Meet Urban Meyer's Secret Weapon

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterAugust 25, 2015

Gerald Herbert/AP Images

COLUMBUS, Ohio — With a combined 38-3 record in the three seasons since he arrived at Ohio State, Urban Meyer has the Buckeyes sitting atop the college football world. And as his team enters the 2015 season as the first-ever unanimous preseason No. 1 team in the Associated Press Top 25, that's not something that figures to be changing for Ohio State anytime soon.

But while Meyer serves as the face of the Buckeyes program—and to a degree, college football—the three-time national champion head coach credits a large portion of his success to a confidant, friend and right-hand man whom he's known for nearly 30 years. 

And while Mickey Marotti is rarely seen or heard from publicly, the stories about him have already become the stuff of legend in Columbus. That's why he was the first call Meyer made when he took the Ohio State job nearly four years ago, as Marotti has become the secret weapon for college football's budding dynasty.

'That's When It Happened'

When Jalyn Holmes committed to Ohio State in the summer of 2013, he was the embodiment of what Meyer looks for in a recruit.

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A 4-star prospect by way of Norfolk, Virginia, Holmes was a top-100 recruit and the fourth-ranked weak-side defensive end in the 2014 class. At 6'5" and 225 pounds, Holmes possessed the ideal frame for adding weight and was lauded for his size, speed and athleticism as a prep player.

One trait, however, missing from Holmes' recruiting profile was his punctuality—or more accurately, his lack thereof—which he would soon learn wouldn't fly at his new school upon arriving in Columbus.

"I came late, and right off the plane I went straight to workouts," Holmes told Bleacher Report of his first day as a college student. "And that's when it happened."

Jalyn Holmes
Jalyn HolmesJay LaPrete/Associated Press

What Holmes was referring to was an event that has become somewhat of a rite of passage for Ohio State players in the Meyer era. Because like most players who have entered the Buckeyes program in the past four years, Holmes' first workout under the direction of Marotti was certainly a memorable one—and for all the wrong reasons.

"We had to do lunges with weight I could not lift. I looked at him like, 'No, I can't lift it,' and he made me do it, and I'm like falling on the ground," Holmes said. "And he's like, 'You p----!'"

"I had never been called a p---- before. For a minute, I thought I was a p----."

'He Does It All'

Talk to any player on the Buckeyes roster, and they'll undoubtedly have a favorite Marotti story, from the still-shell-shocked freshmen to the seniors who can now manage to crack a smile while recounting them.

But perhaps nobody has more Marotti stories—anywhere—than Meyer.

With a relationship nearly 30 years in the making, Meyer has treated Marotti as his confidant, strength coach, psychiatrist and right-hand man—sometimes all at the same time. He has also made it clear that Marotti has earned every bit of his official title as Ohio State's assistant athletic director for football sports performance, describing his role in the Buckeyes program as more than just that of a traditional strength and conditioning coach.

"He's not a strength coach, he does it all," Meyer said of Marotti. "Anybody who has their hands on our players, not necessarily reports to him, but they have a meeting. The trainers, the doctors, the nutritionists, the equipment guys, everybody reports to Coach Mick...he's not just a strength coach, he's a motivator. And he's tremendous."

Meyer and Marotti first met in 1987, although the two were hardly best friends at the time. Each trying to launch his respective career at Ohio State, Meyer was the Buckeyes' wide receivers coach under Earle Bruce, while Marotti was serving as a graduate assistant strength coach.

"We were not close," Meyer said.

Any sort of relationship that was formed, however, would seem to have been short-lived, as Bruce's firing at the end of the 1987 season left Meyer looking for a new job before ultimately landing at Illinois State before rejoining Bruce at Colorado State in 1990.

Marotti, too, would soon find a new gig, taking over as the head strength and conditioning coach at the University of Cincinnati, following a brief stint as a strength assistant at West Virginia.

Soon, word of Marotti's intense workouts spread across the country.

Meyer, a former Bearcats defensive back, took note.

"I first started hearing about him when he was at Cincinnati. I'm an alum," Meyer said. "I would go down there, and I would just watch him."

Meyer, who took over as Notre Dame's wide receivers coach in 1996, was so impressed that he soon found himself vouching for his former co-worker. When the Fighting Irish were in need of a new director of strength and conditioning in 1998, Meyer went to his boss with a suggestion, imploring him to interview Marotti, who had just finished his ninth year at Cincinnati.

"One of our strength positions opened up, and I went to our head coach, Bob Davie, and I said, 'I know the guy we need to hire,'" Meyer recalled. "He came up to interview, and he blew it away and became our strength coach and made an immediate impact.

"And that's where it started."

Kicking and Screaming

When you get a Marotti story from a player, it usually follows the same formula: There's some profanity, a moment of weakness, more profanity, sometimes some humor and then an uplifting moment.

That was the case with Holmes, who, despite his first encounter with Marotti, soon saw the value in his new strength coach.

"Coach Mick really cares about everyone in this program, he just wants to see you do good," Holmes said. "If he feels like you're not giving it your all, he's going to let you know. He's the most honest person I know. I thank him for everything."

Those were the same sentiments shared by Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones, who, when asked to share his favorite Coach Marotti story, responded, "Do you want a good one or a bad one?"

When prompted for the latter, Jones recalled a tale from the first season of his college career, which happened to coincide with Meyer and Marotti's arrival at Ohio State.

"I hurt my knee in a drill going against Braxton [Miller]. I don't know why they had me going against Braxton, no clue. I still won't understand it to this day," Jones said, referring to the difference in speed between himself and the Buckeyes' quarterback-turned-wideout.

"[Marotti's] screaming at me, 'Get up!' ... All he knew was I didn't play last year. So he was just screaming at me to get up, and I'm thinking I just broke my leg and I was so freaking hurt I was about to cry, and he's just screaming at me, 'Get up! You're soft! You're soft!' And I'm like, 'I can't move!'"

For Jones, who spent his share of time in Meyer's doghouse early in his career, perhaps it took a little longer to come around on Marotti. But when the 6'5", 250-pounder found himself thrust into the starting lineup as the Buckeyes were on the verge of capturing a College Football Playoff spot at the end of the 2014 season, it was Marotti who served as one of his biggest cheerleaders.

"He's just so intense, and it's crazy how much potential he sees in us," Jones said. "Basically saying, 'Do what you came here for. Be yourself. We believe in you, we have trust in you, so be you.'"

Jones did just that, leading Ohio State to a Big Ten title game win over Wisconsin, before defeating Alabama and Oregon en route to capturing the first-ever CFP National Championship.

With that, Meyer captured his third national championship as a head coach, each of which has come with Marotti on his sideline.

'The First Phone Call I Made'

Despite having known each other for nearly 30 years, Meyer can't recall a specific moment where Marotti earned his trust.

What he can do, however, is point to a two-game stretch where Marotti vindicated his belief that he is the best strength coach in college football, which occurred during their second national title run together in 2008.

Coaching a Florida team that had rebounded from an early-season loss to Ole Miss, Meyer had the Tim Tebow-led Gators on the verge of clinching what would be the Gators' second national title in three seasons. All it would take would be a win over Nick Saban and No. 1-ranked Alabama in the SEC title game, before facing Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford in the BCS National Championship Game.

In essence, fourth-ranked Florida was taking part in a playoff six years before the official format came into existence.

And just like they would do in 2014, Meyer and Marotti came out on top.

Despite trailing the Crimson Tide heading into the fourth quarter, the Gators pulled out a 31-20 victory in the SEC title game, thanks in large part to a go-ahead one-yard rushing touchdown by running back Jeff Demps in the fourth quarter. A similar script would play out against the Sooners in Miami, with Florida scoring a 24-14 victory to capture the national title.

When Meyer looks back on those crucial consecutive games, it's Marotti's work that stands out the most.

"At one point we were behind in both games, and it was line-of-scrimmage games, and that's how you evaluate your strength coaches," Meyer said. "Injury No. 1is it a healthy, fresh team? And then how's the line of scrimmage?"

The answer to those questions were self-evident, just as they were in 2006 when Florida captured its first national title under Meyer and Marotti's direction with a dominating defensive performance against Ohio State in the BCS title game.

Two years prior, the two had been reunited, their time in South Bend having come to an end after three seasons when Meyer left to take over as the head coach of Bowling Green and then Utah, programs that didn't possess enough prestige or big enough budgets to also hire away Notre Dame's strength and conditioning coach.

That changed when Meyer accepted the head coaching job in Gainesville in 2005, giving him an SEC platform to place a call to his old buddy.

"He was the first phone call I made at Florida when I was leaving Utah to go to Florida," Meyer said. "And he was the first call I made when I came here."

"Forged in Iron"

Although Marotti was crucial to the Gators' success, he didn't seem to publicly receive the same praise that he has for helping Meyer turn around Ohio State upon their arrival in Columbus in 2012. Perhaps that's because rebuilding the Buckeyes required a more significant undertaking, as Ohio State dealt with sanctions stemming from NCAA violations committed by former coach Jim Tressel and members of the Buckeyes' 2010 team.

Getting their new team to buy into a new regime would require breaking old habits, something Ohio State players learned the hard way.

"Our first year here, our coaches kind of didn't like us," Jones said. "They were establishing a new culture here."

Especially in the offseason, that meant plenty of work for Marotti, who routinely butted heads with established team leaders. Such was the case when then-senior fullback/linebacker Zach Boren chose to stand up to the new staff in the midst of a particularly tough 5 a.m. workout.

"Zach was yelling, 'You will not break us!'" Buckeyes defensive tackle Adolphus Washington recalled. "And Coach Mick was like, 'Oh yes we will!'"

Despite enduring its fair share of growing pains—and plenty of games that were too close for comfort—that 2012 Ohio State squad came together, putting together a perfect 12-0 record before sitting out the postseason due to the NCAA sanctions. Meyer, however, wasn't always optimistic that his debut season in Columbus would work out that way, which perhaps marked the first time he had overlooked his strength coach.

"I saw guys punking out at practice during training camp, I didn't feel it at all. I said we're gonna be 8-4, stay positive, we're on a journey and not a sprint," Meyer said of 2012. "I undervalued the critical leadership. I give Mickey credit. Because it happened. That team by the end of the year was very good. That team at the beginning of the year was really bad, something happened along that journey, and Mickey was really involved in that.”

"Very involved" is a phrase that seems to go hand in hand with Ohio State and Marotti, whose fingerprints are all over the Buckeyes program. That's especially true in the offseason, where NCAA rules limit the contact coaches have with players, making the strength coach the de facto head man.

That means that from the end of spring practice until the start of fall camp, it's Marotti who's in charge—which can be either good or bad, depending on where you're standing.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

"If you're in the front two rows, you're gonna get spit on. He does that all the time," left tackle Taylor Decker said of Marotti's yelling habits. "We're there laying underneath him and just getting rained on—and he knows it."

But with a track record that speaks for itself, it's a small price to pay. Besides, it's not like the Buckeyes really have a choice in the matter. 

"Coach Mick is basically Coach Meyer when Coach Meyer's not around," linebacker Joshua Perry said. "He handles a lot of stuff, he's with us all the time, he gets to know the players really well. Everything he does with us is imperative to our success. He takes care of so much stuff."

And as was the case when he first exchanged unpleasantries with Holmes last summer, there always seems to be a method to his madness. Perhaps that's what appeals most to Meyer, who has found a steadying hand in what's been an unpredictable navigation through the college football landscape.

But regardless of how many reasons he has for it, Meyer's admiration for Marotti is apparent in the way he speaks of his "right-hand man."

"That one's forged in iron. That one—he understands his value, and he's earned the respect he has," Meyer said of his relationship with Marotti. "He's the best."

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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