Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.
That means Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has been flattering Oregon, the Buckeyes’ opponent in Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship, since his return to the sidelines for the 2012 season.
Meyer, who will seek his third national title when No. 4 Ohio State (13-1) meets No. 2 Oregon (13-1) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, identified Oregon as a “cutting edge” program worth studying during his tenure as an ESPN analyst in the 2011 season.
After resigning as the Florida coach because of health reasons in December 2010, Meyer used his longtime friendship with former Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti as a conduit to some eye-opening sessions with former Oregon coach Chip Kelly during Meyer’s short-lived broadcast career.
Lessons learned in Eugene, Ore., have been implemented by Meyer in Columbus, Ohio. Now, the question is whether Meyer picked up enough creative wrinkles in Oregon to take down the Ducks in Arlington.
“It was more than adapting plays. It was the way he ran the program, the alignment of the program,” Meyer said Saturday, reflecting on ideas lifted from his sessions with Kelly. “You go in there, they have a D.J. at practice. They are playing Lion King music. It was bizarre stuff to me. And Chip says, ‘You know, this is the only way to do it.’ I looked at him and said, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Eventually, the message got through to Meyer. He embraced some of Kelly’s habits, which Kelly rarely shares with peers.
Meyer now allows music before and during Ohio State practices. His team is capable of running an up-tempo offense. He has used a two-huddle approach by scout-teamers, with players from different huddles lining up to run a new play every 16 seconds, to steel his defenders against the Ducks’ anticipated pace Monday (7:30 p.m. ESPN).
In terms of X’s and O’s, Meyer cited Oregon’s up-tempo approach as the biggest wrinkle he took from Kelly.
“Tempo was No. 1 on their hit parade. At Florida, it was not No. 1 on our hit parade,” Meyer said. “And I wouldn’t say it’s No. 1 now [at Ohio State]. But it’s an advantage for the offense. If you don’t take it, that’s fine. We’re not full-speed all the time. But there’s certainly times that gives us an advantage.”
There’s also a huge benefit, in Meyer’s estimation, to having all elements within a football program working in harmony on a daily basis. He detected that harmony at Oregon and tried to replicate it in Columbus.
“To create a culture where everyone’s aligned, it’s crucial. I would like to think that people walk in the Ohio State football facility now and feel the same thing,” Meyer said. “It took a little while.”
But will any of that be worth points in Monday’s matchup? Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, Kelly’s former offensive coordinator who took over the program last season, does not plan to lose sleep worrying about it.
“We steal from people. They steal from us,” Helfrich said, reflecting on the copycat nature of football coaches. “That’s the cyclical nature of any sport. Steal from what is successful at that time.”
Helfrich said he recalled Meyer attending some Ducks practices leading into the team’s matchup against Auburn in the BCS championship game at the conclusion of the 2010 season. Oregon center Hroniss Grasu, a senior, said players on that roster “got to know [Meyer] a little bit” during preparations for the title game in Glendale, Ariz., but gave it minimal thought at the time.
Oregon running back coach Gary Campbell, on the other hand, recalled watching Meyer take copious notes at practice. At one point, he said Meyer pulled out his cellphone to videotape part of the workout. At that point, Campbell said he realized Meyer would be back in coaching sooner, rather than later.
Now, Meyer is coaching the team that looms as the final hurdle between Oregon and its first national championship. But Ducks players are confident Meyer could not lift and implement enough of their internal secrets to impact the outcome of Monday’s game.
“What he came to learn from us, from coach Kelly at that time, was what we do leading up to a game,” Grasu said. “Any team can kind of learn from what we do. What matters is how they do it. But I don’t think anybody does what we do better than we do as far as tuning it up in practice and bringing it back down. There’s a system here.”
There’s also an up-tempo offense that embraces a run-first mentality, unlike pass-first spread attacks. Ohio State, like Oregon, leans on its ground game regardless of how fast the Buckeyes snap the ball.
“They have so many bodies that can run the ball and do a great job at it,” Oregon outside linebacker Tony Washington said. “The quarterback can do it. The receivers can do it. They have a whole bunch of running backs that can do it. They have a bunch of weapons and they utilize all of them. That’s something we do, too.”
Beyond that, Washington does not see enough similarities between the teams to fret about Oregon-specific insights Meyer gleaned from Kelly during Meyer’s sabbatical year from coaching. He may be right.
We’ll learn Monday, when Meyer tries to turn three seasons of flattery into one high-profile victory over the Oregon program he has emulated throughout his tenure at Ohio State.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760