John Simon stepped to the front of the locker room. Ohio State had just come from behind to knock off Cal 35--28 with a late touchdown in Columbus. Simon, a senior defensive end, had arrived at Ohio Stadium that day with such severe pain in his shoulder he couldn't raise his left arm over his head, and he had no idea if he'd even be able to play. He went on to line up for every defensive snap and even had a tackle.
The Buckeyes' coaches asked Simon to say a few words, and the ones he uttered as he choked back tears touched a nerve. "The emotion he showed in front of that football team was so unselfish and so genuine that it became a symbol," says running backs coach Stan Drayton. "Coaches and players asked, 'Am I giving everyone in this program everything I have on a daily basis?'"
Simon's speech serves as the keynote for a new era in Buckeyeland. Ohio State has gone from a team scarred by scandal and symbolized by Jim Tressel's sweater vest to a surging program in the mold of its relentless, hyperbolic and impassioned first-year coach, Urban Meyer. Powering the transition is Meyer's concept of juice, the Buckeyes' favorite buzz word, their Twitter hashtag and probably a more important part of the turnaround in Columbus than anything transpiring on the field. It resonates in the weight room and the locker room and is constantly referenced on the practice field. Who's bringing juice today? Who's got juice?
"It's the mantra that energy equals production," Meyer says. "I don't want to be around energy takers, I want to be around energy givers." In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year played under the shadow of a postseason ban, Ohio State has rumbled to a surprising 10--0 start behind quarterback Braxton Miller and forged a formidable identity. Sure, there have been late-game pillow fights with lightweights such as Cal, UAB, Indiana and Purdue, but only a trip to Wisconsin and a home game against Michigan stand between No. 6 Ohio State and the sixth undefeated and untied season in the school's 123-year history. For Meyer, in his return from a one-year hiatus after burnout, esophageal spasms and chest pains eventually led him to step down at Florida, it's been a satisfying season. The Buckeyes have bought in. The juice is flowing.
"This is what I missed," the 48-year-old Meyer says. "Team building and being around the guys. I love them."
But how much juice does Meyer have? Part of what he brings to Columbus is a history of having conquered the SEC, a conference that continues to pull away from a stalled Big Ten. After Ohio State, no other team in the conference is ranked higher than 16th, and Indiana, at 4--5, had a shot at the Rose Bowl heading into Week 11. The Buckeyes, whose only win against a current Top 25 team was a 63--38 blowout of Nebraska, wouldn't have the résumé to get in the championship-game discussion even if they were eligible. In the years ahead Ohio State must not only match the Alabamas and LSUs in recruiting and on the field but also raise the level of play throughout its own conference. It's going to take more than an inspiring speech to help the Big Ten catch the SEC from behind.
In Meyer's senior year at Cincinnati, where he had a pedestrian career as a defensive back, he took a class on motivation that proved to be his best preparation for a football life. A psychology major, Meyer can still rattle off the same four pillars of motivation he learned in the mid-1980s: love, fear, hate and survival. "To this day, when I have to motivate someone," he says, "I'm going to use one of those four things."
Meyer believes that motivation is far more important than strategy and play-calling. Every day he sits on the couch of his most trusted assistant, strength coach Mickey Marotti, to take the temperature of the team and figure out what's needed to push the players. "That's his specialty," Marotti says. "He knows what to say, when to say it, how to say it, what buttons to push, how hard to push them, when to back off, when to hug them and when to kick them in the pants."
The coach has needed to push hard. Five players missed Meyer's first team meeting. Three were late and two didn't show to the second one. "He realized he wasn't inheriting a team that necessarily had a bunch of discipline and a real high level of commitment," says Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel. Meyer and Marotti—a former NAIA fullback with a fire hydrant's build, a drill sergeant's lungs and a prison warden's intensity—began a physical and mental overhaul, beginning with outdoor workouts at 4:45 a.m. There were bear crawls in the snow, chin-ups on frozen bars and the salty language affiliated with a boot camp. "The low point in my life, for sure," says senior linebacker Etienne Sabino.
Thus began Meyer's Jedi mind tricks, breaking the Buckeyes down and rebuilding them—as one. The difference could be seen at the end of two games. Last year, when Miller got hurt against Nebraska, Vrabel says, "Our players said, We knew we didn't have a chance." They lost. During this year's Purdue game, Miller went out with a late injury, but nobody gave up. Instead, back-up Kenny Guiton, whom Meyer nearly kicked off the team in the off-season, forced overtime by leading a 61-yard drive with 47 seconds left in regulation and no timeouts. The Buckeyes won 29--22 in OT.