In Search Of Meyer: Ashtabula's Favorite Son

Since Urban Meyer has taken over at Ohio State, the people that know him in Ashtabula have been excited to see the coach return to his home-state in such a high-profile position. We traveled to the lake down three hours northeast of Columbus to see what the reaction has been.

This is part three 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; for Part 2 on the birth of his work ethic, click here.

The Crows Nest sits where State Routes 531 and 11 intersect just east of the Ashtabula River. In fact, those traveling up Route 11 can just breeze on through the stop light and pull into the parking lot of the restaurant owned by Ron and Nick Detore.

Once inside, it doesn't take long to find things in the bar area signed by Ashtabula's most famous son. There's the big Browns poster on the back wall with the familiar black scribble highlighted by the oversized "U". There's the Florida Gators helmet sticker behind the bar.

Then, above the exit of the kitchen – watch out for waitresses bringing out hot Italian food if you're looking for it – hangs a picture of the Detores along with the city's most famous resident during his last trip to Ashtabula.

"It's great to come home," he wrote before signing his name, "Urban Meyer. 41-14."

That last part got Ron Detore to roll his eyes a little bit on a recent evening, but the bar owner got a little bit of revenge – he was able to keep Meyer from putting his John Hancock on the large Ohio State helmet decal on the back wall of the bar.

"I wouldn't let him sign it before," Detore said.

That might change now that Meyer has become the head coach at Ohio State, a school beloved in Ashtabula even though it sits in the very northeast corner of the Buckeye State, a three-hour-flat drive away from the Horseshoe. Detore said he even will try to put a photo of Meyer up alongside that of Woody Hayes in the bar.

That's just one tangible sign of the excitement in Ashtabula, a city of just over 19,000 that sits along the Snow Belt on Lake Erie. Though Meyer is far from the first native of the old port city to hit it big – fellow coaches Jim Bollman and Dean Hood of Eastern Kentucky hail from the city along with 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner Connie Schultz – his hiring at Ohio State has the town abuzz of late.

"People around here have just been absolutely excited as could be," said Joe Pete, who was a freshman at St. John High School when Meyer was a senior. "Everybody's proud of him and what he's accomplished, and they're very excited to see what he's going to accomplish."

Pete would know, as he still lives in Ashtabula and is the sports director at WFUN-AM (970 on your radio dial). Switchboards have been lighting up since May – when former coach Jim Tressel was pushed out the door for his part in the tattoos-and-memorabilia scandal that rocked OSU football this past year – when Ashtabula residents put two-and-two together and realized the opening coupled with Meyer's sabbatical from coaching could result in his ending up in Columbus.

"We always used to say – not to him – ‘Wouldn't it be great if he came back and coached at Ohio State? That would be awesome. He'd be closer to us. He'd be at our state university,' " said high school friend Tom Penna, who used to fly to Florida to visit with Meyer each year along with some other friends.

"(Recently) guys would see me and be like, ‘Is he taking the job?' I said, ‘I really don't know anything for sure, but like you guys, I hope he takes it.' Then when you heard all the stories, the plane tracker coming up from Gainesville to Ohio State, it was crazy."

Since the hiring, Ashtabula has been visited by TV cameras and writers, all part of the city's current 15 minutes of fame.

The hope is that will result in some sort of benefit to the city, which is struggling in some ways. Ashtabula has lost nearly a fifth of its population in the last 30-some years, as the factories that used to thrive in connection with the city's port have shriveled up with the economy.

"When you got out of high school, you got a job at the railroad or one of the many plants that we had," former high school classmate and teammate Dave Rozzo said. "Good, high-paying jobs with good benefits. Those are all gone now – a lot of them anyway."

So it's nice for Ashtabula residents to see someone like Meyer hit it big – and in such a high-profile position locally. In many ways, it shows that one of their own can make it to the top – especially out of St. John, which used to boast around 500 students and is down to closer to 100.

Another of Meyer's high school friends, Rick Pugliese, said he and Penna have talked about getting the city to post signs celebrating that Meyer is from the town in a matter of "civic pride," as Pugliese puts it.

"Is it gonna bring jobs or anything to the city? No," he said. "But is it something to be proud of? Absolutely."

Meyer maintains a connection with the town – at least as much as his schedule allows. He last returned in 2008 for a reunion of the school's 1983 state championship team as well as for a roast of that team's coach, Bill Schmidt. While there, he made his thoughts on his hometown clear.

"When he spoke at that banquet that night he was back, somebody mentioned Ashtabula in a negative way, and he said, ‘I never want to hear you speak negative about Ashtabula,'" Penna said. "He knows where he came from. At the (introductory) press conference, he mentioned Ashtabula."

Penna hopes to get Meyer back for his 30th high school anniversary next year, but Meyer has still done his best to keep the town near and dear. When St. John assistant football coach John Buskirk came down with leukemia, Meyer invited Buskirk and his family to visit Florida in 2008 for spring practice and communicated with Buskirk in the days and hours before the national title game win that season vs. Oklahoma.

After the game, photos showed Meyer lifting the national championship trophy while wearing the yellow "Buzzstrong" bracelets made in support of Buskirk, who passed away just days later.

Stories like that are just some of the reason Meyer is still so liked in his hometown, and not just because he's won a lot of football games. "Urban is Urban," Schmidt said, meaning not much has changed despite the trappings of fame.

"We all take a lot of pride in knowing he's been so successful," high school football coach Paul Kopko said. "It's very, very satisfying to know that you helped him along in some way. Every coach and teacher, when they see somebody who has done well, it's something you can take a little bit of pride in and say, ‘Maybe, somewhere along the line, I helped that person.' "

Coming up next: 2006 brings back strong memories.

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