After last weekend’s surprising losses by the top two teams in the BCS rankings—both Kansas State and Oregon ruined their unblemished records with defeats on Saturday—we head into Thanksgiving’s annual weekend rite of too much food and too much football with now just one undefeated team in the BCS rankings: new No. 1 Notre Dame.
But the Fighting Irish are not the only team left with a perfect record. Quietly, and with surprisingly little fanfare given their famously intense coach, Ohio State has racked up an 11-0 record in Urban Meyer’s first season as head coach. We’re hearing less about the accomplishment because, of course, Ohio State is ineligible for postseason title or bowl games as part of its punishment for NCAA violations under former coach Jim Tressel.
But that, to me, is why we should be hearing more about the feat.
Sure, one could argue (especially as this SEC fan might find herself doing) that Ohio State’s schedule was hardly a tough one. The highest ranked team it beat was No. 20 Michigan State, and it did so with a one-point squeaker of a win. Even if the record is perfect, the team isn’t: A small margin of victory has been the result in several uninspiring wins. And the Buckeyes still have to host the 8-3 Michigan Wolverines Saturday in what is unabashedly known as The Game.
But to go 11-0 without even the possible prize of playing for a conference title or a bowl game says a lot about Meyer’s coaching skills, especially for a team coming out of a 6-7 win-loss year, battered with negative news and NCAA sanctions. It’s instructive for any leader trying to motivate a team to greatness when there are no tangible rewards.
How’d he do it? There have been tactical changes, of course: A leaner, more disciplined offensive line has played a role. There have been motivational ones, too. It appears one strategy was to encourage the team to play for the seniors who stuck around and had no chance of going out with a bang. “Here’s a group of kids that had nothing to do with nothing,” Meyer told USA Today, “came to Ohio State for a lot of reasons but mainly because they love Ohio State and they gave their life to this place, so they deserved the respect of the underclassmen to play as hard as they can for these seniors.”
One thing he hasn’t done, reportedly, is to pressure his team to shoot for a perfect season. They do that themselves, but “if I hear the players say that, I try to interrupt it,” Meyer said during a late October teleconference. That same lack of weekly pressure to move up in the polls or BCS standings or position itself for a major bowl could also have a role in focusing the team simply on winning each week.
But if you go back to May, long before the season started, you’ll find a kernel of what Meyer thinks makes the difference between a team that wins most of its games and one that wins 10 or more. “Talent will get you about seven or eight wins,” the AP reports Meyer told his team. “Discipline will start pushing that to nine. Then when you get leadership that’s when magic starts happening.”
Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.