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The Urban Meyer Difference and the Legacy of Tressel-Meyer at Ohio State

The 2019 cohort of America’s college graduates are entering the workforce with no memories of a time when Michigan football was consistently competitive with Ohio State. For those of us who experienced the 1990s, this reality is hard to contemplate. While it’s easy to assume it will continue based on the results of the last few years, the odds are less than favorable. If Ryan Day is unable to sustain the same level of success, Ohio State’s success in this period, shepherded by the nearly back-to-back coaching tenures of Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer, may be ultimately remembered as the best in the program’s history.

That the one time that Tressel and Meyer met as coaching adversaries was a surprise bloodbath that seemingly changed the course of college football belies the continuity and consistency that the two brought in guiding Ohio State into the 21st century. While they were individually different in style and mannerisms, the results of their respective Ohio State teams were remarkably similar. As many an Ohio State fan has post-mortem characterized it, Jim Tressel was great, and Urban Meyer was greater.

From a fan’s perspective, over an 18-year stretch the two coaches were more complementary than adversarial. Having involuntarily handed his baton to Meyer by way of Luke Fickell, Tressel was long distanced from Ohio State by the time Meyer had molded his final recruits into national champions, thereby paying back Ohio (and Tressel) for what he’d taken from them in ‘06. Together, over those years, the two coaches dominated Michigan, won a boatload of Big Ten championships, and their shared tenure could be put up alongside the Woody era as one of the great stretches of dominance in the history of Ohio State, possibly the history of the game.

In some ways, Tressel and Meyer were remarkably similar. They grew up mere miles from each other, each with a coaching education that wove its way through Earle Bruce. Each chalked up a plethora of success at Ohio State, dominated the Big ten, and ultimately won a single National Title. Their tenures – 10 years and 7 years respectively – were similar in length, and each built upon a sort of legendary status prior to arriving at Ohio State that for each included multiple national titles – four for Tressel at I-AA Youngstown State and two for Meyer at I-A Florida. While Meyer’s legend is perhaps greater because his prior championships came at an SEC school while Tressel’s came in Division I-AA, Tressel’s nine national title game appearances in 25 years of coaching, including 3 at Ohio State, hardly take a backseat to Meyers’ three national titles in 17 years of coaching. And while Tressel left Ohio State against his will and Meyer did not, Meyer’s final season, too, was marred by scandal that left him suspended for the first three games of the 2019 season.

Yet bonded as they are, the two seem less close than many other coaches with such similar experiences, and it’s not hard to see why. One cut his teeth squarely within the state; the other spread his wings nationally. One revered battles of field position, the other a high-octane spread attack. One found safe haven in the power-I, the other the zone read. One won through great offense, and the other great defense. One coached defenses to play a soft cover-two zone, the other an aggressive form of man. One presented himself a choir boy, the other an intimidating motivator. One found his talent overwhelmingly in Ohio, while the other found his talent nationally. Two vastly different formulas leading to similar overall records.

In person, it’s hard not to see radical differences between the teams of Tressel and Meyer. On paper, the distinction is more difficult. While Meyer has a slight edge in the overall win-loss column thanks to never having any seasons like Tressel’s 2001 and 2004 middlers (if one includes Meyer’s Florida tenure, their respective winning percentages as I-A coaches are 82% for Tressel and 86% for Meyer), the two coaches’ career results are near mirrors of each other, if in strikingly different fashions.

The nearly identical similarities:

They won nearly identical numbers of Big Ten and National Championships at Ohio State:

While Tressel’s teams won more Big Ten titles outright – six in a row officially when his tenure ended, if reconsidered based on the modern divisional alignments and championship game methodology, each coach could be credited with five division titles and (likely) four Big Ten Championships. This complements each coach’s one National Championship at Ohio State.

Their respective margins of dominance are comparably equivalent:

Meyer’s Ohio State teams scored approximately 67% of the points scored in games in which they played, while Tressel’s teams also scored approximately 67% of the points scored in games in which they played. On average, Meyer’s teams won 38-19, while Tressel’s won 30-15. While Meyer’s teams won by a larger points margin on average, and did so against slightly better competition on average, the differences are largely stylistic: In over 40% of the games Meyer coached, Ohio State scored over 40 points. In nearly 40% of the games Jim Tressel coached, Ohio State gave up fewer than 10 points.

They finished with nearly identical average final rankings:

Meyer’s OSU teams on average finished with a ranking of 7th. Tressel’s teams on average finished with a ranking of 8th. Buried within those averages, both coaches won National Championships early, followed by a rut of performances that placed them consistently around third through sixth in the polls. Both, in fact, finished squarely in this sweet spot five separate times (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2010 for Tressel; 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 for Meyer).

Both coaches excelled at beating mediocre competition by nearly identical margins.

In their tenures, Meyer won 92% of his games against unranked teams, and 85% of his conference games. Tressel, nearly identically, won 91% of his games against unranked teams and 83% against conference foes. Tressel was 82-9 in games decided by more than a touchdown; Meyer a similar 68-6.

The differences:

Jim Tressel’s teams faltered against top competition, while Meyers’ teams made their mark against the best of the best:

One of the most notable differences between Tressel and Meyer comes in the way their records arc in opposite directions against better competition.

Tressel’s record declines consistently against better competition.

  • Vs. Unranked: 91%

  • Vs. Conference: 83%

  • Vs. Top 25: 69%

  • Vs. Top 15: 61%

  • Vs. Top 10: 56%

  • Vs. Top 5: 33%

Meyer’s record, by contrast, arcs upward against the best of the best.

  • Vs. Unranked: 92%

  • Vs. Conference: 85%

  • Vs. Top 25: 73%

  • Vs. Top 15: 71%

  • Vs. Top 10: 75%

  • Vs. Top 5: 78%

To illustrate this another way, consider the widening chasm between Meyer’s winning percentage and Tressel’s when the performances are broken out by the quality of opposition.

  • Vs. Unranked opponents: Meyer 1.3% better

  • Vs. Conference opponents: Meyer 2.5% better

  • Vs. Top 25: Meyer 4.5% better

  • Vs. Top 15: Meyer 10.1% better

  • Vs. Top 10: Meyer 19.4% better

  • Vs. Top 5: Meyer 44.5% better

Meyer’s teams separated themselves in close games:

For a time, Jim Tressel was known as the king of the close game. His signature “Tresselball” style helped the Buckeyes squeak by their opponents by less than a touchdown in half of the team’s 2002 National Title year games. Overall, however, while Tressel and Meyer had similar records in blowouts (82-9 and 68-6 respectively), in close games Tressel was just 23-13, while Meyer was 18-3. Outside of the 2001 and 2004 middler years for Tressel, Ohio State was 20-7 in close games under his watch.

Meyer had stronger recruiting classes at the top end:

Tressel and Meyer each recruited well. Tressel averaged the nation’s #14 recruiting class, while Meyer averaged the nation’s 5th-best recruiting class. Tressel averaged 19 three, four, or five-star recruits a year while Meyer averaged 23. But that chasm widens among the top recruits. Meyer attracted around 40% more four-plus star talent, and nearly three times as much five-star talent to Ohio State.

Tressel’s teams out-performed their recruiting rankings while Meyer’s under-performed them:

Much was made over Urban Meyer’s tenure about his respective strengths as a recruiter, a motivator, and a schemer. Once regarded as a top-flight play caller whose innovative offenses at Utah and Florida helped him shock and awe the world and dominate beyond the talent of his players, at Ohio State his strength as a recruiter carried the day. While Meyer averaged the fifth-best recruiting classes, the final rankings of his teams averaged around 7th in both the Sagarin and AP polls, a modest under-performance relative to the talent on the teams. While Tressel’s recruiting classes were less strong, averaging 14th, he turned those into average final AP rankings of 8th and average final Sagarin ratings of 11th, worse than Meyer’s overall but a stronger relative showing compared to the recruiting talent he attracted.

Key takeaways for the future:

Generally, expect continued success:

Ohio State can consistently beat most of its competition by a similar margin regardless of their coach

In close games and against elite opponents, expect significant drop-off without an elite coach:

Whatever Meyer’s key distinguishers were – his recruiting and motivation strengths most likely – they manifest themselves most clearly against top competition and in close games. Without Meyer at the helm, these are the areas where we are most likely to see a drop-off.

Recruiting is the key to excelling against truly elite opponents:

Meyer’s recruiting was next-level, and it helped his teams achieve a level of elite performance that allowed them to not only be in the top 5, but to help them excel against the top 5 (a 78% winning percentage against the top five in the nation).

But sound, solid coaching can make up for a lack of elite recruiting:

Desite substantially lower-quality recruits in general, including only one five-star recruit a year compared to Meyer’s three, Tressel achieved nearly identical numbers of titles, wins, and comparable final rankings as Meyer. His teams over-performed relative to ability while Meyer’s under-performed, despite the perception that Meyer’s schemes were more modern and sophisticated. Sometimes fundamentals and continuity make a big difference. And for all of Meyer’s success against top-10 opponents, he didn't distinguish himself in overall titles. Unlike wins alone, national titles are fickle and often more about luck with a good team than skill as a great team.

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