Approaching three years since it last happened, Urban Meyer still recalls what it feels like to lose a game. But with so much time having passed, the pain is more memory than present moment. It is like remembering the sting of the doctor’s needle vs. experiencing it live.
“Do I still have it?” Meyer said of the feeling that accompanies a loss. “Yeah, I just want to avoid it at all costs. That ‘L’ word is not a good word for anyone.”
These are heady times for the Buckeyes and their coach. Ohio State has won 20 consecutive games, going 12-0 last year and 8-0 this season. Meyer’s run of perfection stands at 21, dating to the end of the 2010 season, when his Florida Gators defeated Penn State 37-24 in the Outback Bowl.
The Buckeyes last lost on Jan. 2, 2012, when Florida, coached by Will Muschamp, won 24-17 in the Gator Bowl.
Meyer’s last ‘L’ occurred on Nov. 27, 2010, when Florida State stuck it to the Gators 31-7 in the regular-season finale. Meyer left coaching soon after, spending the 2011 season in the ESPN broadcast booth.
So, where Ohio State and Meyer are concerned, the only thing either has lost is the hurt of losing. This is not a problem as much as a potential motivational predicament.
Coaches love to remind players never to forget the sour taste of losing. That way, the next time a game is on the line, the players will recall the nasty flavor of defeat and work harder not to swallow a loss.
But what to do when losing only happens in theory? Certainly, Ohio State’s upperclassmen still remember the 2011 season that ended with a 6-7 record.
“It’s not a good feeling, and something I don’t ever want to do again,” senior kicker Drew Basil said.
But none of Ohio State’s true sophomores has ever lost in college. Besides redirecting them to high-school defeats, how to deliver a cautionary message?
Coach: Remember when you couldn’t sleep after the game because you wondered what you might have done differently to help avoid the loss?
Player: Uh, I’ve never lost.
Meyer mentioned how the coaching staff does a good job of making sure players never get comfortable. It’s one reason why every drill includes some kind of competition, where one side wins and the other loses. Meyer, who earned his undergraduate degree in psychology, knows how to manufacture angst.
“We’re pretty good agitators around here,” he said.
Still, it can be difficult to convince 18- and 19-year-olds that losing is the worst feeling in the world, especially when they have not experienced it in a while. So a different form of motivation is required to get the message across. In a twist on the “losing really hurts” mantra, the best coaches dig a little deeper into their players’ psyches. Instead of focusing on the sting of losing, they rely on the greater fear of failure.
Some of the legends of sports, from Michael Jordan to Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky, have admitted that fear of failure motivated them more than success inspired them.
The challenge for any coach, then, is to channel that fear into producing positive results instead of having it make the athlete curl up in a corner.
Ohio State tight ends coach Tim Hinton explained how it gets accomplished:
“Coach Meyer is always talking about ‘the grind.’ That’s who we are,” Hinton said. “And one of the sayings on my tip sheet every week is, ‘The pain of regret is much greater than the pain of the grind.’ ”
Essentially, Hinton jabs at the core of a competitor’s heart by targeting the reality that the agony of “what might have been” trumps even the empty feeling that follows a loss.
It is one thing to hate losing, but even more powerful to fear what could be lost. Such as a national title.
Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.