During the summer, Meyer welcomed me into the football facility for a pair of Friday mornings to see the work in action. He truly believed at the time it would change the face of his team, as the lessons were more about life than football -- how to respond to negative events, how to become closer as a unit and how to work with a purpose every day.
At the time it seemed like intriguing work, but who knew how much of an effect it would truly have once the Buckeyes hit the field.
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Of course, now we know. The Buckeyes have repeatedly bounced back from adversity ranging from injuries and loss during the 2014 season to sit on the precipice of the College Football Playoff National Championship, and it appears the summertime work on culture and leadership has been a big part of that.
"It's all about how you respond to each event, getting the outcome you want," said quarterback Cardale Jones, who has been able to apply those lessons quite a bit. "It's deeper than just E+R=O. It helps when you have a tough time or something tough happens. You've got to understand that you've got to have a positive response and have a positive outcome."
As a result, I'm reprinting the original story from the May issue of Buckeye Sports Bulletin below to help explain exactly how the Buckeyes got from there to here.
This story was originally written in late April
This time of year, it’s not hard to find stories penned by beat writers from across college football about how a team had to identify or develop leaders or instill a tough, hard-working culture during spring football.
The construct usually goes as such – after a veteran or starter graduates, that means a younger player, usually one inheriting a starting role, must step up and become a leader, the kind of guy that is dependable on the field yet vocal off of it. That usually plays into how a team, often coming off a disappointing end to the season, must improve off the field in order to reach that elusive success on it.
One year ago, I authored one of those stories.
In the May 2013 issue of BSB, I wrote more than 2,500 words on how the Buckeyes were trying to develop leaders for the upcoming season. And as far as that style of story goes, it was pretty detailed, addressing how Braxton Miller was becoming a more vocal member of the Ohio State football team, how players at other position groups such as Ryan Shazier and Jack Mewhort were progressing and how head coach Urban Meyer had a systematic approach to building leaders.
But what does it really mean to build leadership and a winning culture in a football program? Such stories are often light on details, and as it turns out, so are many coaches.
“You can’t just declare a culture,” Columbus-area consultant 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. Because you don’t get the culture you declare, you get the culture you lead.”
In the football world, players are asked to become better leaders, to become the ones who mentor and bring along the fellow members of their position groups, without being given the guidance or tools to succeed. Coaches often create buzzwords around a program or bring in speakers to discuss what leadership and culture mean to them with the hope that their players will pick up those skills essentially by osmosis.
Meyer now believes he was in the same boat.
“He didn’t have a systematic approach to teaching it before this,” Brian’s father, Tim, 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.”
Meyer has realized this and turned much of his program this spring over to the Kights, who operate Focus3, a Dublin-based company that helps companies improve organizational cultures. The Kights first started working with the football program a year ago with an emphasis on helping the Buckeyes build up what Meyer believed to be substandard leadership among the returning veterans on the team.
What the Buckeyes are doing now is allowing the Kights to install a full philosophy – or a “belief system,” as Tim Kight calls it – that establishes the culture of the program. Coming off two straight losses to end the season a year ago, Meyer believes there were cracks in the Ohio State system that if not addressed would have continued to eat away at the team’s ability to compete at the highest level.
This story isn’t the end-all, be-all piece on the subject. Many things that the Kights teach to not just Ohio State players and coaches but to their varied clients simply didn’t fit, and the work they’ll be doing with the Buckeyes will surely develop as time goes on.
But hopefully it provides more of an in-depth look at what is happening as the Buckeyes try to cement what Meyer first started implementing the day he officially took over at Ohio State in January 2012.
In the words of the head coach, there’s nothing more important – not finding four new offensive linemen, not identifying a backup quarterback or fixing the pass defense – as he goes into campaign No. 3 at OSU.
“I can honestly say I’ve never worked on anything as hard in my life since that day we walked off the field in South Florida to make sure that we have the exact culture that I want, that we all want at Ohio State,” Meyer said at this year’s Coach Meyer Spring Kick-Off Luncheon.
Identifying A Blueprint
Also speaking at that luncheon, Meyer gave a hint at how he’s getting the results he wants.
“We took the approach, we don’t blame, complain or defend,” Meyer said. “If there’s something great about our program, you’re going to hear the term enhance it and make it stronger. That’s what we’re trying to do. When there is something not exactly right, we don’t blame players, we don’t blame coaches.”
Those words – blame, complain and defend – would sound familiar to anyone who has worked with Focus3.
“We invented that,” Kight said. “It’s our description based on our observations of leaders around the world, and we observed this: Leaders, when they’re not getting what they want, which demonstrates they’re not very effective leaders, they blame, complain and defend. That’s what lesser leaders do, which only makes the problem worse.”
“I think there’s a BCD epidemic around the world and so does Brian. So when I introduced that, it sure motivated (Meyer) and he picked up the language.”
To be fair, the chance for blame to spread was there. After 24 straight victories to open his tenure, a school record for consecutive wins, Meyer hit the first speedbumps – to use his word – of his OSU career with a Big Ten championship game loss to Michigan State that ended the team’s national title hopes followed by an Orange Bowl loss vs. Clemson.
There were plenty in the fan base and even the media clamoring for sweeping changes. Many were ready to point to a pass defense that gave out at the end of last season, while others pointed to a missed block against the Spartans or a fumbled punt against Clemson as where to place blame for the end-of-season collapse.
Meyer was quick to realize that would be counterproductive.
“Instead of just blaming players, blaming coaches like most people do, I evaluated it and we have good people,” Meyer said. “We have good coaches. So what happened? What I found out is I don’t think there was a clarity of purpose, and that’s on me.
“I’ve had people ask me that question, say, ‘You’re changing the culture? You just won 24 straight.’ No, we’re not changing our culture, we’re making it better. There’s a couple of meeting rooms and unit groups that have to be changed and that’s what we’re doing.”
Meyer first let the Kights into the program a season ago after meeting Tim at a social event in 2013. A former track standout – he excelled at the 330-yard high hurdles in high school growing up in Worthington, just outside of Columbus – Tim Kight ran track at OSU and UCLA, where his team had a locker room in the same building as the basketball program run by legendary coach John Wooden.
Upon graduation, Kight quickly became a high school coach while working on his graduate degree, which turned out to be a master’s in divinity. After about four years as a pastor, Kight turned his attention to his current work.
After ending up on Meyer’s radar a year ago, the Kights had an impact on the 2013 Buckeyes, working with the team’s 12-member leadership council of players picked by Meyer during the offseason after the head coach became concerned with what he saw in offseason workouts as the Buckeyes tried to replace inspiring figures like Johnny Simon and Zach Boren.
The team also started to embrace one of the leading axioms of Focus3, that how a person or team responds to an event results in the eventual outcome – or, as they call it, “Event+Response=Outcome.” Black wristbands with the phrase “E+R=O” became omnipresent around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“I think last year, we got it to where we could get it and they got to where they could get it within the timeframe that we had,” Tim Kight said. “I don’t think it could have been done any differently or better than it was last year. It was just the natural flow of where it was at. This is all progressive. This is all cumulative because it’s skill building. How long does it take to build a skill in anything? It takes time.”
Many would be quick to label the Kights as leadership consultants or motivational speakers, but putting exactly what they do into words is difficult. Tim Kight describes the two as coaches who have figured out the characteristics of successful organizations – and any successful organization must have excellent leadership.
There are some bedrock principles of their teachings. In addition to the E+R=O philosophy, there’s the “Performance Pathway” that leaders build culture, culture drives behavior and behavior produces results, which Kight calls the physics by which any successful organization operates.
From there, the program has been tailored to what Ohio State and its specific message. If you’ve been reading BSB throughout the spring, or even heard Meyer or his players talk at any point, you’ve probably come across some of the core beliefs of the program. Terms such as “competitive excellence,” “the power of the unit” and getting from point A to point B and playing each play with four to six seconds of relentless effort have been identified.
Those bullet points have often been stressed in Meyer’s program, but now they are the front-and-center mandate after the Kights had Meyer put together a cultural blueprint that encapsulate what the Buckeyes want and expect out of their players, with the goal in mind for the team to prepare to win every day in everything they do.
“The three core beliefs that I’ve heard you articulate are relentless effort, No. 1,” Tim Kight recalled telling Meyer. “Competitive excellence is No. 2. The power of the unit is No. 3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s the Urban Meyer culture. That’s what you believe in the bottom of your heart.
“So then the behavior of relentless effort is go as hard as you can for four to six seconds, A to B, that’s the behavior you want. Then there’s an outcome you get from that, and you can recover from any situation you can possible face.
“For competitive excellence, the behavior you want and you communicated is that you’re constantly taking mental reps or game reps – you’re always preparing either mentally or physically. The outcome you get from that is a la Kenny Guiton, when your number is called, you perform. “The power of the unit, the behavior is an uncommon commitment to each other and the work ethic necessary to achieve our purpose. The outcome we get from that is a brotherhood of trust and the willingness to do what needs to be done.
“Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s the Urban Meyer culture. And he’s like, ‘I’ve never seen my beliefs spelled out that clearly and that concisely.’ I said, ‘That’s it. That’s your culture.’ ”
Any question of whether that culture is starting to take hold was likely answered by the way players and coaches talked to the media this spring. And in turn, that culture has an application when it comes to the way the team will play on the field.
“Here’s what I think, and I think this is at the core of everything we’ve talked about all spring,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said. “I know you guys are getting tired of hearing ‘power of the unit’ and ‘four-to-six seconds,’ but here’s the reality: If that is what is truly important and it becomes important to our players that 11 guys show up to the ball and it doesn’t really matter which number gets there first – and in fact, maybe it matters which number gets there last – then it’s really, really important, and our guys are playing like that.”
Meyer has always spent a fair bit of time on leadership and culture in his career and especially since arriving at Ohio State. The message of four to six seconds of relentless effort has been a maxim since arriving, and he has broken down the players off-field characteristics into levels designed to help motivate players as well. When he sensed a lack of leadership last year, he put together a plan to address the situation.
But this is the first time a comprehensive plan with the tools to improve leadership and culture has been implemented.
“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.”
And in the view of the Kights, it’s an essential task. A year ago, the Buckeyes had talent and great coaching and finished just short of their goal. The difference between 12-2 and holding hardware at the end of the season could just be what happens off the field.
“There’s no technique or in business there’s no strategy that is going to overcome an absence of those things,” Brian Kight said. “You can’t pass block well enough to overcome an absence of leadership in your unit, competitive fire or not going hard. You can’t do it.”
When it comes to getting better performance from each of the team’s nine position groups, Kight told Meyer that he needed to look at his assistant coaches – or as they have now become known, unit leaders.
In Tim Kight’s world, the message must be communicated clearly by each leader on the team, especially in a sport like football where players spend much more time with their position coaches than they do the head coach on a daily basis.
“It has to be communicated by a unit leader,” Kight said. “It can’t just be a speech from Urban Meyer. If they hear four to six, A to B, and they just hear it from you as a pregame speech and they don’t hear it in their rooms, it’s not going to happen.”
The result has been classes – held a few times each week, generally about 90 minutes, even during spring practice – that taught methods for the coaches to better relate to their players and continue establishing the culture that is desired.
Asking a coach who has done his job – and generally done it well – for decades to change could have been received in many ways, not all of them good. That’s not what has happened at Ohio State, though.
“I would say enthusiastic wouldn’t adequately describe their mind-set,” Kight said. “I would say totally committed, extremely impressive group of young men in terms of their willingness to grow and get better. There was no sense of compliance; there was every sense they were compelled to get better. They didn’t participate in this because Urban Meyer asked them to do it, they participated in it because they wanted to.
“Hungry would be a great word for these guys – humble in that willingness to identify strengths and use then and identify gaps and get better. Humble, all of them, to a man.”
When Ohio State’s assistants were asked about the training sessions, a theme emerged – that their desire to improve as people drove their thinking.
“We’re all life-long learners,” Coombs said. “I’m 52 and there’s a whole lot of things I still need to learn in this world. I think the only things in this world that educate you in life are the books you learn and the people you meet. Coach Meyer is providing us with both people and things to read that are impactful."
“We’re still a learning vessel,” tight ends coach Tim Hinton added. “Think about every year with X’s and O’s, what do coaches do? They go out and they learn. They go out and see other coaches, and other coaches seek them. It’s a constant conversation, ‘OK, how can I improve?’ You’re constantly challenging each other in a staff room, ‘Is there a better way to do this?’ That vessel, it won’t fill up.”
Hearing those words would likely be music to Tim Kight’s ears. Coaches spend much of their time asking players to trust their methods and devote themselves to getting better, so to see them live up to that message in their own lives has been fulfilling.
To hear Coombs tell it, the feeling is mutual.
“The experience here is unique in many, many ways, but what Coach is doing with us as staff and as men this offseason is remarkable,” he said. “I don’t know that I can limit what I’m getting out of it to any singular thing, but it is a passion for being a man, leading, doing things right, communicating.
“Relentless effort, four to six, is all football stuff, but it goes so far beyond that. Being able to have that conversation with my kids every day has been a remarkable experience.”