Going into his senior season at the University of Michigan, Denard Robinson had been an electrifying quarterback for the Wolverines for two years.
By pretty much all accounts, Robinson was a model student off the field, too, someone who spent his down time attending Michigan basketball games in the student section and was liked by most everyone on campus.
But was he truly a leader on the Michigan football team? In this story written in May 2012 by ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach, Robinson says he was unsure.
"I feel like I haven't grown," Robinson said at the time. "For me to be the quarterback at the University of Michigan, I feel like I have to grow up a lot and be a lot more accountable."
Robinson spoke those words on an offseason trip for Michigan's seniors to California in which the Wolverines spent time honing their leadership skills, including spending time doing physical and mental training with Navy SEALs.
In the college football world, this is one way in which building leadership has been tackled. At other places, it's all about slogans or buzzwords, words painted on the walls of the weight room and practice facilities that are supposed to sink in to players by osmosis.
And in the eyes of some, it just doesn't work that way.
"You can't just declare a culture," Brian Kight said. "Every coach declares a culture. Every coach ever says, ‘We're going to be the toughest team.' So why isn't every team tough? That's what every coach talks about. It's because you don't get the culture you declare, you get the culture you lead."
And that one of the reasons Meyer has turned to the Kights – to help install exactly what the Buckeyes want when it comes to culture and leadership. Leaving it up to slogans or motivational speakers is an approach with no guarantee of working.
"Just think about this for a second," Meyer told BSB. "How much resources are put at the corporate level into leadership training? Millions and millions of dollars. And how much is put into athletics in leadership training? Zero. And this is the ultimate stage for leadership."
A Problem And A Plan
When Meyer arrived at Ohio State, he inherited a team that clearly had its issues. Roiled by the turmoil that included the Tattoogate scandal and the dismissal of head coach Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes limped to the finish line in 2011 with a 6-7 record as well as the program's first loss to Michigan in eight years and its non-BCS finish in seven.
But what Meyer did not know that he was also inheriting a team with leaders ready to bust out at the seams. Celebrated leaders like John Simon and Zach Boren – not to mention fellow senior captains like Etienne Sabino and Garrett Goebel – were ready to grab the bull by the horns and get the Buckeyes back on track.
"I devalued the kids that we had," he said. "I never knew John – I heard about John Simon, but I never knew (Etienne) Sabino. (Garrett) Goebel was a truck driver-type guy, a blue-collar guy. I love him to death. And (Zach) Boren turned out to be one of the best leaders I've ever been around."
But that's where it gets tricky. When guys like Simon and Boren walked out the door, one might assume there would be good leadership ready to blossom. After all, the younger players on the team watched, up close and personal, how those two players became the heart and soul of the team.
That's not how it happened, though. By the time spring practice began last year, Meyer was so disappointed in the way leadership was developing, he started training classes at OSU. Then in May, he met Tim Kight, who augmented what the Buckeyes were already doing.
"If you remember last year, we had an issue about very, very poor leadership – terrible," Meyer said. "We went from one of the best (in 2012) to one of the worst as soon as those guys walked out the door. That was a topic of discussion. We had already started leadership training with our team at the end of February. I didn't meet Tim until about (May) so there was already about a two-month window where we had leadership classes, but I was teaching it with Mick and (David Trichel), our video guy, and then this guy just cleaned it all up for us. That's how it happened, and it did impact our team last year."
Players like Jack Mewhort and Philly Brown developed into dependable leaders the team needed, leading a group of what would eventually be six permanent captains who steered a team that again won its first 12 games.
That's a simple synopsis of the situation, of course, but it does show the impact that can be had when taking more than a scattershot approach to developing leadership.
"(Meyer) didn't have a systematic approach to teaching it before this," Tim Kight said. "He believed in it, he always emphasized it, he always asked for it. He had speakers, quotes, posters, (strength and conditioning coach Mickey) Marotti did really cool stuff, but they've never had a genuine, systematic journey of teaching the fundamentals of leadership and then tying it to culture and mental toughness."
Looking To 2014
A quick look at the Kights' website shows some skills their program believes a leader must have, including showing character, competence and a connection with their subjects while providing clarity, accountability and support.
In working with Meyer, the Kights and others in the program, some of the current seniors have developed their own thoughts on what leadership means. At the top of the list is developing a knowledge of what motivates each person in the program.
"I think it just gives you different ways to connect with people," tight end Jeff Heuerman told BSB. "Everyone is different. You have 120 18- to 22-year-olds – everyone is not going to respond to the same type of leadership. Some guys you have to talk to, try to connect with them. Other guys, you have to get on their ass. (This training) just gives you different ways to connect with people. I think Tim Kight has done a great job of that. You just have to figure out your team and figure out which guys respond to what."
Joel Hale agrees in that regard and also sees leadership as a calling at Ohio State. As someone who has moved from the defensive line to the offense for his senior season, Hale is someone Meyer has pointed to as one of the players who has most embraced the leadership program.
"I feel that I was born with leadership skills," Hale said. "This has only enhanced and helped me break down what I actually do to help me focus on certain parts of leadership. … This has helped me really break down and not only focus on me but focus on why I'm leading and the people that I'm leading and how they respond to certain things.
"I live for this stuff. I feel like I've helped a lot of guys on this team, but that's my job."
Either way, the seniors know they will be counted on to embrace exactly what their role will be to help the Buckeyes to a successful 2014 campaign.
"The way I look at it is I remember when I first came here, I sat at the back (of the team meeting room) and I really looked up to the guys in the front whether I want to admit it or not," Heuerman said. "I really did in every aspect – social life, High Street, Park Street. Whenever I saw those guys out, I just looked up to them. I kept that in the back of my head as I moved up – the guys in the back are going to be looking at you. You have to carry it over everywhere. In the weight room, in your meeting room, when you go out on the weekends, the younger guys are looking at you and you have to set an example.
"And it's not always just during a workout or during a run or whatever, it's in every aspect. Coach Meyer and I have been working on phase two of this, the brotherhood of trust, which will be pretty good, and we'll present that to the team. I just always kept that in the back of my head as I moved up, and now I'm in the front row."
Much of the summer will be dedicated to making sure those players have the tools they need to succeed. That is because Meyer has identified what he views as an inefficiency in the market when it comes to developing leaders.
"He has the dedication," Tim Kight said. "He has always had that. He does not need us for that, but they sought a systematic approach. That's exactly what we've brought.
"Here's what's interesting, and Meyer and I have talked about this – I don't think there's hardly anything that we've ever said that he didn't already believe. But we are very effective in the mechanics of how to teach it and install it."
Next up: How honesty is a pillar of the Ohio State program