'Juice' quenches fans' thirst

Urban Meyer hasn't coached in a game yet, but Buckeyes fans are buying in

Updated: June 20, 2012, 8:31 PM ET
By Austin Ward | BuckeyeNation

The temperature is climbing steadily on a steamy Sunday morning.

As the athletes take a seat on the indoor practice field at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for Ohio State's first summer camp under Urban Meyer, the reminders come often to stay hydrated when the action moves outside.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer embraces Ohio State traditions, and the fans have embraced him based on his track record at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
But for every mention of water stations from the folks passing around the microphone, there's also one for what the Buckeyes really want the kids to have -- juice.

"For us, it's really about a passion for the game," new wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. "Just competitive nature, a passion for competing.

"Juice, really, I think it's been a big part of our success."

Whether it's in recruiting or the players already on campus, Meyer and his first staff in Columbus are constantly trying to find out who's got that magic liquid as they set out to return the Buckeyes to prominence after a year marred by scandal and their first losing season in more than two decades.

But even after the recent rough patch, they don't have to look hard to find that type of relentless enthusiasm anywhere else around town.

Already among the most passionate supporters in the country, the fans in Buckeye Nation seemingly have taken it to an even higher level since Meyer's arrival. And the buzz is showing no signs of slowing down with more than two months until he actually coaches a game.

Off life support

Not too far from the north end zone of Ohio Stadium, statues of Brutus Buckeye and Woody Hayes flank the entrance to College Traditions -- about 500 yards or so from the Horseshoe on Lane Avenue.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer shirts
Austin Ward/ESPN.comUrban Meyer T-shirts are selling well at the College Traditions store just off the Ohio State campus in Columbus, Ohio.
Just past the sign counting down the days until kickoff and through the doors, five different shirts touting the arrival of Meyer are hanging in the store. If sweater vests were once the rage inside, they're well-hidden now. And it's the designs playing off Meyer's name that started ying off the shelves in November and continued when the biggest spring-game crowd in the country flocked to see the two-time national champion on the sidelines with the Buckeyes.

"We were just actually looking at some numbers," owner Kelly Dawes said. "It's not that we were at half of what we were or anything, but we took a pretty big hit last year. But we had our best spring game that we've ever had, so I kind of correlate that as we're going to have a pretty good fall.

"It's already picking up. This year has been a lot better than last year, and people are in better moods."

That's obviously good for any business around Ohio State, let alone one selling anything and everything its logo can be applied to.

And given its proximity to the Horseshoe for foot traffic and perhaps the ability to gauge the hype financially as well, few places might be better suited to check the pulse of the Buckeyes.

"Everybody is talking about it, and as soon as people walk in the door, they comment immediately on the shirts," manager Brittany White said. "It's not new stuff anymore, but the buzz is still there every time somebody walks in. To compare it, it's almost like the Browns returning to Cleveland in 1999. It's like the football team is being revived.

"You can notice the buzz, the hype, everything. It's that big, that drastic of a change in the last eight months. They were on life support last year, and now it's like they've got a new kidney or something."

Rumor has it

Leaning back in his chair at his father's bar, John Mollica ashes back to a spring break in Florida and the rumors he heard about a possible pairing between Meyer and the Buckeyes.

"People were saying, 'Urban Meyer, he's going to buy Kirk Herbstreit's house and coach Ohio State,' " Mollica said before lunch at Varsity Club Restaurant and Bar. "I'm hearing all this stuff, and I'm like, 'There's no way.'

"And then it came true."

Meyer didn't actually buy Herbstreit's house. But Meyer did stop in to Mollica's business, one that's been in the family since 1973, providing a little extra confirmation that reports of his arrival were true.

Mollica readily admits that he's still trying to accept the new coaching reality for the Buckeyes after the decade of success Jim Tressel produced at Ohio State before he resigned a little more than a year ago amid NCAA violations, and the subsequent interim campaign of Luke Fickell.

But that doesn't necessarily mean business has changed for the restaurant on the corner next to College Traditions, across the street from St. John Arena. If anything, all it has done is alter the expectations for many inside it.

"We're still kind of in transition, but I think people are really excited," Mollica said. "We were also probably complacent because Tressel was just a consummate winner.

"The average fan knows that it's going to be different. I don't know what to expect, but I think the hardcore Buckeye fans think it's going to be 12-0, that he's just going to win every game and they're going to be throwing a million passes and it'll be really exciting. But for me, I mean, I'm still kind of in shock that we got Urban Meyer."

Ring or bust

That kind of hire essentially comes with only one expectation.

Buckeyes fans rarely set the bar lower than competing for national championships anyway, but with two rings already, they will be planning on Meyer getting sized for another soon.

Ohio State can't play for a championship this season, either in the conference or in the Bowl Championship Series, thanks to the sanctions leveled on the program in the wake of the investigation that brought down Tressel.

It can lay the foundation for the future, though, ramping up recruiting, installing Meyer's version of the spread offense and building for a possible run at a title in his second season.

But first it has to make sure there's enough to drink in everybody's cup.

"If you don't like doing something and you're forced to do it, you're not going to do a very good job," Smith said. "If you love something, you're going to do a great job. That's why we try to get that from our players and cultivate that within our team. There are going to be days when you don't want to practice, so we look for that in kids who are out there in a competitive situation with a smile on their face.

"With juice, they perform at a different level -- and they enjoy it."

Meyer is just getting started hydrating his roster. His new fans might already need a refill.

Austin Ward | email

Ohio State/Big Ten reporter