PROLOGUE : LEADING FROM THE HEART
The book you are holding contains my thoughts and reflections on life and leadership. It is a compendium of what I’ve learned in more than a quarter-century of coaching, a real-life leadership manual that offers insights and information into what we did in the 2014 season that culminated in winning the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship.
The defining characteristic of every championship team is leadership. Leadership isn’t a difference maker, it is the difference maker. Talent will get you about seven or eight wins. Discipline pushes it to nine wins, maybe. But when you add leadership, that’s when magic happens.
I’ve come to learn that leadership is not automatically granted to you because of your position or your salary or the size of your office. Leadership is influence based on trust that you have earned. A leader is not someone who declares what he wants and then gets angry when he doesn’t get it. A true leader is someone who is going someplace and taking people with him, a catalyst for elite performance who enables people to achieve things they wouldn’t achieve on their own. A leader is someone who earns trust, sets a clear standard, and then equips and inspires people to meet that standard.
I’ve learned that talent cannot replace leadership. There is a long line of teams full of talented players and coaches who fail to produce results equal to their talent. Leaders take teams beyond talent to a place they likely thought was unreachable. It doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because coaches and players are willing to respond to the everyday challenge of leadership. Nothing can stop the team that harnesses the power of leadership. Nothing can help the team that doesn’t.
Over the years, I have grown as a leader. I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve learned from those mistakes. I’ve had great mentors in men such as Earle Bruce, Lou Holtz, Sonny Lubick, and Bob Davie, and the lessons I’ve learned from them I carry with me to this day. To me, it’s all about getting better. I am a long, long way from perfect, but I will put my passion for self- improvement next to anybody’s. Maybe the only thing that rivals that in my makeup is the distaste I have for losing.
It has been that way since I was a kid in northeast Ohio, where one of my early lessons was that eight miles is a very long way to run. It’s longer still if you are wearing a full baseball uniform and you’ve completely let your team down, losing a ball game because your bat never left your shoulder. I had to run. I had to do something. I’d just stood there with the game on the line, star shortstop turned statue, as useless as a freighter stuck on the shoals of nearby Lake Erie. This was my senior year at St. John High School in my hometown of Ashtabula. It was early May 1982, a beautiful spring day until the end of it. I was about to get drafted by the Atlanta Braves, sign for a who ping $13,000 bonus, and go off to play a couple of forgettable years of professional baseball, but for the moment I was still a St. John Herald, with the tying and winning runs on base in a one-run game against our archrival, Harbor High School.
I love rivalry games. I loved them then and might love them even more now. No regular-season game on the Ohio State football schedule is bigger than when we play “That Team Up North” (it begins with M, but Woody Hayes taught us never to say the name around Columbus). The Harbor pitcher was a kid named John Light. He was good. He threw hard and had a great knuckleball. There were two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. It was all on me, just the way I liked it. I got behind in the count and on a 2–2 pitch I knew that John Light was coming with a knuckleball or curve. He’d never come right at me, not in this spot. Except this time he did, a fastball down the middle, belt high, over the heart of the plate. It might as well have had a little sign on it that said crush me. No kidding. It was that fast. But I never budged. I just froze. The ump rang me up, and the pitch was so perfect I couldn’t even turn around and say, “Are you kidding me?”
The ump would’ve told me to shut up and try swinging next time.
Some people had the idea that my father, Bud Meyer, a tough guy who was old school even by old school standards, ordered me to run home as punishment for coming up small. My father was not beyond doing that; one time when I was in third grade and getting into some mischief in Mrs. Stofko’s class, she asked my dad how he wanted her to handle it.
“Paddle him. Use a ruler. Punish him any way you want,”my father said.
Mrs. Stofko said she couldn’t do that without a parent’s written permission. So my father immediately signed a note, giving her permission. Mrs. Stofko kept the note in the drawer. It was amazing how fast my behavior improved.
Another time, my little sister, Erika, was getting bullied at school. I think she was in first grade, and this kid wouldn’t leave her alone. My father told me I needed to take care of the situation—to protect the family at all costs. The next day, I saw the kid at school, and, as directed by my father, I punched him in the face. I was in third grade. It was the first punch I’d ever thrown. I got sent to the principal’s office, but I was a hero to my father. He took us out to eat at a place called the Swallows, on the corner of West and Prospect, an old brick place with a checkerboard tile floor, right behind the movie theater. “You sit at the head of the table,” my father told me. “You’re a man now. Family is everything.”
The run home had nothing to do with my father, though. It had completely to do with how much I hate to lose and how upset I was that I had let the team down. The concept of team, of committed, hardworking athletes bonding together for a greater purpose, has always been sacred to me. You are going to read a lot in this book about team and about ideas such as small-unit cohesion, 10-80-10, the R Factor, and the Performance Pathway. You’re going to read about how to build a winning culture in your organization and how to get your people to buy in. All of it is driven by a mission to lead people to achieve exceptional things. It takes an enormous amount of work, but the payoff is worth it because there’s no better feeling in sports than seeing a group of young men give selflessly and work tirelessly to make the team the priority. Remarkable things happen when that occurs. Championships happen.
The Ohio State University’s victory in the first College Football Playoff title game happened.
Let me tell you about a young man named Nik Sarac. Unless you are a serious Ohio State Buckeye fan, you’ve probably never heard of him. Nik is a five-foot nine-inch, 183-pound defensive back from Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland, a kid who walked on in 2011 and spent the next four years working as hard as any player I’ve ever coached. Nik wasn’t blessed with great physical ability, but he’s going to be a great doctor someday, and I’d compare his makeup, his commitment to the team, and his drive to get better with anybody’s. He never missed a regular-season practice in four years. Not one. And talk about selflessness: After Nik’s junior year, I decided I was going to give him a scholarship, and I called him and his father to tell them. The example Nik set and the way he went about his work and cared about his teammates made it entirely deserved. It meant a lot to Nik to be a scholarship player; it was the ultimate validation of him as an OSU football player.
And you know what he did? He turned the scholarship down. He said his family could afford to pay for his final season.
“Save it for somebody who really needs it,” Nik said.
I’m not often speechless, but I was then. It was one of the most unselfish things I’ve ever seen a kid—or anybody else— do. Later I found out Nik had a major role in helping one of his teammates through some serious stresses in his school and family life. The kid was lost and overwhelmed and decided to walk away from the team. Maybe more than anybody else, Nik was there for him, working him through the difficulties, letting him know how much he cared. The kid eventually came back, and with a recharged focus and commitment. He is in a much better place now. I can’t prove it, but I bet it wouldn’t have happened without Nik. When we had our celebration in Ohio Stadium the Saturday after the victory over Oregon in January 2015, I called Nik out of the bleachers and introduced him. All of his teammates started chanting his name: “Sarac! Sarac! Sarac!” Nik Sarac will never play a down in the NFL. He will probably never be on ESPN or mentioned when people talk about Buckeye greats. But let me tell you something. Nik Sarac was as important to our team as Ezekiel Elliott, Cardale Jones, Joey Bosa, Jeff Heuerman, Curtis Grant, Joshua Perry, Devin Smith, or anybody else.
Nik was a glue guy, a team guy, a guy who never, ever stopped putting out, and everybody on the team knew it. I love that kid. Everybody on the team loves him. It is impossible not to. All he ever did was work and care. Nik played in seven games in four years. The marching band was on the field more than he was. It didn’t matter. He gave everything he had to the team, including his scholarship. We will have a place for a kid like that for as long as I am a coach.
While there are some timeless truths about leadership, there are also different styles and approaches. What works for Bob Stoops or Bill Belichick might not work for me, and vice versa. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you have to be true to yourself. You can’t be one way on Monday and another way on Tuesday. Earle Bruce, the former Ohio State coach, taught me that early on. As head coach, you are the guy who ultimately calls the shots. You are also the emotional and spiritual leader, the guy who sets the direction for the team and shows the way. You will not be successful as a leader if you are constantly changing directions.
Another thing I’ve learned is that if you think you know it all, you are setting yourself up for a major fall. Jon Gruden has reminded me many times: “Don’t sleep on the game of football; it’ll sneak up and bite you.” I think this applies way beyond the football field, and so does most everything else we’re going to talk about in this book. Leaders are learners. I want to learn as much as I can today and then do it again tomorrow. I probably learned more in the 2014 season than I have in my entire coaching career. And I learned the most from our players and our coaches. I love to ask questions and seek ways to make our team better every day. I believe that this kind of curiosity and drive are two of the greatest qualities a leader can have. Look at people like Phil Knight, Dan Gilbert, and the late Steve Jobs. Look at the leadership team at ESPN. All of these people and their companies keep pushing, innovating, and improving. Is it risky at times? Sure it is. Will you fall on your face sometimes? Yes. Will critics take their shots and revel in your every misstep? Count on it. Tearing down, after all, is much easier than building up. But this commitment to excellence, this passion to get better, truly is the heart of a champion. It is what energizes everything we do at Ohio State. There is a red line at the edge of our practice field. Every day before practice, I stand at that red line and watch the guys take the field. The rule is that once they cross that red line, they are not only running—they are prepared to give all that they’ve got. If I don’t like somebody’s demeanor—it could be body language, a look on a guy’s face, anything—I turn him around and point to the locker room. You better be ready to go; otherwise, don’t come on the practice field.
How much do we value leadership at Ohio State? We have developed an in-depth, systematic approach to leadership training that we implement in our off-season. Tim Kight leads workshops with the entire coaching staff, and he does the same for our players. There are quizzes, skill-building exercises, and deep discussions about how the principles apply in real-life situations. It is highly focused and purposeful, and it has greatly enhanced the way we develop leaders and build the culture of our team. It has had a huge impact on our players’ and coaches’ performance.
Many coaches think that you can build leadership by hanging motivational posters in the weight room, putting quotes in the team room, showing inspirational videos, and bringing in occasional speakers to energize the team. But by themselves, those tactics don’t work.
I’ve always taught leadership to my teams, but now we go about it more methodically. Leadership is a skill, and like all skills it takes time and effort to develop. The timeworn quotes that have been hanging around locker rooms for years are not nearly enough.
Now I understand. Average leaders have quotes. Good leaders have a plan. Exceptional leaders have a system.