Tim May
Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS: Professor John Bruno has witnessed coach Urban Meyer’s approach to motivating his Ohio State football players to strive academically as well as athletically, and there’s no real secret to it.

“I don’t see Urban as having any magical sticks or tricks,” said Bruno, a professor of psychology and OSU’s faculty athletics representative. “I think it’s simply a consistent message of excellence, and an explicit message that under that umbrella of excellence is academic performance.”

It’s not wished for, Meyer said; it’s expected. And he holds all involved accountable, from players to the support staff and, especially, assistant coaches.

“When I hire a coaching staff, the No.?1 thing is recruiting. No.?2 is what we call power of the unit, which means the performance of your players off the field as well as on the field,” Meyer said. “Then the third one is your enhancement [of the scheme and team performance].

“You’ll never hear me say I’m going to go hire a guru; those people don’t exist. … It’s all about getting your players to perform. So our coaches take a very active role in academic performance. If they can’t do that, they won’t work here.”

His predecessor, Jim Tressel, believed that, too.

In his 10 years, Tressel not only won a national championship but also elevated the program to among the country’s elite in terms of the NCAA’s academic progress rate (APR). In the latest figures from the NCAA, Ohio State football’s four-year average APR — capped by the 2010-11 school year, Tressel’s last — was 988. It was the third-highest among major programs nationally and second only to Northwestern in the Big Ten.

Meyer inherited a strong base, but his no-nonsense, no-excuses stamp is apparent to all, senior fullback Zach Boren said.

“This past fall [with several players suspended], we had a pretty bad quarter academically as a team [2.79 grade-point average], and when coach Meyer came in, he wanted to change that,” Boren said.

One of Meyer’s first acts was to meet with the people in the Student-Athlete Support Services Office. In six seasons at Florida, Meyer’s teams were in the top three of the Southeastern Conference in APR and graduation rates.

“From what I understand, he wanted it stressed that he took academics seriously, that he had some ideas to improve things, and I think they took that message well,” Boren said.

One example is the near-constant presence of Darin Meeker and John Macko, the team’s primary contacts from the Student-Athlete Support Services Office.

“They have a weekly meeting with coach Meyer and all the coaches and the support people,” Boren said. “They are always around the locker room, always asking us if we need any help on anything. They’ll shoot us a text every so often reminding us if a big assignment is due or if a big test is coming up. They were always around when coach Tressel was here, too, but now they’re a lot more hands-on.”

Quick turnaround

The results were immediate. The team GPA rose to 2.81 for winter quarter and to 2.88 for the spring term. Boren expects that to translate to better performances on the field.

“I think there is a great correlation with doing well in the classroom and doing well on the football field,” he said. “My first couple of years here, we had a great GPA as a team and we did great on the field. Then last fall we didn’t have such a great GPA, and it showed on the field (6-7).”

More academic scrutiny

In the effort toward improvement, senior linebacker Etienne Sabino said, the academic scrutiny has been raised to a constant.

“Academics have always been a big priority here, but now they really emphasize the class check-in [monitoring attendance] and the meeting with and emailing your teachers to stay on top of stuff,” Sabino said. “Every team unit and every person is held accountable for each other and for themselves.

“It’s kind of the mentality, ‘I don’t want to let the linebackers down,’ because if I mess up, it brings our group’s GPA down.”

There’s more at stake, however, than pride.

“If you don’t do things the right way, you’re going to suffer for it,” Sabino said. He added that the penance ranges from getting called out in front of the team to having to spend extra hours with a tutor or losing free time to attend a study hall.

“But if you do things the right way and you get your grades, you’re going to love your life. you’re going to be treated differently. Like we have [Meyer’s] saying, ‘You act like a man, you get treated like a man.’

“Taking care of our business, going to class, getting good grades, that’s part of our duty as student-athletes so we can perform on the field and do all the stuff we’re privileged to do.”