After Urban Meyer’s hiring, I went to Ashtabula, Ohio, to see where the coach grew up and to talk to a number of his friends and former coaches – as well as his former players and mentors – to get a better sense of the person the Ohio State football team will be getting as its head coach.
The people were overwhelmingly nice, fine people, hard workers who grew up in the factory town that deals with tremendous snowfall each winter. The city that is a solid three-hour drive away from Columbus also borders Lake Erie and is in the middle of wine country. Though the loss of industry has done a number on population – in a handful of decades, the city has lost almost one-fifth of its people – there’s still a lot to like about Ashtabula.
Much of the research went into writing the cover story of the recent print Buckeye Sports Bulletin, but what follows is the first in a web series on the new Ohio State head coach, his hometown and the events that have shaped his life.
Some football coaches seem born to become football coaches from the very beginning.
Stories exist of children – usually the sons of successful coaches, like Bill Belichick – drawing up blitzes and pass-route combinations from the time they’re elementary school kids, making their ascension to the top of the gridiron world seem less like success stories rather than just the natural state of things.
That was not Urban Meyer.
The son of a chemist and a chef, Meyer wasn’t the kind of guy who digested flat passes and cover-2s in his sleep growing up. Of course, he does have a brilliant football mind – says one of the best he’s ever seen, former OSU coach Earle Bruce – but Meyer was the guy making the plays, not drawing them up, at Ashtabula St. John High School from 1978-81.
Meyer was a two-sport athlete, shining on Paul Kopko’s football team and Bill Schmidt’s baseball squad, both of which had their share of success over the years.
Kopko’s St. John squads made five state playoff appearances, losing consecutive state championship games in 1976 and ’77, while Schmidt’s squad won a state title in 1983, the year after Meyer graduated.
The result was that Meyer didn’t own a state championship ring of his own, but he did make an impact through his force of personality, an impact that now has him in the school’s athletic hall of fame.
“He wasn’t one of the best athletes we’ve ever had at St. John,” Kopko said. “He wasn’t one of the extremely gifted ones, but he really worked at it and made himself into a good athlete.”
Those still around the area remember Meyer as a relatively scrawny kid when he first entered St. John, but that didn’t last for long. Sporting a legendary work ethic, Meyer hit the weight room hard, blossoming into an important player in both of his two sports.
On the football field, that meant he played both ways for the Heralds by the time he reached his senior year. Playing as a slot back in the run-and-shoot and a strong safety, Meyer had a mentality that seemed best suited to the defensive side of the ball. What observers remember most about him was how much he relished coming downhill from his spot in the defensive backfield and delivering a hard hit on an opposing player.
“He’d hit you,” said Dave Rozzo, who was a year behind Meyer and is now the school athletic director. “He was a hitter. He’d come down and hit you pretty hard. He’d study the game film. He knew what he was doing.”
Meyer’s senior year was one of the best the Heralds had. The team started 8-1 with wins against all three Ashtabula rivals in the City Series – Ashtabula High, Edgewood High and Harbor High – before it lost its final game. In that one, Meyer suffered an injured ankle, but he toughed through the opening-round playoff game a week later vs. Mogadore.
The Heralds scored early behind a big touchdown run, but the team’s star back, David Huber, suffered an injury and Mogadore won by a 10-7 score thanks to a late field goal.
On the baseball field, Meyer was just as talented. Playing shortstop, Meyer was solid at the plate, hitting .370 as a senior with 28 RBI to make the Class A all-state team. But his biggest skill was his ability to go to his right at shortstop, backhand a ball and make the throw to first base, a la Derek Jeter.
“Between his sophomore year and junior year he really filled out, and he was like a stud when he came in for his junior year,” Schmidt said. “Then things started to take off for him. His forte was he had a cannon for an arm, and playing shortstop, that’s what you need. He was able to make all the plays, and I would say his signature play was when he would go deep in the hole at short, round it off and make that throw over.”
Meyer also showed plenty of leadership characteristics in his high school years. His work ethic when it came to working out in the weight room or on the field was unquestioned, instilled some through his father, Bud, but also through a great deal of self-motivation.
“We’d be out doing high school stuff and Urban would be in the weight room,” high school friend Tom Penna said. “He was like, ‘Get in here.’ We’d be like, ‘Get out of here, we’re not lifting weights.’ It would be before practice or after practice, he didn’t care. But it was only because he wanted to win.”
On the football field, he called the defensive signals from his safety spot and was one of three team captains his senior season. However, the thought that he would one day be a brilliant coach wasn’t on the mind of Kopko.
“You knew that he was going to be a leader,” Kopko said. “You could tell right from the get-go that he had the leadership characteristics and the other kids recognized that. He was a good athlete both in football and baseball in high school. You know, I didn’t foresee him getting into coaching at all. I thought he might be a player. I didn’t picture (coaching) at all in his future.”
But baseball allowed Meyer to stay in sports initially after high school. The Atlanta organization chose him as a 13th-round pick in the 1982 MLB draft, and Meyer had stops with the Braves’ Gulf Coast League team as well as Pulaski of the Appalachian League. In two seasons, Meyer hit .182 with a home run and left the game with an arm injury.
All that helped to do is set him up for future success, Schmidt said.
“Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t injured his arm,” the former baseball coach said. “Life is funny how that works. If he hadn’t gotten hurt and he was able to pursue his baseball career, he wouldn’t have become a football coach. It’s really great that it worked out for him the way it did.”
Coming up next: Meyer’s legendary work ethic.
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