COLUMBUS, Ohio — Urban Meyer has always had a plan, but not even he knew what he was in for when he left his job as Notre Dame’s receivers coach to become the head coach of Bowling Green in 2001.
As it turns out, neither did his players.
The weight room at Bowling Green was impossibly modest — it was converted from four handball courts — and Meyer remembers players working out in their own T-shirts, shorts and shoes because they hadn’t been given team gear.
“I walk in the first workout, they’re in Budweiser T-shirts, stuff like that,” he said Monday.
Meyer placed a call to Adidas and begged for anything he could get. He had to settle for neutral colors instead of the team’s traditional colors of orange and brown, but at that point he was willing to take whatever he could get.
So, too, were the players.
“It was a big deal when Urban got them two T-shirts,” said Meyer’s strength and conditioning coach Aaron Hillman, who’d followed him from Notre Dame. “One was white and one was gray. The kids always appreciated anything they got. We didn’t even get a Gatorade after practice. There’s a certain level of toughness and hardness that comes in that type of situation.”
Meyer recognized that toughness in players and used it to transform the program from an afterthought into a conference contender As Meyer recalled, priority No. 1 for him was to thin the herd. By his estimation, a whopping 18 players packed up and left in the first week of his tenure.
And, of course, there was the infamous Black Wednesday workout in Meyer’s first winter. Furious that his players weren’t living up to their academic responsibilities, Meyer ran players ragged early one morning with three hours of vomit-inducing sprints.
Sometime in between the garbage can-lined suffer-fest and his first game as a head coach, Meyer built that ragtag group of players at Bowling Green into a unit that couldn’t be broken.
Black Wednesday is perhaps the most famous story from Meyer’s first months at Bowling Green in the winter of 2001, and rightfully so, but it’s the work that followed that truly helped the Falcons grow into a team that would go 5-0 against BCS conference teams over a two-year stretch.
Hillman arrived from Notre Dame in the spring of 2001 and was told to raise the bar higher than he’d ever imagined. It was a dream assignment for a strength and conditioning coach — free rein to push players to their limits in a quest to weed out the weak and fortify the players who would grow into the backbone of the program.
“The workouts were totally over the top,” said Hillman. “When I see those kids now, the first thing I do is apologize. Urban wanted those kids in training to go through a task and a challenge that would supersede anything they would encounter on a football field. They were kids, so they were resilient and recovered. But we absolutely crushed them.”
By the end of summer, players were showing improvement but still had a ways to go. Hillman decided he needed to keep things fresh to ensure players remained motivated, and so he dipped into the well of workouts from his time at Notre Dame as the summer came to a close.
He’d been an assistant to current Ohio State strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti while at Notre Dame, and the pair had implemented a themed workout called Midnight Lift to break up the monotony and end summer workouts with a bang. After a team run at 5 p.m., Hillman broke the news to his players that they weren’t yet finished.
“We told them we’d had a good summer but were going to do a little more,” he said. “We’re going to come back in tonight at midnight and have a team lift, and we want you to dress in warrior gear. And they’re looking at me like I’ve got two heads. I explained it a bit, that this was their night to let loose and have fun.”
He wasn’t sure whether they’d buy in, but he didn’t have to wait long for the answer.
“I’ve got the doors locked and we’ve got slogans and quotes on the walls so you couldn’t see into the windows. I think we were playing Motley Crue’s Kickstart My Heart or something crazy like that. I finally opened the doors at midnight and they’re like a pack of wild dogs. They’ve got their faces painted and some guys have shaved their heads and it was like, ‘OK, they’re running on their own gas.’ All you’ve got to do is open the door and let them go. Those are the moments where you realize they’re getting it.”
The first game of the season came against a Gary Pinkel-led Missouri team. The first-year Tigers coach had just taken over the program after a successful stint at Toledo, where in 2000 he ran Bowling Green off the field in a 51-17 rout. Now armed with a better team and better resources, Pinkel was an overwhelming favorite against Meyer’s men.
Instead, Meyer and the Falcons left Faurot Field in Columbia, Mo., with a 20-13 win that pointed the program’s trajectory skyward. The game was played Sept. 1, but it was won long before then in the weight room that once served as handball courts.
“It’s the crucible of training – make it so hard that you melt off the impurities, and that’s what we did,” Meyer said. “We melted off the impurities. What was left was about 57-60 guys, and we got on a plane to Missouri and won.”