Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year is an annual must-read. Given that the national recognition rarely has anything to do with the teams or individuals whom we cover. In turn, WFNY will soon announce its choice for 2013’s Cleveland Sportsman of the Year. Here’s one of the nominations for that honor by an WFNY writer.
Urban Meyer was publicly introduced as the next head football coach of the Ohio State University on November 28, 2011, a little over 25 months ago. In those 25 months, Meyer has coached 26 football games. He has won 24 of those games, including 12 this year, but of course all everyone can focus on right now is his two most recent, the first defeat of his tenure at the hands of the Michigan State Spartans in the Big Ten Championship Game earlier this month and the loss to the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl.
Luckily for Meyer, the award is called Sportsman of the Year, not Sportsman of the Month, and no one is more deserving of the honor for 12 months of achievement than the Buckeyes’ sideline boss. In a city that deals with so much sports misery and failure on such a regular basis, Meyer’s team offered a rare ray of hope each and every Saturday.
Ignore the schedule—it is what it is, and Meyer had no hand in shaping it. What he did do was prepare his team to win every week with an entertaining and fast-paced brand of football that was as pleasing to watch as it was ruthlessly efficient.
Like many of the best Urban Meyer squads, this year’s Buckeyes ran the spread offense to perfection. No matter who was under (or five yards behind) center, Ohio State seemed to turn almost every Saturday into a game of “Guess How Many Plays It Will Take the Buckeyes to Score a Touchdown.” Once running back Carlos Hyde came back from his three-game suspension, that offense became all the more potent and fun.
That suspension serves as an example of another way in which Meyer distinguished himself in 2013. Meyer has for years been plagued by a reputation that says he is soft on players who commit crimes or break team rules, a reputation that was lent further credence when former Florida Gator (and New England Patriot) tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested on a murder charge in August. This year, he made a concerted effort to become a tougher disciplinarian and try to shake that unfortunate narrative. First came the twin suspensions of Hyde and cornerback Bradley Roby, arguably the Buckeyes best players on both offense and defense, just before the start of the season. The penalties–one game for Roby’s bar fight and three games for Hyde’s alleged striking of a female in a Columbus club–did little to cripple Ohio State’s early season chances against teams like Buffalo, San Diego State, and Cal, but they sent a message that Meyer’s program would not sweep offenses under the rug, even if neither of the incidents resulted in any legal action against the two players.
While sending a message early in the season during nonconference play is relatively easy, it is much more difficult for a coach to maintain that atmosphere of discipline and accountability later on as the games get tougher and more impactful. Nonetheless, Meyer did just that when he “suspended” starting right guard Marcus Hall for the Michigan State game following his double-bird farewell salute to the Big House crowd after being ejected from the Michigan game.
While Meyer initially announced that Hall would play in the Big Ten Championship Game, the lineman–who had started all 12 regular season games for the Buckeyes–never left the bench. The decision not to play Hall was silent (although it was announced during the week that he would not start), but Meyer’s decision spoke loud and clear: He was going to hold his players accountable, whether or not the media was going to heap praise on him for it.
Of course, the Buckeyes fell to the Spartans in Indianapolis, ending dreams of a second consecutive perfect season and a shot at the BCS championship, and would follow that up with a there-for-the-having loss in the Discover Orange Bowl. The loss to the Spartans was not attributable to the absence of Hall, as Ohio State was still able to rack up 273 yards on the ground against the top-ranked Michigan State rush defense. Blame Meyer all you want for the Buckeye defense that was miserable for much of the season and especially so against the Spartans, but it has been abundantly clear since day one that Meyer would be focusing his energies on the offense and allowing Luke Fickell and the rest of his staff to worry about stopping the opponents.
Even so, focusing so much attention in a judgment of Urban Meyer on the loss to Michigan State reflects the worst possible recency bias. Two consecutive undefeated regular seasons is a ridiculous accomplishment for any team, regardless of who is on the schedule. This season, Meyer faced the highest of expectations and came up just short of meeting them. In Cleveland, we’re used to the opposite: teams having low expectations and still failing to meet them.
And, even with the disappointing loss in Indy, and the crushing BCS Bowl game defeat, December hasn’t been all bad for Meyer.
That image has already begun to be repaired in Meyer’s brief time at the helm. Just last week, Ohio State landed two big-time recruits from deep within hostile territory. First there was the news from Hinesville, Georgia that five-star inside linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the top ranked player nationally at his position, had chosen the Buckeyes over a quartet of southern schools – Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, and Georgia. The next day, four-star wide receiver Johnnie Dixon from Dwyer High School in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida made it known that he would be bringing his talents to Columbus. He chose the Buckeyes over hometown Miami and Alabama.
After the tattoo scandal that rocked Ohio State and ended the wildly successful Jim Tressel-era in Columbus, the Buckeye program found itself in a confusing period of transition. Urban Meyer stepped into his dream job and in two short years has brought the Ohio State program back to the summit of national relevance. Meyer is possibly the only coach who could have led this resurrection so quickly while simultaneously charting a path towards a brighter future. That leadership and success is why Urban Meyer is my 2013 Sportsman of the Year.