COLUMBUS, Ohio — Victory meal is a tradition for Urban Meyer’s teams and pretty much a weekly occurrence during football season since the coach got to Ohio State in 2012 — just as it was when he was at Florida.
There was a time back in 2009, as Tim Tebow and the Gators tried to win a second straight national title, when Meyer was no longer savoring success.
“I just remember that sometimes I’d go in there real fast, rush upstairs and start watching film and all that,” Meyer said of a season when the fear of losing overtook the joy of winning.
This season the defending champion Buckeyes will try to do what those Gators fell just short of accomplishing.
Meyer doesn’t want to hear any talk of repeating or defending. Each team stands on its own. He does acknowledge that the similarities between the 2009 season and the one approaching for Ohio State could make it his most challenging yet with the Buckeyes. Pursuing perfection took such a physical and mental toll on Meyer back then he was ready to quit coaching.
The goal this season: To be as vigilant as ever in stamping out complacency while still allowing the Buckeyes — and himself — to appreciate accomplishments.
“You have to make sure everyone enjoys the journey,” he said.
How? “To be determined.”
The journey for Ohio State will begin at the top, just as it did for Florida in ’09.
The Buckeyes are a virtual lock to be No. 1 when The Associated Press preseason Top 25 is released on Sunday. Since the AP poll started naming a national champion in 1936, 11 teams have won two titles in a row. The last was Alabama in 2012. Few teams in recent memory have been better positioned to repeat than Ohio State.
Florida in ’09 was one of those teams. Like the Buckeyes, the Gators had a star-studded and experienced roster: Tebow, Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, to name a few players.
Ohio State’s power-packed lineup includes Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Vonn Bell and not one but two of the best quarterbacks in the country — J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones.
Another similarity: Meyer will have a new offensive coordinator season. The 2009 season was Meyer’s first at Florida without Dan Mullen, who left to become Mississippi State’s coach after the Gators beat Oklahoma in the BCS championship game. After Ohio State beat Oregon to win the first College Football Playoff, Tom Herman left to take over at Houston.
Still, the expectations could not be higher in Columbus, and when that happens it can feel like winning isn’t enough. That was the case for the ’09 Gators.
Former Florida assistant Dan McCarney, now the coach at North Texas, recalled an October game at LSU in which the Gators smothered the then-fourth-ranked Tigers 13-3.
“We’re in the locker room and I thought, did we win this thing or did we lose?” McCarney said. “It just didn’t feel we were enjoying it the way we should have with a victory like that.”
Florida’s offense was one of the best in country that season, but without Mullen when it sputtered even a little, Meyer took added responsibility to try and fix it.
“It just seemed like it was harder and harder as the season went on,” McCarney said.
Meyer would not disagree. Florida pounded rival Georgia 41-17 at the end of October, but he knew something wasn’t right.
“My mind was kind of shot. I remember walking into victory meal and sitting down real fast and finally saying, ‘I’m going to enjoy this,'” Meyer said this past spring. “I look around, ‘Where’s everybody at?”
Meyer said strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti told him a lot of players had been skipping the Sunday celebration.
“It’s just taking it for granted,” Meyer said. “Where are they getting that cue from?”
Chest pains sent Meyer to the hospital after Florida lost the SEC championship game to Alabama, ending hopes of another national title. He lost 30 pounds that season. Not long after the hospital scare, he stepped down as Gators coach only to change his mind and return for one forgettable year — and then quit again.
After a year away, and working for ESPN, he returned to his home state to coach the Buckeyes, vowing to strike a better balance between football and family and to take better care of his health. That now famous hand-written contract his daughters made him sign still hangs on his office wall. His friends say he’s better equipped to handle what lies ahead.
McCarney saw a difference in January when he visited practice a few days before the Oregon game.
“He had this big grin on his face,” McCarney said. “Just the confidence that he had and the comfort level and peace of mind that he had to me … Urban rarely when I was around him felt that way, looked that way a couple days before a huge game like that.”
Marotti, who has been Meyer’s right-hand man since 2005, said he only needs to look at his cellphone to know his boss has changed.
“I don’t get the texts and the phone calls like I used to,” Marotti said. “I think he’s done a way better job of getting away when he has to get away.”
Meyer lives in Muirfield. A Jack Nicklaus golf course is his backyard. He interacts with neighbors in a way Marotti said he never saw him do in Gainesville, Florida.
Don’t think for a second, though, Meyer is easing up — especially during two-a-days.
“It’s a friggin’ grind right now, man, and whether it’s repeating or not, it’s the same as our first year here,” Meyer said at media day. “At this point in time, there’s not much balance. These next few weeks, man, there’s not a whole lot of … I’m not playing Muirfield.”