In Search Of Meyer: The Conflict Of '06

Ohio State fans don't remember the 2006 national championship game between Florida and the Buckeyes kindly, and with good reason as Urban Meyer's Gators squad romped to victory to spoil OSU's perfect season. Looking back, that game was a difficult experience for many involved, including those in Meyer's hometown and his Ohio-born family.

This is part four 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; for Part 3 on the city's reaction to his hiring, click here.

When Ohio State traveled to the 2007 BCS National Championship Game to take on Florida, it seemed all of the Buckeye State was sure OSU would bring home the second national title of the Jim Tressel era.

There was reason for the confidence. Ohio State had been dominant during the regular season, starting the season ranked No. 1 and doing nothing to dissuade that notion, going 12-0 and defeating arch-rival Michigan in an epic clash to end the regular season.

Meanwhile, the opposing Florida Gators had been a good team all year but not one in the national title discussion for much of the campaign after losing in October at Auburn. When the Gators beat Arkansas in the SEC title game to win their sixth straight and jump Michigan into the title game, most Ohio State fans figured there would be another coronation in the desert.

Except for those in Ashtabula, Ohio, many of whom had a feeling the Buckeyes were walking into a buzzsaw – all because of the hometown son, Florida head coach Urban Meyer.

"In the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘There's something about this (Florida) team. I think he's going to get the most out of them,' " said Dave Rozzo, a former high school teammate of Meyer. "Sure enough, he went after them and they had that eye of the tiger, and that's because of Urban."

Of course, all Ohio State fans remember the outcome, a 41-14 romp for Florida still known as the "Debacle in the Desert."

The battle lines were drawn in the northeast Ohio city, with those who knew Meyer growing up largely putting on the orange and blue of Florida, while the rest of the residents supporting the hometown team.

"It was a tough situation," said Joe Pete, the sports director at Ashtabula radio station WFUN and a high school teammate of Meyer. "It would have been nice if (Ohio State) could win it again, but you had mixed emotions because the one guy you really didn't want to play happened to get there.

"People were kind of torn … but I think more people were rooting for the Buckeyes. I think that's the facts, but at the end of the day, you still have to be happy that he won that game and really, he took it easy on Ohio State. He could have ran the score up. He showed a lot of class by not doing that."

That continued on all the way to those closest to Meyer. A lover of OSU growing up and a Woody Hayes disciple who began his coaching career as a graduate assistant in Columbus, Meyer was forced to face the team of his youth while trying to get to the top of the mountain for the first time in his career.

At his introductory press conference, Meyer even admitted that night in the Arizona desert was a bit awkward given his upbringing.

"Other than those 60 minutes in Glendale," he said, "I've always followed the Buckeyes."

The conflict was even worse for some family members. His wife, Shelley, grew up in Frankfort, a village of around 1,000 people in Ross County. Frankfort is about an hour south of Columbus, and many of Shelley's family members found the situation in 2006 to be tough.

"I know what Ohio State means to him and to us," she said. "My whole family is Buckeye fans, too. The national championship in 2006 was very rough on all of our family."

Things were the same at the Crows Nest in Ashtabula, where many fans got together to watch the game. Television cameras from all the Cleveland stations were present for what was a mostly pro-OSU crowd, but Meyer's longtime friend, Tom Penna, was on the other side.

"These guys gave me a bunch of crap like, ‘Why are you rooting for Florida?' " Penna said. "I said, "Listen, I grew with the kid. I want him to win the national championship. Ohio State is going to have their chances, I'm sure, but it only comes around so often so I have root for the guy.' I came up here with my Florida stuff on and I got a bunch of grief.

"You've known the kid all your life, what are you going to do, root against him?"

Rozzo – who went to college at Baldwin-Wallace, Tressel's alma mater – was on the other side of the equation.

"They had me on TV and I said I was rooting for Ohio State," he said. "The Crows Nest was the main place. It was a huge disappointment, the way that they lost. They just looked like they were in cement shoes. They got totally outcoached and outplayed that day."

Those who know Urban best say they weren't surprised by the outcome. Rick Pugliese, an OSU fan who has stayed close to Meyer over the years after the two were classmates, traveled to Glendale with some other friends and knew Ohio State was in trouble even when it returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.

"I remember sitting at the game when Ted Ginn ran back the opening kickoff, and it was right past Urban," Pugliese said. "I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, this makes me sick to my stomach.' But they showed the replay on the scoreboard and one of my friends looked at me and said, ‘Look at the look on Urban's face. He's not even worried.'

"You would have thought he'd have been like, oh man. But you look at that play, he's just watching him run by. He knew he was going to win that game. It was one little blip, but he knew he had the better team."

Penna added, "I think he knew he was going to win. He definitely knew he had the better team."

Coming up next: The last in the series, a notebook about Meyer.

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