COLUMBUS, Ohio – Throughout the fall, as the debate about Tim Tebow as a NFL quarterback swayed back and forth, Urban Meyer kept thinking of the particular game that first convinced him of Tebow's potential.
This wasn't at Florida, where the coach and quarterback combined to win two national championships. It was on a high school baseball field, Tebow just a junior and playing right field. What Meyer saw that day was a competitor, a guy motivating everyone, hustling, shouting, simply wanting to win a game more than anything in the world.
"I get chills thinking about the way he dominated that game," Meyer says. "And I don't even know if he got a hit."
Urban Meyer is back in college football, sitting this day in his large office at Ohio State. National Signing Day was just hours away and Meyer was talking about how his one-year sabbatical from coaching reinforced something he always knew mattered in recruiting but too often undervalued anyway.
The most important characteristic in a young player, he says, is a competitive nature.
Meyer will sign a top-five class Wednesday. There will be four- and five-star players all over the place, lots of size and speed and strength. And while Meyer obviously seeks a certain amount of physical strength and athletic acumen, it's the intangibles he has been most focused on.
Great recruits don't always win games. Great competitors usually do.
"I don't believe NFL, college or high school coaches [realize its importance]," Meyer says. "And I was guilty of it for a while. You talk about his competitiveness for a while and then you start talking about his footwork. I don't really care about his footwork. When we coach him, we'll go over that. We can teach that. You can't coach competitiveness.
"I've always believed it, but after all this Tebow, the criticism …"
Meyer continues, shaking his head in lieu of words.
"It blows my mind," he says. "It was all about what he can't do, rather than what he can do. Can he compete? Figure it out then. There are enough plays out there to figure out how to make it work."
It's not just Tebow, either. Meyer coached two quarterbacks who wound up overall No. 1 draft picks. Meyer inherited Alex Smith at Utah but became convinced in Smith's ability when he saw Smith's work ethic.
"Alex Smith would stay in our office until he got things figured out," Meyer says. "He would do anything to win that game."
Cam Newton still was somewhat of a sleeper recruit when he showed up in July 2006 at Florida's "Friday Night Lights," a one-day camp for underclassmen that featured myriad drills and competitions.
"He would not lose an event," Meyer says. "His competitive nature superseded anyone who was at that camp."
Meyer got in on Newton early. Newton played two seasons at Florida before off-field trouble sent him to junior college. The lesson remains: Try to see recruits in competitive environments, even if it's in other sports or situations.
"I don't go out and recruit a certain player," Meyer says. "I recruit the best player, and competitive nature, his desire to win, is without question the most important thing. I used to be into, 'Is he a three-quarter [throwing motion]? Does he have four fingers on the laces or five?' I don't care anymore.
"Will he choke you to win a checker game? If he does that, I'll take him."
On October 20, 1973, Urban Meyer, then just 9 years old, went to watch the University of Cincinnati play host to Wichita State. His father, Bud, was a Cincinnati alum, and Meyer eventually would play football there.
That day, as he and his dad were walking to their seats at Nippert Stadium, Meyer found himself close to the Bearcats' sideline. UC's defensive coordinator stood in front of a large rolling backboard with a huddle of players surrounding him. The coach was shouting instructions, scribbling on the board, even punching it for effect.
"I just stopped," Meyer recalls.
He was mesmerized. His father kept walking, leaving Urban at risk of being lost among a sea of fans, except for the fact there was no chance he was going to move.
"I just couldn't stop watching the coaching and teaching going on," he says. "It was very intense." (The UC players apparently listened; the Bearcats won 27-6 that day.)
His father eventually returned, and until he died last year, he always said that Urban looked at him and declared, "I want to do that."
Soon there was a wall in Meyer's bedroom in Ashtabula, a blue-collar town in the northeast part of Ohio, filled with pictures not of players but of coaches: Tom Osborne, Joe Paterno, Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes.
Meyer would become a coach, climbing though the ranks as an assistant before scoring the Bowling Green job in 2001 at age 36. He went 17-6 in two seasons before leaving for Utah, where he and Alex Smith went 22-2, including 12-0 in 2004. Then it was off to Florida, where in six seasons he captured two national championships.
The drive consumed him, though. He couldn't stop working, couldn't stop punching that blackboard in search of greater performance. There were health scares, extreme stress and a feeling of desperation. His family and bosses feared for him.
"Was it sustainable?" Meyer says. "No. It was not. [It was] complete consumption. [I] never, never disengaged."
It got to the point where he was so overwhelmed, his only chance at rest each night was to pop a sleeping pill. Even then, he'd only last two to four hours, eventually springing up and heading back to the office.
"I wasn't working 24/7," he says. "It was 22/7 and a couple hours with a sleeping pill."
After the 2009 season, he quit … for a day. He claimed he'd delegate more. It didn't take. A year later, he managed to walk away, burnt out and desperate.
He had neglected his kids, he said. His priorities were out of whack. He had to concentrate on his health. He took a job at ESPN and claims he believed he was done for good.
"I thought I was done coaching," he says.
Within months, longtime Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel was fired amid NCAA violations. Things began to change.
Meyer claims Ohio State was the only place he imagined coaching. This wasn't just the perfect spot. "Only spot," Meyer says.
He is adamant about this, even if he knows many don't believe him.
"I've heard that I lied, I had this planned all along and I was going to coach at Ohio State," he says.
He brushes his hand through the air dismissively. He doesn't care.
By late November, Ohio State decided to not retain interim coach Luke Fickell (he is on Meyer's staff as defensive coordinator), and school officials reached out to Meyer. He wanted the job. His family – wife Shelley, daughters Nicki and Gigi, both college volleyball players, and son Nate, a high school student – stepped in.
"Shelley said, 'We are going to have a family meeting,' " Meyer says. "I said, 'We are? We've never had a family meeting. What's that?' "
Nicki, who attends Georgia Tech, hosted it in her apartment in Atlanta. If her dad was going to coach again, things had to be different. She pulled out a piece of pink loose-leaf paper, a handwritten contract that made certain demands of her father. "Failure to comply with all of the following will result in no more coaching," it reads.
Some are family jokes. But others are painfully serious, including eating three meals a day, talking daily with his kids and turning his cell phone off so he sleeps a full night.
"It was emotional," Meyer says. "[Nicki] kind of ran it, 21 years old. She pulled out this piece of paper and I read it and got choked up about it. Both my daughters had tears in their eyes. And my wife choked up."
Meyer signed it. He was free to get back into coaching.
"I talk to my girls every day, my oldest five times a day," he says. "That's the kind of relationship we have. And I kind of got away from that. [The meeting] was awesome. All good. Every parent should be so lucky."
As for balance, Meyer says it thus far has been a success. The grind of recruiting was tough, but even living in a hotel – Shelley and Nate are scheduled to move to Columbus in mid-March – he is making time to keep things on an even keel. He's about 30 pounds heavier than in his gaunt final days at UF.
"I made this comment: Once you go to a place you really don't want to be, then you don't go back," he says.
The pink contract hangs in a frame above his desk.
In less than two months on the job, Meyer has loaded up with top talent, taking the strong group of commitments that stuck through the Tressel saga and adding a host of top commitments. The appeal is simple. This is Ohio State. It has the facilities. It has the tradition. It has the academics. It has the campus. It has, of course, the coach.
"You're going to get a very prestigious degree," Meyer says. "You're going to have one of the most powerful alumni bases in America. And we have a plan in place to go and compete for championships. The plan works. The plan involves great coaches and great players, but it works.
"This isn't our first rodeo. We've been to the mountaintop. We're not devising a plan. We have a plan. And I think that's important for a kid to know that."
There isn't much for rival recruiters to attack Ohio State about. Even a bowl ban that will wipe out next season's postseason opportunities hasn't slowed the commitments.
Meyer scoffs at that talk. He isn't married to any specific offensive system.
"There is no such thing as a 'system,' " he says. "It's players. Auburn won a national championship running a system. That system wasn't very good this year. So it's a player.
"So I get real defensive about that because this is a players' game. It's all about recruiting and development of players. There are no gurus. None. So whenever you hear a coach say how good their system is, say, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa.' "
Meyer thinks about all those competitors he's seeking, all those guys who refuse to lose, who will strangle someone over a game of checkers, who will show up at Ohio State not seeking what he calls their "rights and privileges" but instead understand their "obligations and responsibilities."
Give him those kinds of guys and he'll make the system fit around the talent. Give him another Tebow, another Newton, another Smith, and the system will work perfectly, whatever that system may need to be.
"Here's the system: Get really good players the ball," Meyer says. "That's our system."
Wednesday he's going to get a couple dozen of them, the start of the next big chapter in what Urban Meyer has promised will be his newly balanced life.
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- Urban Meyer