While this was a day designed to get a glimpse of the future – the Ohio State Buckeyes annual spring game always serves as a primer to the fall season to come – Urban Meyer found himself looking far into the past Saturday afternoon.
And the more he did, the more nostalgic he became.
“I’ve still got the Bengals helmet I had when I was a kid,” the Ohio State coach said of that old style orange helmet with the two-bar facemask on the front and his name – M-E-Y-E-R – that he had taped in black, block letters on the side.
He smiled at the thought, then added quietly: “I’ve got a new Bengals helmet now, too….And in my office back in Columbus I’ve got a whole shelf dedicated to the Big Red Machine. That was my team. And this was my town.
“I love Cincinnati.”
After the spring game, Meyer had taken me into the Buckeyes’ closed dressing quarters at Paul Brown Stadium – on NFL game days its visitors’ dressing room – and shared some thoughts on the day.
But it wasn’t to talk about his team which had just played four shortened, situation-manipulated quarters of intra-squad ball and showed enough promise – in the Braxton Miller-led passing game and from a pair of young pass rushers in Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence – to show they’ll contend for the Big Ten title and likely the national crown too in the upcoming season.
Meyer had touched on those points in a brief session with the assembled press right after the game. But now he was reflecting on being back in Cincinnati, which he said “I consider partly my hometown.”
The Bucks had played their Scarlet and Gray game here rather than back in Columbus at Ohio Stadium because their horseshoe-shaped home is going through some major renovations and couldn’t accommodate the contest.
OSU athletics director Gene Smith helped orchestrate the move to Cincinnati, in part, because the school wants to make recruiting and fan base in-roads here. This far corner of southwest Ohio is one of the only places in the state that isn’t well-trod territory of the Buckeye Nation.
Over the years OSU has gotten some talented players from this town – Washington, a Taft High grad, is one now – but just as often top prep players from here end up at Notre Dame, Michigan, Kentucky or with the hometown Cincinnati Bearcats.
Another reason the Buckeyes played in Cincinnati Saturday – the reason that was closest to the coach’s heart – was that Meyer is tied to this city in so many ways.
“This is where I lived the first four or five years of my life,” he said. “This is where I went to college and met my wife and started coaching, too.”
His mother Gisela – who had escaped Nazi Germany as a child– grew up here, too. “Later she worked at the Masionette,” Meyer said with a touch of pride as he recalled the fabled, five-star downtown restaurant that finally closed up in 2005.
When Gisela and husband Bud moved to Ashtabula, east of Cleveland, their son Urban remained a diehard fan of the Cincinnati pro teams. When he would listen to Reds games on the radio with his dad, he would keep score. His bedroom was decorated with Reds memorabilia, too.
“I was one of the few guys in the world who liked the Cincinnati teams and the Cleveland ones, too,” he said Saturday.
Last summer – a few months after he took the OSU job – he was invited to Great American Ball Park to throw out the first pitch before a Reds game with the visiting Cleveland Indians.
“I got to meet boyhood hero, Pete Rose,” he said. “How good is that?”
In 1982, Meyer was drafted by the Atlanta Braves and spent two seasons in their farm system before quitting baseball to join the UC football team as a back-up defensive back.
He wore No. 49 back then, had the faint wisp of a moustache and a handsome, boyish face you still see signs of today. He lettered one season – as a holder for field goals and point-after kicks – and graduated in 1986 with a degree in psychology. While he was here he also met Shelley Mather, who soon would be his wife.
His first coaching job – at age 21 – was guiding the defensive backs at St. Xavier High School.
“I was a just a kid myself,” he said.
A year later, he landed a job on Earle Bruce’s staff at Ohio State and that’s where he got to know Woody Hayes, whose name he brought up again Saturday:
“Coach Hayes actually started this tradition back years ago. When they would visit a place to play, he’d take (the players) around and show them to educate them. We just don’t have time to do that most (games) now. But I think it’s a great concept.”
And it was something he tried Saturday.
Beforehand he took the team to the Reds’ Hall of Fame and Museum. Then just before the game he had Bengals coach Marvin Lewis speak to the players. After the game, the Buckeyes had dinner at the Montgomery Inn Boathouse.
“I want them to have a little taste of Cincinnati,” he said. “So there’ll be Skyline Chili and Graeter’s (ice cream), the whole deal. ”
One of his tour guides Saturday was Buckeyes’ cornerbacks and special teams coach Kerry Coombs, who played on the Division III national championship football team at the University of Dayton in 1980 and then got his graduate degree at Wright State.,
Coombs grew up in Cincinnati, coached 16 years at Colerain High and then five years at UC before joining Meyer’s staff. He’s helping the Bucks make football connections here, but Saturday he wanted the OSU players and coaches to experience his hometown as best they could.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my town today,” Coombs said afterward. “This is something that fills your heart when you’re a Cincinnati guy and you come down 71 and make that turn and there are all the buildings. And then we pull into Great American Ball Park and then we come here and Marvin gives an inspirational talk to the team.
“Then we go out and have such a great crowd (37,643) and everything, it’s just been beautiful. It’s been a real good day.”
In the dressing room, Meyer thought about that summation, then altered it:
“Good day? Noooo, this was better than good. This was a great day.”