By August, Meyer and Ohio State had changed the way we thought and talked about college football, with Columbus the center of the first-ever unanimous preseason No. 1 ranking. By September and October, they served as a national center for chatter about their quarterback puzzle, their erstwhile quarterback who moved to receiver, their wins deemed dauntingly close.
By Nov. 21, when the towering 23-game winning streak finally toppled on a Saturday that saw a shocking Ohio State first-down total of five, Michigan State’s 17-14 feat in Columbus mattered both regionally and nationally, keeping the August mastodon out of another playoff while ushering in Michigan State. It became the win of the year because of what Ohio State had become.
Certainly influential coaches dotted the map, from Dabo Swinney at No. 1 Clemson to Jim Harbaugh at resurgent Michigan to Mark Dantonio at pugnacious Michigan State, but all operated in a landscape dramatically rearranged by Meyer’s Ohio State. But for Meyer and Ohio State, Alabama might well spend this final week of 2015 seeking a second straight national championship and fifth in the last seven years, not to mention cementing Southeastern Conference totalitarianism.
Before January, the Big Ten dwelled in some semi-forgotten dusk. Of the 12 slots in the six national-championship games between January 2009 and January 2014, the SEC hoarded seven (as its national-title streak once reached seven), the Big 12 had two, the Pac-12 and Notre Dame one each. The Big Ten notched zero.
Then, one guy with a shining résumé — Bowling Green, Utah, Florida — came in and pretty much switched on lights, lights that multiplied when Harbaugh arrived at Michigan and a rebellious Michigan State kept on keeping on.
The funny thing about all this is that by the time Meyer had collaborated with very fast humans to wreak this muscular relocation of a major sport, he had reached age 51. His energy had not dwindled, but his emphasis had budged. It had undergone that quiet little shift many veteran coaches report.
Famous coaches from Billy Donovan (Meyer’s friend from Florida days) to Tom Izzo have said that once you’ve spent some years winning, the point of winning becomes more collaborative. The mad inner drive to win for thyself joins with an increased wish that those nearby — players, families et al — could know the feeling for the first time.
In Columbus in September, Meyer said, “The first time, though you hate to admit it, it’s kind of about you.” He said, “It was all about, ‘Where’s the crystal ball,’ and all that.” For his third national championship and first beyond Florida, his favorite memory turned out to be standing in confetti snowfall with his wife, Shelly, watching all the faces. “I’d point to them,” he said of the players.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott with the trophy served as a reenactment of a scene in Meyer’s office, when Meyer pretended to share a trophy with Elliott in the recruiting process. Meyer distinctly remembers seeing Tyvis Powell, veteran Ohioan safety, and revisiting the things Powell had endured.
He absolutely remembers looking at Jeff Heuerman, soon-to-be NFL tight end. “Oh, I know a lot about what he went through as a kid,” Meyer said. “I know his journey.” He also knew that in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game, on a crucial fourth-down-and-1, Heuerman’s missed block wreaked a tackle of quarterback Braxton Miller and a protracted agony for Heuerman. “And that took him to a place where we had to help him get out of it,” Meyer said. “Now he’s one of the most mature kids I ever knew. I love that guy.”
Having played lead actor in changing how we perceived the sport, Meyer, well … “I remember I went back to the hotel. Went to the suite. Exhausted, and just went to bed. I remember we were there. There were some very good friends of my family, my three children, two boyfriends, and then about four or five couples that we’re really close with. Exhausted. I remember I stayed up most of the night my first time [after winning the national championship]. Second night was like that. Third one, just, it’s not for me, it’s for those people and the team.”
Surely he’d enjoyed the Florida faces in his two previous titles. Surely he didn’t mind receiving the trophy for Ohio State even if receiving trophies no longer counted as novel. But it’s funny. A coach toils and moves a national nucleus northward and, somehow, the whole thing ends up feeling lighter.
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