He leaned in close with the death stare, the kind that could kill small game from 20 yards, the one that melted souls and concrete with equal aplomb.
“Do you want to win a national championship?” Urban Meyer asked.
Tommy Schutt had reached the Illinois state playoffs four times as a defensive hellion at Glenbard West High School, the suburban Chicago giant whose alumni includes Will & Grace actor Sean Hayes and Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal. But he’d yet to win the whole shebang.
A national championship? Yes. Yes, sir. Hell, yes.
“This,” Meyer replied, “is the place for you, then.”
Which is the short version of the final scene of How Urban Meyer Landed His First High School Recruit At Ohio State, a drama in three acts that played out back in December 2011.
It’s official. Glenbard West (Ill.) DT Tommy Schutt commits to #OhioState
— Allen Trieu (@AllenTrieu) December 12, 2011
The 6-foot-2, 295-pound Schutt was Meyer’s first prep windfall at Ohio State, having de-committed from Penn State — he was the Nittany Lions’ top-ranked recruit at the time — and having visited Columbus officially over a span of roughly a week.
“The one thing that stood out to me was really just his track record,” Schutt says. “He’s proven that he can win at different schools, at different levels of schools, and that’s one thing that really stood out to me. And the number of guys that went on to play in the NFL.
“My whole time growing up playing football, he was at Florida. He was the guy at Florida with [Tim] Tebow … to look back at some of those players and seeing the success of all the players he’s had, [that’s] a hard guy to turn down.”
Schutt, a 4-star defensive tackle then and a client services supervisor in Colorado now, still sees those eyes — that stare — every now and again.
“It was obviously a pretty intense conversation,” he laughs.
If the new December signing period put a greater emphasis on how you start on the recruiting trail, this week reminds us that it’s about how you finish, too. On Tuesday, Ohio State passed Georgia for the No. 1 spot in 247Sports’ composite team rankings by a margin of 309.58 to 309.00.
If that holds, it’ll be the first time one of Meyer’s Buckeyes classes finished at No. 1 in the national composite. Bonus: It’d also snap Alabama’s 7-year death grip on the top spot.
“[Meyer’s] track record of winning, his track record of putting guys into the NFL — and early — and his ability to recruit nationally all add,” says Brandon Huffman, national college football recruiting editor with 247Sports.
“But it is also his personality. He has the personality to sit in every living room, and meet a parent, grandparent, coach, player, family member, trainer, or whoever, where they are, and then has the track record to prove it. He targets who he wants and closes the deal because he has so much to sell and the track record to validate it.”
‘He knows what they want’
January is for closers, the stares that mean business. With roughly 2 weeks to National Signing Day, 5-star offensive lineman Nicholas Petit-Frere and 4-star tackles William Barnes and Rasheed Walker are still in play for the Buckeyes, and few coaches in the game seal the deal, tie a final bow on the box, the way Meyer does.
“The thing you hear most often from the young guys is just the presence,” offers former Buckeyes tight end Blake Thomas, who also was part of Meyer’s initial 2012 Columbus haul.
“You have coaches that come when you’re a special guy — Zeke [Ezekiel Elliott] is a good example. You get certain coaches, maybe you’re not nervous when someone else, some different coach, walks into your living room.
“But something clicks when he’s in your presence. You’re like, ‘Man, I’m a little nervous right now. I’m not used to it.’ I don’t know what it is, but on the recruiting trail he’s really friendly and a super-personable guy. He’s got an aura about him, where it’s kind of surreal to think, ‘I’m sitting in front of THE Coach Meyer that I watched growing up.’ And I think it’s a feeling that attracts a lot of guys.”
“People follow a belief and vision, they don’t follow a person. Especially at our age.”
— Former Ohio State tight end Blake Thomas on Urban Meyer
The feeling goes both ways, of course. And those who’ve seen firsthand Meyer’s huddles with parents and grandparents and guardians describe a psychology major with fingers caressing the right buttons, a master of tactics and empathy, a salesman who works a room the way Monet worked a canvas.
“He’s a good guy,” Schutt says. “He’s genuinely a good guy. That’s another thing — he’s a big family man.
“That’s something that was very important to him, his family, how close he is with his kids and his wife. That’s something he’s very open about and talked to my family about. He does all he can to get the family to spend time together. It’s a very easy conversation with him, just because family is very important to him.”
“He’s a very good recruiter because he knows what they want and he’s able to tell them where [he] can deliver on that,” notes Thomas, who as a 3-star tight end at Cleveland’s St. Ignatius High had committed to the previous regime and was riding this train to the end of the line, conductor be damned.
“I mean, he didn’t really have to sell me — I made sure that I told him how I felt about everything and that he knew, from the moment of my first conversation with him, that I’d committed to the school, not to the team, not to the program. I’d committed to Ohio State because I knew that everything would fall in line like it did.
“After that he was just, ‘All right, now it’s your job to just go out there and help me build this team to be a national championship team from this class.’ And so I really took it upon myself to really help with that recruiting.”
The savvy sellers also know that peers make the best pitch men, especially once a recruit’s on campus. Schutt and Thomas — along with classmates such as Cardale Jones, Michael Thomas and Taylor Decker — helped to form the backbone of the Buckeyes’ 2014 national championship squad, the engine that made Meyer’s promise, Meyer’s blueprint, an iconic reality.
“Somebody will preach [titles], but you can see right through when they’re just talking, when they can’t back it up,” says Thomas, whose playing career was cut short by a nerve injury in August 2013. “There was a time when Coach Meyer couldn’t back it up.
“But you could see a vision. People follow a belief and vision, they don’t follow a person. Especially at our age.”
‘Do you want to go to a great university and walk away with a great degree?’
January is for visions. And templates. Teens want trophies and confetti, NFL riches and caviar dreams. Moms want the undergraduate degree, the passport to adulthood, the ticket punched for the rest of your life.
“The one thing that really stood out to me, the things he really preached during the recruiting process, was when he asked, ‘Do you want to play in the Big Ten?’ Which in his opinion, a lot of other people’s opinions, is the toughest conference,” recalls Schutt, whose Buckeyes tenure and pro dreams were stymied by foot and wrist injuries. “He said, ‘Do you want to go to a great university and walk away with a great degree?’
“Just how open and forward he was about his goals, and his goals for me, and how he’d do everything he can to make sure I accomplished my personal goals. And that’s something that he always talked about when he spoke to my parents. Before the football talk, it was, ‘I’m going to graduate from here with a degree,’ and it was on to football talk.”
Ohio State has launched more players to Planet Goodell than any other Big Ten program this century. But less celebrated, Schutt says, is the emphasis Meyer puts on the majority of his roster who won’t play at the next level.
Real Life Wednesdays. Guest speakers from the corporate world. Classes on résumé prep and interviewing skills. Job fairs for the upperclassmen.
“Urban’s goal was for every player to graduate from Ohio State with at least four job offers walking out the door,” Schutt says.
“I think that’s a great testament to the coach, the man that he is. Not only has he proven himself on the field, he’s just as successful [given] the great number of guys off the field as far as setting them up with great careers after football. That’s one thing I definitely have to give a lot of credit to Coach Meyer for.”