COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The debut seasons are nice and in one recent case featured perfection.
The sample size is too small for third seasons with a program or any campaigns that follow it since only one school qualifies in that category.
But there is enough evidence in Year 2 to at least identify a trend on the résumé of Urban Meyer. Three times already it’s proved to be the sweet spot for the Ohio State coach, the period where his impact on a team truly shows up and the results start catching the eye.
Meyer has set the bar ridiculously high during his second year with every program he’s taken over, piling up a combined record of 34-4, going undefeated once and raising a crystal football in another season.
Now the anticipation for what Meyer can do as an encore has soared to new heights after seemingly moving up the time frame with the Buckeyes, guiding them to an undefeated season last fall while just beginning to set the groundwork for their future.
What’s the secret? What seeds are planted when he arrives that makes the ground so fertile the following year? Will the blueprint work yet again?
Set the tone, establish leadership
Not everybody could survive, and Morgan Scalley remembers teammates leaving Utah instead of enduring the grueling offseason conditioning program that has since become legendary.
The Utes defensive back and captain wasn’t opposed to work, and he had no trouble seeing how the intense conditioning and in-your-face motivation might pay off for a team looking to bounce back from a 5-6 season when Meyer arrived in 2003.
But one thing he and a handful of upperclassmen couldn’t stand was hearing all about the success Meyer had at Bowling Green, and they made sure he was aware of it.
“We were a different group, probably a more mature group than he had been used to," said Scalley, now a safeties coach at Utah. "We wanted to win as much as he did, and he was always listening to his leaders.”
The words were delivered loud and clear, and Meyer dropped the references to Bowling Green, stopped showing clips of his old team and kept the focus solely on the Utes from then on. In return, it was clear his message would be absorbed and passed on by a hungry bunch of veterans.
It worked in a hurry, with Utah doubling its win total, claiming a conference title and finishing the season ranked No. 21 after the Liberty Bowl. The Utes had evidence they could survive Meyer’s demands, not to mention a much better idea of how they translated on the field.
Now they wanted more, and Meyer had them hooked.
“Once you start winning, and winning the way we were winning, there’s a tremendous amount of confidence that comes with doing that,” Scalley said. “You just had a collective group of players who believed in what we were doing, and the results were really confirming it.
“We knew what we had coming back, a good, solid group. Then there was a huge amount of leadership coming back that Urban gave a lot of responsibility to and let us kind of run with the team, take ownership in it. It just went from there.”
That momentum never slowed either, at least not until history was made with an undefeated record and a BCS-busting Fiesta Bowl win.
Find the answer at quarterback
Before it became commonly accepted that a multipurpose weapon like Braxton Miller would be perfect for his system, before unleashing Tim Tebow on the college football world, even before molding Alex Smith into a Heisman Trophy finalist, Meyer had to find the right quarterback for his attack the first time.
He didn’t settle on one right away, and the Falcons had three quarterbacks appear in at least 10 games that first season. Meyer has proved willing and able to handle situational quarterback play at other times in his career, and the Falcons improved to 8-3 without picking one guy to lead the way.
But by the end of the season, Josh Harris had started showing the kind of dynamic play in the spread that has become a Meyer trademark, and he started the final three games with an eye to the future.
Just like that, Meyer had his prototype.
“I certainly was not a finished product when I got to Bowling Green,” Harris said. “But going into that second year, I think we were pretty well clicking. There was no question about who was the signal-caller, and there was no question in terms about what we did really well on offense.”
For the most part, that was ride the athleticism of Harris.
As a passer, he threw for 2,425 yards and tossed 19 touchdowns. As a rusher, he carried 186 times for 737 yards and scored 20 times. And as a leader, Harris proved his toughness with an unforgettable outing in a comeback win over Western Michigan that helped spark the 9-3 campaign -- with Meyer’s play calling in overtime providing an early example of the unique bond forged between coach and quarterback.
“I said, ‘Coach, my knee is really bothering me. I think we should throw it,’” Harris said. “Then I go in and we ran five plays: Four of them were quarterback runs, and I scored the game-winning touchdown.
“I’m sure there were times when he believed in me more than I believed in myself. Almost like a son would a father, you want to hear that ‘I’m proud of you,’ and you’ll work for that. It’s not just the quarterbacks; it’s everybody.”
Not everybody takes the snaps, though. And even if it takes two guys on occasion, as it did with Chris Leak and Tebow at Florida, establishing the right situation at quarterback has always yielded results in Year 2.
Find something to get angry about
The recipe for the brew essentially remains the same, but the fermentation time may vary before the product is really ready to drink.
The Gators had already survived two offseason conditioning programs. They had found a balance that worked at quarterback. They had a conference title to their credit and had won 12 games.
But even after all those accomplishments, Stan Drayton was still unsure on the day of the national title game if the coaching staff and players had truly added the final ingredient for a championship team. Like Meyer, the Florida assistant wanted an angry edge that produced inspired effort.
“When they opened up that newspaper and saw what people were saying about those Florida Gators, I knew at the end of the breakfast,” said Drayton, now Ohio State’s running backs coach. “The way they walked around, the energy level, the way they carried themselves, I knew we were going to win that ballgame.
“To sit there and say there’s a particular time frame for the formula, I’d be lying to you. Every team is different, every year.”
That’s true across the handful of Year 2s in Meyer’s career, from the players to the motivations to the accolades. But in all three situations, the programs effectively did exactly what they set out to do.
Bowling Green wanted to be a factor in the MAC again, and by the time Meyer’s two-year run was over, it had won 17 games.
Utah was seeking perfection. Two years removed from missing a bowl completely, it was breaking down the barrier into the BCS and finishing the season ranked No. 4.
Florida had the grandest goal of all, and even after losing once during the regular season, it silenced the skeptics and dismantled the Buckeyes to claim its national crown.
Now the same program that lost to the fired-up Gators at the end of the 2006 season has its turn, and that same system is fueling the Buckeyes as Meyer gears up for Year 2, Vol. 4.
“When Urban Meyer starts his program, there’s a little bit of a shock and awe to the whole approach of the way we’re going to do business,” Drayton said. “It is vastly different than what these kids had been accustomed to in these programs.
“But, you know, the beauty of it is that you can’t time it up. Sometimes it’s a season, sometimes it’s an event, sometimes it’s an experience. But there is something that sparks and turns it on. When that happens, if it happens, there’s no crystal ball -- including the national championship crystal ball -- that can give you the answers to it.”
Indeed, the future is impossible to predict. But peering into the past, it’s not a stretch to expect that Meyer might have something special in store for his Ohio State encore.