Urban Meyer, Tom Herman and Ed Warinner – the respective head coach, offensive coordinator and co-offensive coordinator for the Buckeyes this season – all call Ohio their birthplace, but the offense they will deploy this fall comes from a diverse array of college football outposts.
And yet, it can still trace its roots to Ohio when all is said and done.
"If you look at our plays, it's the same plays that I was brought up on – split-T and off-tackle power," Meyer said the day he was hired. "That's a staple here at Ohio State. Sometimes motion and fake a jet sweep, but we're still running hard, aggressive downhill football at you. We've added elements to it, but if you really cut it down and watch film and study, it's still I-formation football. Just from a unique set of formations. It's just trying to be creative and outnumber people. That's all it is."
Meyer was just getting started developing his football knowledge when he left Ohio State after Bruce was fired in 1987.
From there he went to Illinois State and then Colorado State, where he learned about the one-back offense from Sonny Lubick. Then it was back to the Midwest for a job at Notre Dame, where Lou Holtz and Bob Davie were proponents of pro-style offense. Meyer's time in South Bend would prove to be formative, though, not just for him but for his future offense.
"The complexities and talent on defense just made it harder and harder to move the ball at Notre Dame, so we started doing some research I want to say in 1999," Meyer explained to reporters in Chicago last month. "Dan Mullen was my GA at Notre Dame, and this guy John L. Smith was the coach at Louisville and there was a guy named Scott Linehan who was the offensive coordinator. I saw him play a couple of times on film and I said, ‘ I want to go study them.' So I asked our head coach, Bob Davie, ‘Do you mind? I'd like to take Dan and go down to Louisville.' He said sure, go ahead.
"So on a Monday we went down and we ended up staying four days. We had to go buy a toothbrush because I was so enamored with the style of play. They spread the field, were extremely aggressive."
Inspired, Meyer and Mullen began hatching their own plan of attack for the future when they would move up the coaching ladder.
"I started getting some phone calls about becoming a head coach, and I started thinking what would I do offensively if I became a head coach? A couple of years later, I did," Meyer said. "That's when we installed the spread offense."
Along with Linehan, Meyer cited influence from Northwestern, where Randy Walker was ripping up Big Ten defenses with offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, and West Virginia, where Rich Rodriguez had the Mountaineer spread-option offense humming in the Big East.
The brainstorming went into high gear once Meyer became head coach at Bowling Green, where he and Mullen – along with fellow assistants including Gregg Brandon, Greg Strudwara and others – built something that was original enough to stand on its own, separate from the spreads elsewhere.
"That was one of the greatest experiences I've had because there was no model," Meyer said. "It was just like go build something and by the way there's no book to go build it. We really enjoyed it. I had some great coaches."
Not long after Meyer had put his spread in play at Bowling Green, he began to become an influencer himself.
Among those watching was Herman, a 26-year-old wide receivers coach at Sam Houston State in 2001, the year Meyer became a head coach for the first time.
Herman, too, began his coaching career at a traditional power with a traditional attack then went on to more far-flung locales and picked up new tricks to put into his bag.
"I kind of learned football at the University of Texas from Greg Davis when I was a graduate assistant there," said Herman, who spent the 1999 and 2000 seasons in Austin. "We were in the I-formation when I was there so a lot of what we believe in kind of stems from that principle. I got to Sam Houston State and got exposed to three- and four-wide receivers and the shotgun and the shotgun run game. That evolved into what we did at Texas State."
At the same time, he was looking around college football to see what was trending.
"To be quite honest with you, having studied Coach Meyer's offenses at Utah and Florida, we blended that together and the no-huddle stuff we got when we got to Rice and kind of fell in love with that, too, so it's been a process combining stuff that we've learned and growing with it along the way." Herman said.
Warinner – a Strasburg, Ohio, native who proudly pointed out when he was introduced to local media in January that he grew up in the same county in which Woody Hayes was a high school coach – also far and wide to gather his football acumen, starting at Akron before going to Mississippi State, Army and Air Force. He coached in spread offenses at Kansas, Illinois and Notre Dame after that.
Like Herman and Meyer, he became convinced over the years that offenses can be more effective by taking advantage of numbers when possible, but he never lost his preference for power.
"Conventional football was you want to run power and you've got eight or nine offensive guys near the football, so they're going to have nine or 10 defensive guys around the football and it just becomes a lot of bodies," Warinner said. "Spreading them out kind of identifies how many guys you have around the box, how many people you have around the football. It makes it a little bit easier to identify who you're blocking and so forth and where different defensive stunts and adjustments are coming. So spread is very varied and it doesn't mean you're going to be a finesse or throwing team. It just means that you're spacing the field horizontally."
And so this fall it is up to that trio – along with fellow offensive assistants and Ohio natives Tim Hinton, Stan Drayton and Zach Smith – to implement those philosophies for now and the future.
How well they manage to meld their ideas from their rich and varied backgrounds will determine how happy they are able to make a large portion of the population in their home state.