In Search Of Meyer: A Worker From The Start

Urban Meyer developed a reputation as one of the hardest-working coaches in America, one that helped hasten his exit from Florida. That trait was honed in his hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio, as those still in the town remember Meyer being as intense and dedicated when it came to high school sports and the classroom as he is today on the field.

This is part two in a series on new Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer and his life, starting with his hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio. For Part 1 on his high school athletic exploits, click here.

When Urban Meyer first stepped down from his post at Florida in 2009 then left the program for good a year later, he pointed to the urge to spend more time with his family, to preserve his health and to escape from the burnout that goes along with being a national championship coach.

In other words, the coach was working too hard.

"I call it the pursuit of perfection," he said at his introductory press conference. "I think at the end of the day we all know there's no such thing. I fell victim to that. And so I'm not going to – I've been to a place I'm not going to go back."

At that point, the answer was to step away from what he was doing and reevaluate things, and the year off allowed Meyer the chance to recharge his batteries and improve himself to the point he felt good taking the Ohio State job.

But the way Meyer was raised, it's simply difficult to pull off the gas pedal. He was known as one of the hardest-working coaches in the game at Florida, a fact that led his daughter Nicki to make him promise to continue to take care of himself before he accepted the Ohio State job.

That all started in Ashtabula. Ever since he was a burgeoning athlete at St. John High School, Meyer has gone hard.

"He really hit the weights pretty hard," said Dave Rozzo, a Meyer classmate and now the athletic director at St. John. "He was intense like that. He made sure the other guys, if you were screwing around, he'd get on you."

The circumstances of his upbringing created a perfect storm to create that work ethic, starting with his father, Bud. Stories of Bud's parenting methods have become a major part of the Meyer legend, as whatever Urban showed an interest in, Bud (who recently passed away) always supported it but made sure he put in the time to become a success.

When watching one of his son's sporting events, Bud would carry a tape recorder and take notes about Urban's play; when the game was over, Urban would return home to hear his father's notes. Good plays were rewarded with small monetary rewards, mistakes met by fines. When he struck out to end a game one time, Meyer had to walk from Cedarquist Park to his home on Lake Road West – a distance of more than six miles.

"That was a big force in his life," said Rick Pugliese, who went to St. John with Meyer and continues to be friends with him. "I don't know if he had a choice. They were a close family."

Pugliese said the same was true in academics, and in his biography, Meyer makes it clear bad report cards weren't tolerated. If work needed to be done, Meyer would skip out on the "high school things" his friends were doing to make sure it got done.

There were other factors that led into Meyer's work ethic. At the school, head coach Paul Kopko put the Heralds team through intense, old-school football practice sessions with plenty of hitting on a Spartan piece of grass on the east side of town.

"St. John football in Ashtabula then was like Notre Dame football," Pugliese said. "It was this little school that was kicking all the asses of the bigger schools around here. Paul Kopko was a big influence on Urban."

Rozzo, another member of the St. John defensive backfield, agreed.

"That's where he learned a lot of it," Rozzo said. "Kopko was very organized. When we watched film, we knew what the other side was going to do. We'd be calling out the plays during practice when scout team would do it and just know it. We had a very good coaching staff led by him."

Then there was the effect the town had. Ashtabula sits in the snow belt in northeast Ohio, and lake-effect snow pounds the city during the winter months; it takes a hearty soul to deal with that to begin with.

In addition, Ashtabula at its strongest was a factory town. Boasting population of nearly 25,000, the city was a major port on Lake Erie from the 1950s through the ‘80s, and the mouth of the Ashtabula River is surrounded by the railways that would take coal and other raw materials across the state and country. A drive down 5th Avenue near the mouth of the river, over just one of two bascule bridges still in operation in Ohio, takes one by many of the docks, shipyards and the coal conveyer.

The town's population exploded from 1880 to 1920 as hard-working immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia flowed in, joining those who first settled when it was part of the Connecticut Western Reserve.

"People ask me, ‘Why was St. John so good back then?' " Pugliese said. "Those were second-generation kids. They went to a Catholic school. Those kids were raised different than kids now are. They were tough kids."

"This is a hard-working, blue-collar town," added Rozzo. "It always has been. My dad worked on the railroads just as many other people did. My mom worked at Tru Temper."

Add it all up and Meyer got to a point where the motivation to work was his and his alone. Prep coaches didn't have to push his buttons; in fact, high school coaches remember being taken aback by his work ethic.

"I remember him really liking Herschel Walker in high school," prep baseball coach Bill Schmidt said. "Herschel did so many sit-ups every day and I remember Urban getting up and doing the same amount of sit-ups as Herschel Walker did."

"He was driven," Kopko said. "Whatever he did, he wanted to compete at the best that he could."

Coming up next: Ashtabula talks about its favorite son.

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