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The Problems That Keep Urban Meyer Up at Night

Criticized for the off-field issues his players encountered at past coaching stops, Urban Meyer now spends more time than ever working to prepare the Buckeyes for the pressures and temptations of big-time college football.

COLUMBUS — Robert Landers is easy to pick out as he wanders through the team dining hall inside Ohio State’s Woody Hayes Athletic Center. First you notice the splash of blond atop his afro. Then there’s the rest of his body—among the other Buckeye defensive linemen with towering frames and four- or five-star pedigrees, Landers looks more like a MAC player at just six feet and around 275 pounds. But what stands out most is the boisterous charm that radiates from the fourth-year junior everyone around here calls “BB”.

Landers, as he is quick to tell you, is the defensive line’s conscience and its spark, providing vocal leadership and levity in equal measure. He eats Fruit Roll-Ups during practice, occasionally trying to sneak one into head coach Urban Meyer’s pocket. He started dying his hair last year around mid-season. “Why? I have no clue,” he says. “I just woke up one day and said, ‘I’m about to do something different.’ This is my thing: I like to be serious, but I like to have fun.”

Landers is one of the most popular guys among Ohio State players and coaches. They know about his path to Ohio State, that his childhood favorite team didn’t offer him until a week after his senior season ended, when coaches from rival high schools in Dayton told Buckeyes assistants they needed to look at Landers, who had been committed to West Virginia for months.

They also know how he lost his father. Robert Landers Sr. worked in construction and was “one of the biggest, bubbliest, goofiest people on the planet,” his son says. BB thought his old man was invincible. But on Dec. 19, 2006, his mother got a call and came back home a couple of hours later with a blank look on her face. BB was 10. The police never found the shooter.

“It made me grow up pretty fast and allowed me to appreciate what I have,” he says. “You gotta grow through what you go through. You’ve got two choices in life. You can let what you go through become an excuse and disable you, or you can grow from it, learn from it and let it empower you. I try to let it fuel me. It’s one of those things where sometimes you gotta find the light in the dark.”

Still, what almost none of Landers’s teammates and coaches knew was that after a couple of seasons in Columbus, BB was struggling to cope with a darkness that was chewing him up inside. That changed in March, when Landers and several teammates let down their shields during Real Life Wednesday, a weekly offseason seminar program that personifies what’s changed about Meyer even as he has continued to climb the ranks of college football’s most successful active coaches.

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The roots of Real Life Wednesday go back to 2010, Meyer’s final season as head coach at Florida. His eyes had been opened when his oldest daughter Nicki was being recruited to play volleyball. Meyer would hear schools pitch Nicki on the training table or what jersey number she could wear, and he kept thinking, “This is my little girl getting ready to go away to college. What are they gonna do to help prepare her for life after sports?”

What started with a couple of sessions in Gainesville became a weekly staple in Columbus. The featured speakers were primarily business leaders, but in the past year or two Real Life Wednesdays have gotten a lot more, well, real for the players—and for their head coach. One day this spring, Meyer had brought in motivational speaker Dr. Derek Greenfield for a seminar on mental health.

“It’s a topic that is very taboo not just for football players but for young men and men in general,” Landers says. “The way [Greenfield] approached it was fun and loose, but it was real. It was something everybody could relate to. You saw some guys who were going through some things that you’d have never thought [would be struggling] because on the surface you couldn’t tell.”

Greenfield’s presentation moved Landers to open up to his teammates as he never had before.

“Before there were times I was ashamed of it, but I have suffered from issues with anxiety and depression,” Landers says. “There’s so much on your plate. You’re 18–22 years old. Yeah, you’re living out a dream, but your dream comes with some work and expectations. In all reality, you say you know what you’re getting into, but you really don’t. My way of dealing with it was to keep myself busy and just not think about it. But then when you have that day where everything piles up, you just explode.”

He recalls turning into a robot, dealing with mounting stress by burying it. Of course, that only made it worse.

“It just builds up more and more, and you pretty much make yourself a ticking time bomb,” he says. “It really opened up the eyes of a lot of people that, I’m going through something that I have been ignoring. Wow, I need help. I need this fixed. I need to talk to somebody and stop ignoring it.”

As Meyer’s right-hand man since the Florida days, Ohio State sports performance coach Mickey Marotti knows that players are often guarded when coaches are in the room for a speaker’s presentation. This gathering, though, was very different.

“The shield was down, and it was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Marotti says. “That meeting was powerful stuff, man.”

Marotti is about as close to Landers as he is to any of the Buckeyes. Landers’s girlfriend plays on Ohio State’s softball team with Marotti’s daughter. “We see him all of the time, and I didn’t even know,” Marotti says. “I felt sick not knowing.”

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The truth is, this is the kind of stuff that keeps Urban Meyer up at night these days. Not Nick Saban’s dynasty down in Tuscaloosa or the task of replacing the seven Buckeyes selected in the NFL draft or anything going on with a certain school up north. Years ago, any and all of those things might have popped into Meyer’s mind as he laid his head on the pillow, sat at a red light or tried to unwind on a family getaway. But those closest to Meyer say his focus has shifted.

Marotti says that in the early years of his Ohio State tenure, Meyer would return from vacation armed with ideas to help make his guys better football players. Now, Meyer is consumed with finding ways to help his players better navigate what the head coach sees as a very volatile world around them.

“It’s probably 80–20 now,” Meyer says, explaining where his focus lies between real-world issues and football-related matters. “When I was younger, it was probably 30–70 more football.

“This is a topic of conversation among my colleagues in the profession now. It’s constant now. Fifteen years ago, no. Back then it was, Tell me about the spread offense. Tell me about punt return. Now it’s about the mental and well-being of your players.”

Meyer has honed his staff’s focus onto the management of four key issues: Sexual assault and harassment on campus; drugs; depression/anxiety; and concussions.

The drug problem has been a concern long before he returned to coaching in 2012, but Meyer believes the situation has escalated recently. “It used to be marijuana,” he says. “Now it’s the opioid crisis. A year ago if you said, ‘What’s an opiate?’ I wouldn’t know. I’m educating our staff and our players. It’s awful. When I went out recruiting I found out about this opiate thing that is out of control. They’re attacking campuses.”

Director of player development Ryan Stamper said that a trip home to northeast Ohio and several recruiting stops this winter had a profound impact on Meyer. Everywhere he visited, they were talking about the opioid crisis.

“He’s hammering us with that,” Stamper says. “When you’re at Ohio State—and this is coaches too—you’re developed in every way. Sometimes when I’m in a staff meeting, I feel like I’m still in college. I’m in Urban Meyer 101 class. We’re not just talking football. We’re talking everything else. And I think sometimes with him, it can be overwhelming. This is literally all we’re talking about, but with how he is, when his mind is consumed with something, he can’t get it out of his mind. We constantly hit everything just to try and build these young men on life in general.”

With the exception of Marotti, there’s no one on the Buckeyes staff that Meyer leans on more than Stamper, who was a two-time captain for Meyer at Florida and a steadying force on two national title­–winning squads. Stamper’s pro football career didn’t make it through training camp, and he had been working as a police officer in Titusville, Fla., for about a year when Meyer invited him to join his new staff upon taking the Ohio State job, following through on an intention the coach expressed during Stamper’s playing days.

The job offer was intriguing because Stamper saw the holes in his own education. Stamper felt like he’d been a model student-athlete at UF: good grades, no off-field issues, standout performances on the field and praise from coaches who told him he’d be the president of IBM one day. But after being released by the Detroit Lions and undergoing back surgery, Stamper returned home to live with his mom, low on money and lower on self-esteem. He recalls failing to land a job selling copiers because he wasn’t as polished as the other candidate. “I didn’t know how to interview,” Stamper says. “I didn’t know how to dress for an interview. I didn’t have a résumé. I didn’t have nothing. I’d gotten a degree, but a degree isn’t enough. As football players, you spend a whole lot of your time playing football. All of those things in between that a lot of those non-student-athletes get, you don’t because you’re spending all of your time with football. I just thought about that. How many Ryan Stampers are there out there?"

Meyer told Stamper to think about the things he needed back when he played. The initial plan was to give players a better education on skills such as financial literacy, networking and keeping a budget. But then it became clear they needed to tackle something else: how to navigate the ever-escalating social pressures the players were facing.

“Every day, they always think of you, if you’re an Ohio State football player, that you’re the shining light of the family,” Meyer says. “A lot of times that puts even more anguish on the player. So I’m a little more cautious of how I say that because a lot of people look at these kids as their meal ticket. Then all of a sudden, it’s, ‘Why aren’t you starting? Why aren’t you playing better?’ And the cumulative effect on a young person is, wow. I’ve seen it. The dynamics of this have changed. It wasn’t always like this, and I only see it getting worse.”

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Walk into Meyer’s windowless office, whether it’s 24 hours before kickoff in the fall or in the middle of spring football, and the television will always be tuned to cable news. The endless parade of pundits can be mind-numbing and maddening, regardless of what your politics are. But Meyer didn’t need any of that chatter to shape his perspective on current events; his players make those issues personal to him.

Meyer is driven by the fear that something will happen to one of his guys, yet he is also emboldened by the spirit of his players.

“He’s got the talking heads, and they probably say some things that are in the realm of his belief system, but then there are guys he knows and trusts and loves and they tell him things that are outside of what he’s heard or experienced and he perks up a little bit,” says Colts linebacker Joshua Perry, a member of Meyer’s first Ohio State recruiting class and the leading tackler on the 2014 national title team who visited this year’s team to speak about racism and social injustice. Perry has noticed an evolution in Meyer, whether because it’s easier for coaches to observe players’ off-field lives more closely on social media or because football culture has evolved to leave room for players to be individuals and not just members of a team.

“The real world doesn’t stop just because somebody is a college or professional athlete,” Perry says. “Coach Meyer is well aware of that now. In the bigger picture of the game of football, he understands that these issues affect players and that affects how they perform on the field. In the bigger picture of life, he also understands that this isn’t a four-year transaction that you’re making with a player. It’s a four-year transformation.”

Mental health reemerged this winter as a key issue in college football following the death of Washington State starting quarterback Tyler Hilinski from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Hilinski seemed to be on the cusp of living the life he had long devoted himself to attaining, but instead he left family and friends searching for answers in vain.

The Buckeyes had been hit by a similar tragedy during the 2014 season, six weeks before they won the national title, when walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge took his own life. The Hilinski story cut through the Buckeyes’ staff room. The takeaway: “How many guys on our team are going through something like that?”

Stamper asked himself, Who can I bring in that would resonate with players who are likely to have their guards up?

Greenfield earned rave reviews when he had spoken to the team the previous year about hip-hop culture, but this second session, designed to encourage players to make themselves vulnerable, made an even bigger impact.

“With an issue like this, instead of just knowing about the issue, you need to know about it on top of having your brothers see you and express like, ‘Hey, I have depression. I have anxiety.’ Stand up and see that, and let everybody see what you’re going though,” Stamper says. “Then you had teammates going over to guys and hugging them. It was emotional. I even stood up and said some things that were going on with me that were personal. The players would see that these coaches’ lives are not perfect either. It was just a really good presentation. Now we just have to continue to follow up.”

Stamper says every year the team has two or three players who work with the Buckeyes’ sports psychologist, but he estimates that number tripled after Greenfield’s talk. Out of seven Ohio State players asked about Real Life Wednesday, five identified Greenfield as the most impactful speaker they’ve had.

“He brought down that wall,” said defensive end Jonathon Cooper. “He made it O.K. for us to talk to each other about more than football.”

Going forward, the tricky part for the coaches is knowing when to be compassionate and when to be demanding—a balance that is tougher than ever to strike these days.

“You gotta understand what they’re going through first and then understand what they need,” Marotti says. “It’s not pity. Sometimes they just want to talk to somebody and they just want to let it out. A lot of times here it’s fourth-and-inches every day. You come in the weight room and [running back] Mike Weber said in an article that every thing we do here is competitive. Even putting our shoes on is competitive. Every time they walk through those gates it’s, ‘Ahhh! Gotta get the first down! Gotta get the first down!’

“But that is the real world. You don’t want to not understand where they’re coming from, but part of the problem is they don’t understand the real world. I think it’s my job [to let the players know] ‘O.K., I know it’s hard, but we’re not apologizing for that. We’re not going to make it easy and soft because you’re dealing with something.’ The one thing you realize is that everybody is dealing with something. Everybody.”

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To address the carryover effect from events that become national news, no subjects are off-limits around the football program.

“Communities are just blowing up with civil unrest,” Meyer says. “Chicago is one of my favorite cities. You keep hearing about people getting wiped out. Then you’re seeing the politics of this country right now. I called Stamp and said, ‘Are we spending too much time on fiscal responsibility and how to get a job?’”

In a session dealing with police relations, Perry and a professor from the university’s African-American Studies department spoke about Colin Kaepernick’s protest. “We asked those guys, what do you think we should do?” Stamper says. “Do you want to lock arms? Should we kneel? What do you think?”

Meyer told the players, “You have the right to do what you want to do. I’m not passing judgment.” Quarterback J.T. Barrett, who comes from a military family, gave his opinion. Defensive lineman Jalyn Holmes spoke about his personal experiences with police officers.

Then Holmes turned to Meyer and said, “Coach, we don’t do symbolic things here. If we want to make a difference, let’s make a difference.”

Around Thanksgiving, the Buckeyes invited the Driven Foundation, a Columbus nonprofit mentorship program for underprivileged kids founded by two former Ohio State players, to the indoor football complex. They also invited police officers and firefighters from around the city to encourage an open dialogue and hopefully build bonds.

“We wanted to show the Columbus area and really whoever was paying attention, this is how you do it,” Meyer says. “Everyone get together, open up, have a conversation, treat each other with great respect. If there is an issue, address it. It wasn’t my idea. It was their idea.”

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Meyer’s record at Ohio State is 73–8. He’s winning a higher percentage of games than he did at Florida, where he led the Gators to two national titles in six seasons. But off the field, the reputation of his players is much different than it was in Gainesville, where the Gators often made headlines for the wrong reasons. Meyer was dogged by the criticism that he had either brought in too many players with character concerns or forgave too much when someone crossed the line.

When Meyer now talks about his responsibility as a coach to educate players, he has stories from his past to back up his philosophy. One of the names that comes up is Avery Atkins, the highest-ranked recruit in Meyer’s first signing class at Florida: “Could’ve been a first-rounder. Pushes a girl. I kick him off the team. The streets take him over in Daytona.” Atkins was found dead from a drug overdose in his car in the summer before Meyer’s third season at Florida, and Meyer beat himself up for years, wondering if he could’ve helped Atkins had he remained around the program longer.

“I lived with that for three or four years thinking, ‘Wait a minute, we lost this kid on our watch,’” he says. “That’s when we started giving kids second, third and fourth chances. I would not get rid of a kid, and it bit us a little bit.

“I went 20 years in my career and never really had stuff like that. I was convinced at the time that if he’d have stayed in our program, we would’ve gotten him right, and how do you ever let that happen on your watch? Tim Tebow and I used to talk about that all the time, and he looked at me and said, ‘We did everything we could. You can’t hold that on your heart.’ But it was an accumulation of those events and thinking, ‘This is serious business now. This is not flunking a class or missing a class. This is real life.’”

Asked why Meyer’s Ohio State teams have had a fraction of the off-field incidents that his Florida teams did, Stamper points to a combination of the types of players being recruited and the way they’re being coached. Yes, Ohio State is, for the most part, going after players from more structured backgrounds, but the staff is also going farther to connect with them.

“We’re still bringing in Florida kids, Texas kids, but we’re bringing in Johnnie Dixons, J.T. Barretts, Shaun Wades—some really good kids,” Stamper says. “I would say it’s a huge difference. Coach Meyer took his experiences at Florida and came here and learned from it. Real Life Wednesday gained a certain trust from our players here. Now they don’t just look at us like this is some football factory or look at us like, We’re just winning games for them. They’re developing us and trying to get us jobs. It’s a combination of all of it. We’re more engaged.

“The thing about Ohio State is I think a lot of these other schools have these issues because they don’t talk about it. We talk about this stuff. We spend 50% on football and 50% on this stuff."

BB Landers is a prime example of those efforts. Landers had been telling people he would play for Ohio State since he was six years old, before he lost his father and everything changed. “And now to live out that dream is surreal,” he says. “I can see the smile on his face, and he’s probably talkin’ some stuff to his people up there. I probably can’t say [what he’s saying] on record. But the amount of bragging he’s probably doing and the explicit way he’s probably doing it, is funny as heck.”

This summer Landers will battle for a starting spot on another stacked Ohio State defensive line, with two seasons of eligibility left. If the NFL calls, great. If not, he plans on going into law enforcement. (Stamper is working to get him an internship with the DEA.) Landers feels like outside of football, that field is his calling.

“The relationships with law enforcement aren’t the best, and I feel like I could be that one person that could make a difference,” Landers says. “I’ve been around all types of people, and I’m a people person. There are certain situations that you have to deal with in law enforcement that a lot of people don’t have the proper background or training to deal with a certain group or ethnicity and take the proper approach with them.”

His time within Meyer’s program will have provided him quite a foundation.