire at them, knowing how, in an instant, to turn tender or lighten a harsh moment with a barking, Bo-hewn zinger.

Meyer appreciates society has changed. And if you don’t respect where players are on a culture’s timeline, you will have lost, not only on the field, but in helping shape lives, which coaches ultimately care about most.

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He sponsored, last May, something called Patriots Week. He had players attend sessions in which America’s Civil Rights story was told. There were seminars on the 1965 Voting Rights Act. On the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of 1954 that ended, judicially, a separate-but-equal travesty in America. On the integration of the Armed Forces, etc.

He keeps his life-and-football laboratory alive during the season. He has what he calls Real Life Wednesdays, something he had conceived during his days at Florida, where he has people successful in all manners of vocation — business, finance, medicine, law, politics, whatever — speak to OSU’s players about career thoughts and making the remainder of their potentially long lives fruitful.

All of this, like those low-key windows Monday into a man’s wit —and, yes, warmth — are necessary to understand how he is achieving something so exceptional at Ohio State, even by the Buckeyes’ high-altitude standards.

He makes $6.5 million per year for having figured out the above. Ask most from Ohio State’s realm if they begrudge him a single dollar. They don’t, even those who have no clue how difficult, how draining, how daunting is the job a man named Meyer handles so adroitly.