Thursday, November 12, 2015

'Above the Line': How Ohio State's militarized football program works

October 15, 2015
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Before the national semifinal game against Alabama, Ohio State special teams players signaled to each other in the hallways at the team hotel with brass "clickers." They were similar to those that D-Day paratroopers used to identify friend or foe behind German lines in the dark.
Before the national championship game against Oregon, coach Urban Meyer told the players in a meeting at the team hotel to visualize that they were with elite soldiers on a mission. Hear the helicopter blades churning? See it? See the hideout in the blowing sand? We're going in!
Before the Buckeyes boarded the bus to the national title game in suburban Dallas, they watched a video about SEAL Team 6, which ended with one of the members asking the shooter of Osama bin Laden, "Do you even realize what you just did?"
After the game was won, offensive coordinator Tom Herman turned to Meyer on the sideline and said, "Coach, do you even realize what you just did?"
"Above the Line," a forthcoming motivational book by Meyer (October 27, Penguin Press, $27.95) shares many such details about the paramilitary operation that is Ohio State football.
Camouflage, black uniforms, black stripes
This is a familiar comparison for the violent sport. Former coach Jim Tressel wore a camouflage cap similar to those of desert troops at the Scarlet and Gray Game in 2011.
Woody Hayes had the personal phone number of former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Creighton Abrams on his Rolodex and called him from time to time, perhaps to share his views on the Vietnam War.
Ohio State players will wear black uniforms, like commandos on a raid, for Saturday night's game against Penn State at The Horseshoe.
When incoming players perform well enough in Meyer's estimation, the black stripe on their helmets, which indicates they are, in effect, apprentices, is removed in a team ceremony.
As I wrote in an earlier column, cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs handed out an ammunition box that had been used in the wars in the Middle East to safety Von Bell, for being the outstanding member of Coombs' unit during preseason practices.
The Ohio State defense has called itself the "Silver Bullets" for at least two decades now.
The 9/11 effect fades
Remember after the 9/11 terrorist attacks how "bomb" as a term for a long pass was going to go the way of the flying wedge as a football anachronism?  Remember how sports-as-war was going to be considered a trivialization of the horrors of actual combat?
Apparently, the fields of friendly strife just can't help borrowing from those of actual conflict.
All this militarization is meant to honor the troops and is used respectfully. It persists because it works with impressionable young men.
"Above the Line" is also about building leadership skills and unity in business or sports organizations, but those parts aren't as fascinating the glimpse inside the football war machine.
5 a.m. bear crawls and the Red Line
When Meyer took over and began to reshape the team in 2012, angered by several examples of bad attitude, he ordered drills outside in freezing January weather at 5 a.m. that included "bear crawls" on all fours up and down the slushy, icy practice field, four times, covering 400 yards, for each of five days.
"Above the Line" refers to a red line on the practice field. Those without sufficient enthusiasm are sent peremptorily to the locker room and thus kept "below the line" until they form the proper habits.
Haden, Knight and Marotti 
Browns cornerback Joe Haden told me the biggest thing he learned from Meyer at Florida was "how to compete every day."
It's not just on the field, however. Much like former Indiana basketball Bobby Knight, Meyer creates an entire world of competition and conflict, fostering male bonding, aided, in Meyer's case,  by timely applications of positive reinforcement.
Meyer's right-hand man, strength coach Mickey Marotti, prepares Ohio State players for the "confusion, chaos and conflict" they will face on the field by, for example, adding weight and repetitions in the weight room just when the players think they are finished.
Surprisingly, the pastoral game of baseball serves as a training vehicle in the book. "Backdoor slider" is an inside-football term at Ohio State.
It refers to the Los Angeles Dodgers' scouting report on Oakland A's closer Dennis Eckersley. It emphasized that the great closer always threw a backdoor slider on a 3-and-2 count, no matter if the batter was left-handed or right-handed. The information led to wounded pinch-hitter Kirk Gibson's famous walk-off home run in the 1988 World Series.
When Von Bell jumped an Alabama tight end's corner route and intercepted a critical pass in the national semifinal in the Sugar Bowl, it showed the Buckeyes had reconnoitered well. "It was Von Bell's version of the backdoor slider," writes Meyer.
"Backdoor slider" at Ohio State meant a great scouting report. Or, given the military ethos, good intel.

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