COLUMBUS, Ohio -- More than two dozen tables of cheerful fans, representatives from six different unbeaten, untied teams, and enough happy memories to fill three hours of ceremony. Ohio State's Spring Kickoff event on Wednesday may have looked a little different if not for a turning point in the 2012 season.
Speaking during the five-hour event, which raised money for the both the Earle & Jean Bruce Alzheimer's Research Fund and the Urban & Shelley Meyer Cancer Fund at The Ohio State University, Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer told tales from his unbeaten debut season in Columbus, which came to an end just four months ago with a 26-21 win over Michigan. After Ohio State's first five perfect teams were recognized, Meyer explained why his was possible, with a story that began in the moments following the Buckeyes' Sept. 15 win over California.
"John Simon after the Cal game- he comes walking up. I'm giving out game balls and rewards, and here's a 6-foot-4, 260-pound grown-ass man, tough guy, one of the toughest guys I've ever been around, I introduce him, he loses it in front of our team. When I say lose it, I mean sobbing like a little kid," Meyer said. "I'm looking at him, I start getting a terrible feeling in my stomach. I go home that night after we say our prayer, we break up and go about our business, and I can't sleep that night. We're undefeated, we just beat a very talented Pac-12 team, yet there's something seriously wrong with our program, and it started with me.
"I thought to myself, could I have been the type of man to walk up in front of that team and give that much emotion? If I would've, it would've been very phony. I didn't have the same commitment to our program that John Simon did. He's 22. I'm 48. I'm a professional at what I do for 26 years. I was so embarrassed that I couldn't do that because I haven't given enough to the program ... I didn't feel that anyone on our coaching staff could've given that same emotion that John Simon did. We weren't giving enough."
Meyer's realizations were relayed in a team meeting the following day, where he challenged the first-year coaching staff and the OSU players to stop "evaluating" one another, and start playing their roles. Meyer's message was aided by the words of former Buckeyes running back Butler By'not'e.
"We have a little reflection service for our players on Sunday. Whether it was divine intervention or just for the good of our team, it was perfect what this young man, Butler By'not'e said," Meyer recalled. "Here's his message: if you love something that much, you no longer make choices, they're called commands ... the second part is sacrifice ... for us to get where we need to go as a team, you need to sacrifice all the nonsense ... the third point was, if you truly love something that much, the amount of time you have to spend is beyond comprehension ... we expect the players to spend time on their own preparing."
While the Buckeyes still endured a closer-than-expected win over UAB the following week, a real breakthrough happened in the moments leading up to Ohio State's conference opener against Michigan State on Sept. 29.
"We finally got the evaluation part out of our program by the coaching staff and players. On September 29th and 11:22 in East Lansing, Michigan, we were getting ready to play a ranked, very talented team, and we hadn't performed very well," Meyer said. "We had a very good talk before the game and the message was this- and this is the coolest, most refreshing thing, and really the essence of what college football's all about. Enough's enough. I'm going to ask you to stand up. We have all of these great traditions: the Buckeye leaves, the gold pants, the victory bell, Buckeye Grove.
"We're going to start our own tradition here at our pre-game meal. I'm going to ask you to take a glass of 'championship water', stand up, make a toast, from this point forward, you're going to rip your chest open and give the coach your heart and let us coach you. Don't evaluate, no comments, you go as hard and do exactly what we ask you to do. I'm so proud to say that that locker room erupted right before the game and I saw a team rip their chest open, and change."
The rest, as they say, is history, as the Buckeyes not only beat the Spartans 17-16 on that afternoon, but won their remaining seven games en route to the sixth untied, unbeaten season in school history. Ohio State's perfect season has set high expectations for 2013, but as the Buckeyes coaching staff addressed the crowd on Wednesday, it was clear that moments like Simon's speech or Meyer's toast will be crucial to continuing that success.
"How do you handle high expectations? Guess what, you come to Ohio State to have high expectations," Meyer said. "If we take a great player, replace him with a player who's not as good, we won't be as good. I'm not that concerned about that. I think we have very good players.
"My area of concern is you take a great group of leaders- the best group of leaders that I've ever been around in that senior class- you remove that from our program, and you take this other group that's not as good of leaders, and you're gonna lose or you're gonna fail at certain points in the season. Our biggest concern is the leadership of our team. I'm proud to say that I see it heading in the right direction."