Bob Hunter commentary: In Year 2, Urban Meyer all business

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Last season was unique in the annals of Ohio State football.

The Buckeyes had a new coach and a mostly new staff. Because of NCAA sanctions, they couldn’t play in the Big Ten championship game. They couldn’t go to a bowl game. They couldn’t play in the national championship game.

They had zero expectations. A loss would be merely a loss, as if suffered by another team in another time zone, instead of a state tragedy. The Buckeyes were imprisoned within the confines of their regular-season schedule, which might have served as protective custody. They finished 12-0 and only wished they could have gotten their hands on Alabama. From the safety of a locked cell, that looks like a 52-0 Ohio State rout.

The times, they are a-changing. Right from the get-go, this season is a whole new deal. That seemed clear yesterday during Ohio State coach Urban Meyer’s first pregame news conference of the 2013 season. Expectations are back with a capital E, and his frank criticisms of the squad are down. Maybe these players don’t deserve any — hey, the team is ranked No. 2 in the country — but it seems more likely that the difference stems from a dramatic change in circumstances.

Last season, Meyer was in motivation mode from the day he arrived from ESPN, ready to revive an OSU program reeling from NCAA sanctions and a coaching career that had been in mothballs. He came out swinging in the spring and kept it up for most of the season. He called out players who didn’t work hard enough. He called out players who weren’t good enough. He made it clear that he expected more from many of the guys he found when he arrived, and he did so in public. They had to be held accountable.

Yesterday, Meyer wasn’t quite as candid or as effusive. His news conference was 25 percent shorter than the one before the opener a year ago. He didn’t single out any players as lacking in the effort or talent department. There was none of last year’s first-game-as-OSU-coach giddiness. He was all business.

This is intended not as criticism, but merely as observation. Maybe the players understand what is expected of them now, and are meeting those standards. With this team’s high standing, maybe none of its players are ripe for public criticism.

One of my reporter pals remarked afterward that Meyer didn’t seem to be as engaged with the news media as he used to be. But nobody outside the media cares about that unless it’s a manifestation of problems on the team, and even I would be forced to admit that a coach who is deadly serious about winning football games (Meyer) is more important than a coach who fortified his losses with clever quips (Lee Corso).

When another one of my reporter friends jokingly observed that Meyer “doesn’t need us as much anymore,” I finally had my laugh. Really? He needed us at all?

Any changes, real or perceived, could be traced to the radical shift in circumstances. The 2012 Buckeyes put together a remarkable season but didn’t have much, if anything, to lose. Meyer didn’t, either. He wasn’t responsible for the makeup of the players on the roster or their work habits. If the team had failed, he wouldn’t have been the one to blame. When it won, it was a tribute to him and his assistants. It was always going to be a win-win.

Last year, everybody wanted to know if Meyer had changed after a year out of coaching. It made me wonder if he had changed this season after another year in coaching. It could be that he’s not as critical of his troops now because he thought he was too tough on them last year.

“(I’m) pretty much the same guy,” he said. “We’ve done all right. I don’t know. I don’t know. I just can’t wait to play football. All due respect, (I will) answer questions about football.”

Say goodbye to 2012. This is a whole new year.

Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.

bhunter@dispatch.com

@dailyhunter

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