The Game Within the Sugar Game: Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, and the Battle of College Football’s Recruiting KingpinsJohn Bazemore/AP
There is a well-circulated and almost certainly apocryphal tale about Urban Meyer and the Lord himself, and the story goes something like this: In the midst of the serious health scare that eventually caused him to quit his job as head coach at the University of Florida, Meyer calls up a recruit named Sharrif Floyd. Says he had a dream the night before, and that in the dream he was coaching Floyd, and that this dream was a message from above. Says to Floyd, “If it’s my time to die, I’d rather die on the sidelines coaching you than anywhere else in the world.” And Floyd, the top defensive tackle in the country, goes to his high school coach and says, “Ohio State’s great and all, but Coach Meyer said he’d die for me.”
This tale is as close to a documented falsehood as you’ll find in the murky and unconfirmable world of college football recruiting. Still, the very fact it came across as plausible enough to get blown up into a message-board telephone game is a mind-blowing testament to Meyer’s salesmanship abilities. This tale is what recruiting expert Mike Farrell refers to (and please forgive the pun in advance, for it is not my own) as an “Urban legend,” one of those plumped-up sagas of arm-twisting persuasiveness that have swirled around Meyer over the past decade, as he’s developed a reputation for being one of the two best closers in the recruiting world.
These two closers will converge on New Year’s Day when Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes play Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide in a College Football Playoff semifinal. Alabama is the no. 1 seed and is heavily favored in the Sugar Bowl, and there will obviously be a great deal at stake within the moment, but one could almost make the case that this game means as much for Meyer and Ohio State’s future as for their present. There are many adept recruiters in the college football universe, but the two head coaches who do it the best, the two with an uncanny ability to work the numbers and hire the best pitchmen and make inroads with the decision-makers and hammer the deal home, Glengarry leads–style, are Urban Meyer and Nick Saban.
Since Meyer departed Florida, their head-to-head recruiting battles have been sparing1 and their public declarations replete with mutual admiration, but the implicit rivalry between the programs — a rivalry grounded, until now, in the ever-shifting perceptions attendant to every major-college program — has been burgeoning ever since Meyer arrived in Columbus. For the Buckeyes to again become a perennial national contender, they will have to defeat Alabama eventually and repeatedly, both in real life and within the metaphors that tend to dictate the decisions of teenage football stars.
And at this particular moment, winning the metaphor may actually be more crucial than winning the game.
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I probably don’t need to tell you that recruiting is an inherently absurd pastime, in part because it centers on grown men making elaborate sales pitches to teenagers, and in part because college coaches are not allowed to talk on the record about specific recruits until everything is official. It is a series of covert operations conducted in the shade, subject to crude speculation within the dark alleys of the Internet. Until a commitment is sealed in writing on national signing day, it essentially means nothing. The notion of “flipping” recruits after they’ve verbally committed is something Meyer does so well that he managed to get at least two Big Ten coaches to complain about it before he’d coached a single game at Ohio State.2
“He’s got a lot of charisma, and he’s extremely good at knowing who the decision-maker is — mom, dad, coach, the kid himself — and relating to that person,” says Farrell, the national recruiting director for Rivals.com. “He never approaches a kid the same way. He’ll bring out his religious side, or he’ll bring out his street side.”
There are two ways to view this assessment of Meyer’s recruiting prowess. The first, perpetuated by his enemies and critics, is that the man is a charlatan, a huckster, someone who’s willing to say anything to anyone to close the deal and whose players too often wind up transforming into problem children on his watch. The second is that Meyer just happens to be a first-rate salesman whose skills were honed by coaching in the SEC, where the tactics are more rough-hewn, in part because the schools are closer together than they are in the Midwest, and in part because the bulk of the first-rate talent is located in the same handful of Southern states where college football tends to mean more than it does anywhere else.
Ohio is still the most talent-rich high school football state in the Midwest by a wide margin; but due in part to demographic and population shifts, Ohio is not as fertile as it used to be. And Meyer (who was born in Toledo and played at Cincinnati) recognized this, recognized that he could not just win the state and expect to compete on a national scale, that he could not merely, on the recommendation of coaches, take in second-tier recruits who grew up dreaming of playing for the Buckeyes and hope they’d develop into first-rate talents.
That approach was a key cog in Jim Tressel’s philosophy at Ohio State — it was how Troy Smith, a four-star quarterback out of Cleveland’s Glenville High School, wound up winning the Heisman Trophy — and while Tressel also had pipelines into Texas and Florida, the bulk of his Buckeye rosters came from Ohio and other Midwestern states. This strategy won Tressel a national championship (against Miami), but it also got him exposed in two other national championship games (against a pair of SEC teams, Florida and LSU), so much so that those late-2000s Ohio State losses became a metaphor for the impending fall of the entire Big Ten.
“You can’t win a national championship with Midwestern talent,” Farrell says. “Midwestern talent isn’t worse (than it used to be), but Southern talent is so deep, you need those players on your football team.”
And so the first thing Meyer did when he got to Ohio State, after a year away from coaching, was begin the arduous and cutthroat process of peeling some of the best prospects in the country straight out of the hands of the South. And the only viable way to accomplish such a thing was to go directly at Saban himself.
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The most highly touted prospect Mark Mariakis ever coached in his three decades was a Ridgeland High School safety from the Class of 2013 named Vonn Bell. After Bell’s junior season at Ridgeland, which is situated in the northern reaches of Georgia, just south of the Tennessee border, Mariakis put together a tape of Bell’s highlights and mailed it to every staff in the ACC and the SEC. Then he went on vacation. The tape was picked up by Rivals and other recruiting websites, and in a short period Bell went from being a solid prospect to a five-star recruit; before Mariakis had even returned home, he fielded a call from Georgia’s Mark Richt, who offered Bell a scholarship on the spot.
Eventually, Bell narrowed his choices to three programs: Tennessee (the school he’d grown up rooting for), Alabama, and Ohio State. Most of the fieldwork in recruiting, of course, is done by the assistant coaches. In Bell’s case, he was wooed primarily by Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and then–Ohio State defensive coordinator Everett Withers. But it is the head coach who typically swoops in to seal the deal.
At one point, Mariakis recalls, he sat in Ridgeland’s field house with Saban, waiting for Bell to show up for an appointment. Mariakis had another player recruited by Saban a few years earlier, and he’d noted Saban’s stern demeanor back then. Now he sat with Saban as the coach diagrammed defenses for him on a piece of paper.
“You’re more relaxed now,” Mariakis recalls saying.
“A couple of national championships,” Saban said, “tends to relax you.”
Ask around about what makes Saban perhaps the greatest living-room pitchman in the history of college football and people mention his directness, his willingness to be honest, his quasi-corporate approach. When Bell arrived, Saban asked to speak to him alone, and they sat in Mariakis’s office for a long time. “He really tells them, ‘This is who you are, this is where we can get you,’” says Drew Champlin, who covers Crimson Tide recruiting for AL.com. “He reaches those kids who have pretty good support systems and helps them realize what their end goal is.”
This is Saban’s strength: his program, his process, his record, his system. He forwards the idea of Alabama in the same way that, I imagine, a Wall Street recruiter might sell a Harvard Business graduate on Goldman Sachs. Alabama is now so dynastic, one recruiting expert tells me, that it has evolved into “picking mode”: The Tide may be luring seven elite players for four positions, just because they can. Theirs is an embarrassment of riches.
For Meyer, the process tends to be more personal; the time spent becomes a key element of the Ohio State pitch. Meyer sells himself as a player’s coach, whereas Mariakis recalls Saban telling the other Ridgeland player he recruited, “Everything’s great now, but as soon as you get to campus, you’re mine.” Every time Withers, the former Ohio State assistant, had an opportunity to meet with Bell — “I mean, every time,” Mariakis says — he showed up at the school. When Ridgeland played for the state championship at the Georgia Dome, Meyer sat in the stands among the parents and fans. When the game was over, Meyer and Withers stayed around in the locker room until everyone had cleared out, until the four of them — Meyer, Withers, Mariakis, and Bell — were the last ones left.
“I remember one thing Coach Meyer said that night,” Mariakis says. “He says, ‘Vonn, Alabama is a great program like we are. You can’t go wrong with either one. The difference is, Alabama wants you. And Ohio State needs you.’”
It was, perhaps, a slight lean into hyperbole, as strong sales pitches often are. But it was not untrue. And on signing day, at a nationally televised news conference, Bell chose Ohio State over Alabama and Tennessee.3
Meyer referred to Bell’s recruitment as a “street fight.” He noted that he was particularly proud of it because of the explicit rigors of recruiting in the South, as opposed to pulling a kid from Ohio who’d grown up rooting for the Buckeyes.4 These are the battles that Meyer seems to relish; these are the battles that Meyer understands he has to win for the Buckeyes to combat the perception that trailed Tressel’s teams after those two national championship defeats.
“The difference I’ve truly noticed is the amount of speed Ohio State’s been able to rack up on both sides of the ball,” says Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247Sports. “These guys can flat-out run. The whole Urban Meyer enterprise, he just demands his staff recruit at a high level.”
This has not gone unnoticed by the Alabama staff. While nobody I spoke to could think of a single high-level recruit from the state of Alabama that Ohio State had gone after (in part because Auburn and Alabama so completely dominate the state, and in part because Alabama is not as talent-rich as some other Southern states), the Crimson Tide have dipped into Ohio several times. In 2013, they offered several recruits who had already committed to the Buckeyes, including three blue-chip players out of Glenville, which has typically been a pipeline to Ohio State under coach Ted Ginn Sr.5
All of those players wound up at Ohio State anyway, but as of October 2013, the Crimson Tide had contacted at least 11 of the 18 Class of 2014 players who’d committed to Ohio State, according to Ari Wasserman, who has written extensively about Ohio State’s meticulous recruiting efforts for Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer. Obviously, this was not spurred merely by gamesmanship; there was no reason for Alabama to entice anyone it didn’t think was capable of playing for the Crimson Tide — “Those guys fit the mold of big-time players, they were three All-Americans,” Ginn tells me — but still, it’s not difficult to imagine that Alabama was also sending at least an implicit message. In April, Saban (who attended Kent State and later coached there and at Ohio State, Toledo, and with the Cleveland Browns) spoke in Ohio for the first time in such a long time that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d done so.
“It’s tough to know exactly the motivations these guys have for everything,” Wasserman says, “because they’re not allowed to talk about it. Maybe Meyer recruiting the South, this was Saban’s reaction to that.”
It is a little bit politics and a little bit spycraft. All of it is built on perception and the power of metaphor. If Alabama is Goldman Sachs, Ohio State is still in the position of proving that it is not U.S. Steel, a once-dominant company that has sunk into irrelevance. And this is why New Year’s Day matters for the Buckeyes: Even if they don’t win — even if they’re not yet ready to beat Alabama with a third-string quarterback and a roster that’s still a work in progress — they at least have to prove that they belong on the same field. They at least have to prove that it is not a misbegotten proposition for a Southern player to choose a Big Ten program. They at least have to establish that these first few classes of Meyer recruits are being developed into an SEC-caliber roster, which should then beget more top recruits.6
“If I’m Alabama,” Farrell says, “I’m going to step on their throats as hard as I can. After Notre Dame lost [the 2013 BCS National Championship Game to Alabama, 42-14], every school in the SEC that went head-to-head with Notre Dame on a recruit said they can’t hang with the SEC. Schools will do that if Ohio State gets plowed. The lure of playing in the SEC is so big to everybody, it’s just a constant threat.”
Whatever the result Thursday, this is the truth: Few people have altered the recruiting landscape like Meyer has at Ohio State. He is a primary reason why Penn State hired a slick recruiter like James Franklin, who managed to sell Southern recruits on attending Vanderbilt, the weakest sister the SEC has; he is a primary reason why Michigan went hard after Jim Harbaugh, whose NFL experience is one of the selling points that might be able to lure some of the top Ohio recruits away from the Buckeyes. Because of Meyer, the Big Ten is veering deeper into the cutthroat recruiting territory that has defined the SEC for years, and although one might question the overarching morality of such a trend, one cannot question the on-field results.
The only way for the Big Ten to alter its perception is to revive its beleaguered brand by challenging the most prominent brand in the country, and the only way to do that is to turn to the kind of man who can make people believe anything he wants them to believe.
Michael Weinreb (@MichaelWeinreb) is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.
Filed Under: College Football Playoff, 2014 College Football Playoff, College Football, Sugar Bowl, Alabama Crimson Tide, Ohio State Buckeyes, SEC, Big Ten, Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Florida Gators, Recruiting, National Signing Day, Jim Harbaugh, Michigan Wolverines, Football, NCAA, NCAAF, Michael Weinreb