Source: USA TODAY
COLUMBUS, Ohio – The text buzzed into Mickey Marotti’s phone sometime during the BCS National Championship Game. Urban Meyer was in south Florida. He’d been on the field during pregame warm-ups, seen and felt the buzz building to kickoff, and he was juiced enough to send the message to his longtime friend.
According to Marotti, who had come to Ohio State with Meyer as the Buckeyes’ strength and conditioning coach, it went something like this: “The time is now. It’s about the chase.”
Eleven months later, it still is. A huge banner hangs inside the team’s indoor practice facility at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center: “The Chase.” Posters hang on doors throughout the complex: “The Chase Is On … The Chase Is Real.” Conversations with the Buckeyes are inevitably peppered with the phrase. What it all means depends on who’s explaining.
“We’re not just chasing the national championship,” Meyer says. “We’re chasing the Big Ten championship. A lot of these guys are chasing careers and chasing a degree. It’s just a reminder that we’re all chasing something.”
But it is lost on no one that unlike last season, the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes actually have something to chase. This week it’s the Big Ten championship. With a win against No. 10 Michigan State on Saturday in Indianapolis, a shot at the BCS championship is within reach.
Think what you’d like about Ohio State’s worthiness to play for the BCS title. But before debating the Buckeyes vs. Auburn (or Missouri), and the merits of the Big Ten vs. the SEC, consider the degree of difficulty in going undefeated. Twice.
Since Meyer took over as coach, Ohio State has won 24 consecutive games. This after going 6-7 in 2011, the tenuous interlude between Jim Tressel’s forced exit and Meyer’s entrance. Senior center Corey Linsley describes that season as “a lot of confusion … A lot of uncertainty – something this program has never felt before.”
“Esprit de corps and the mood was at an all-time low for a while,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith says.
The rejuvenation has been so rapid, so complete, that even longtime observers struggle to explain how and why it has happened. Although Smith says, “Only a place like Ohio State could respond that way,” it’s even more remarkable considering that last season, Meyer’s first, there was nothing to play for beyond, well, just playing.
The Buckeyes were ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions for penalties that occurred on Tressel’s watch. Rewind to this very same week last year – the days immediately following a victory against rival Michigan. Ohio State had won them all. And the season was over.
“We turned in our equipment,” junior cornerback Doran Grant says, “and watched other teams play.”
Meyer describes the period as “terrible,” and then clarifies: “horrible.” He immediately started recruiting, right after the Michigan game, because that’s what football coaches do. “But I felt like there was a big void,” he says.
Now there is a big opportunity. And although they’re not talking openly about it, the chase has plenty to do with winning the national championship. It has helped fuel the Buckeyes since their head coach attended the title game last January as a frustrated spectator.
As he watched the Alabama and Notre Dame players get ready to play for the crystal football, Meyer says he couldn’t help but think of his team.
“I wanted them to experience that,” he says. “Maybe it’s not that, exactly, that we’re chasing, but we’re chasing something. And that’s when it started. I wanted them to taste, to see what this was like.
“And so we started chasing.”
Meyer had seen by then there was a solid foundation. Winning 12 in a row is a pretty good indicator there’s something to build on. And perhaps more than this season, 2012 was an extraordinary accomplishment. What did Meyer think that team could achieve?
“Oh boy,” he says. “When we got hired? Even after the first couple of games I was thinking 7-5, 8-4. We were bad. We didn’t play well.”
But they won. And they got better. And they kept winning, even when they didn’t play especially well. And although Meyer still shakes his head and says, “those seniors (from 2012) didn’t do anything to deserve that” penalty, it’s possible that last year’s curse was this year’s blessing.
Rather than being satisfied with perfection, the Buckeyes were hungrier. And that led to one other catch phrase, which hangs on a banner in the weight room: “WHAT IF …”
Motivational slogans are as ubiquitous in college football as shoulder pads. They all basically have the same meanings and purpose, and they can easily devolve into cliché, overlooked and ineffective. For whatever reason – maybe because the Buckeyes had tasted success but hadn’t been able to capitalize – this one resonated, just like “The Chase.”
What if, coaches would ask, you did everything you were supposed to do today? What if you practiced as hard as you could? Or what if, as Marotti says, “we told you guys back in January 2012, when we first got here, that if you guys do this, this and this, you’re gonna be in position to win 12 games?”
There was never an answer. It was implied success. “But it just kind of grew,” Marotti says.
“It means whatever it means to you,” senior center Corey Linsley says. “But enough people made enough right decisions to get this team where it is.”
That includes self-policing, apparently, when it comes to deflecting the inevitable hype about the BCS possibilities. Yeah, the Buckeyes understand the opportunity.
Last Saturday night they were on the bus, almost home from Ann Arbor, Mich., when they saw Auburn’s Chris Davis gather in Alabama’s field-goal try and make that sudden, 109-yard journey into legend. A video of their jubilant reaction quickly went viral. But there was also an important moment just afterward that wasn’t captured, an attempt to eradicate a damaging virus before it could spread.
Several players on the bus began saying things like, “We’re going to the national championship!”
Senior receiver Corey “Philly” Brown stood up and shouted them down: “We’ve still got a game to play!”
The bus filled with offensive players quieted. The mood immediately shifted. Linsley says he sensed revelry distill into resolve: “WHAT IF …”
Back in the weight room, hanging just a few feet to the right of the banner “WHAT IF …” is another, just as large: “MICHIGAN STATE.”
Marotti says the banners are not intentionally associated, that this week’s opponent is not intended to be the answer to the slogan. But there’s no mistaking the link.
The chase goes on. And it feels very real.