A visitor lurked inside the covered fences surrounding the Lasch Building practice fields last fall.
This visitor once toted whistles and twice occupied college football’s highest perch. On these early-October afternoons, Urban Meyer’s work as a television commentator brought him to State College.
His status granted him access to Joe Paterno’s practices. Penn State players noticed Meyer’s presence. Some even tried connecting wild talk show and Internet chatter with his appearance.
“We definitely heard the rumors,” Hill said. “He was at a few or our practices. But you never know what’s true or what’s not.”
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One major truth eventually surfaced: Meyer wanted to coach again.
Meyer will return to State College on Saturday, this time to guide one of Penn State’s Big Ten rivals into Beaver Stadium. Less than two months after last fall’s visit, Meyer returned to coaching, taking a lucrative job at Ohio State, the largest university in his home state.
The homecoming ended hopes of Meyer becoming Paterno’s successor.
Besides Meyer and his closest confidantes, nobody knows if last fall’s trip to State College served deeper purposes than preparing for a television broadcast. Nobody has asked Meyer this week whether he considered coaching at Penn State. Questions regarding star quarterback Braxton Miller’s status and his relationship with Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti, a player Meyer tried recruiting at Florida, are dominating this week’s discourse.
Meyer went 65-15 and won two BCS titles in six seasons with the Gators. Teenagers listen when he dangles scholarship offers.
“His pitch to me?” Mauti said. “They had just come off winning a national championship. It wasn’t really too hard to pitch Florida at the time. It was a great school. He wanted me to have an opportunity to play for the Gators. That was obviously before I visited Penn State and made that decision.”
So far, last fall’s coaching drama, which at Penn State extended into the winter, has produced satisfactory results. The 48-year-old Meyer, who spent a year away from coaching because of health and family concerns, has led the Buckeyes to an 8-0 start. The Ashtabula, Ohio, native said Tuesday his health concerns are in the past.
“I’m doing great,” he said.
Ohio State hired Meyer to replace interim coach Luke Fickell on Nov. 28, 2011. Penn State officials spent the next six weeks scouring the college and professional ranks for a viable candidate. The national search yielded New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. After an 0-2 start, Penn State is 5-2 under O’Brien, who turned 43 on Tuesday.
“We all heard rumors,” senior fullback Micahel Zordich said. “But we have Coach O’Brien here now and we are very happy with him as our coach. We don’t think too much beyond that. There’s no point in thinking that Coach Meyer might have been our coach last year.”
Steadying programs under NCAA sanctions make Meyer and O’Brien leading contenders for Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. Ohio State faces a one-year scholarship ban because of a cash-for-tattoos scandal involving multiple star players. Penn State faces a four-year postseason ban and major scholarship reductions because of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
In Meyer’s mind, the sanctions have yet to seriously impact Penn State’s talent level. Former Ohio State John Cooper, a Cincinnati Bengals scouting consultant, has emphasized Penn State’s talent level to Meyer.
“I have great admiration for Penn State,” Meyer said. “I always have being from this area. I know what kind of school that is. It’s just a strong, strong school. I know there’s going to be some tough sanctions against them. I don’t understand all of them. But Penn State has great football players right now. So I made that clear to our team.”
O’Brien directed similar praise toward the Buckeyes.
“Obviously, I have a lot of respect for Coach Meyer and what he’s done in his coaching career and what he’s doing at Ohio State,” O’Brien said. “I can tell you Ohio State is the most talented team we have played to this point in the season. They’re an excellent football team. They have very, very good players at every position.”
Because of geographic proximity and the annual Big 33 Classic, which matches all-stars from Pennsylvania and Ohio, Penn State players often find themselves following Ohio State more than other Big Ten teams. This year, they are also tracking the Buckeyes’ celebrity coach.
“Urban Meyer is a great coach and he has proven that in Florida and everywhere else he’s been,” said Zordich, who attended Youngstown’s Cardinal Mooney High School. “He gets it done. It has been working for Ohio State so far.”