Can Urban Meyer Really Make It Home For Dinner? Wright Thompson On Profiling The Man Who Can't Quit Coaching
"Keeping up with Urban Meyer is more of an Olympic event than handball."
— Wright Thompson
ESPN The Magazine/ESPN.com senior writer Wright Thompson put together a fantastic profile of Urban Meyer over the summer. It went live at ESPN.com yesterday and is in The Mag's college football preview issue, on newsstands now.
It's one of those stories that everyone can appreciate, a story about a man of enormous notoriety in his field who also deals with one of the most simple, most universal conflicts known to humanity. From a football fan's perspective, it's an incredible look at one of the most prolific coaches of our time. And from a storyteller's perspective, from a journalist's perspective, it's the type of story I think we'd do well to aspire to—it is bold, it is intimate, and it is remarkably truthful, not only about Urban Meyer, but about what it means to be human.
(Image is from when Wright won a Sports Emmy, and yeah, I cribbed it from BallStateSports.com.)
Wright was kind enough to spend an hour on the phone with me this week to talk about the story and other aspects of his journalism career. Whether you're an ambitious young guy like me or a seasoned vet or anywhere in between, seems like there's something in here for everyone. The italics are my questions. Everything else is Wright.
The Wright Thompson Stories' Stories Interview
On "Urban Meyer Will Be Home For Dinner" in ESPN The Magazine
Wright, thanks so much for doing this, man. For whatever it's worth, I thought the story was great.
So, the story—how did it come about? Did The Mag ask you to write it, or was it something you asked to write? What was that process?
I’ve been wanting to write about Urban Meyer for a long time. The first time I tried to do this, he was still at Florida. And I almost had it set up, I think, and then he came to work for ESPN. I was like, well, (laughs) I can’t profile a co-worker. So I never stopped being interested, because I just felt, one, nothing I’d read about him, really, with the exception of an awesome, awesome Scott Price profile, had come close to addressing what was obvious in the amount of contradictions and complexity of him. And you know, he just seemed like someone who was fighting with himself in public, and that was fascinating to me. You don’t ever get to see that. That’s what it seems like to me, from afar. And I was curious what it looked like. So I’ve been trying to do this for, no kidding, three years.
So I’d been in touch with his agent—that’s how this usually works. If you want access to somebody, you know, you want to work on parallel tracks through the SID and the agent, if they have one. And I just said I want to come hang out and watch, and I want him to get it. I don’t want to just make this work. If he’s not into it, I don’t want to come do it.
And so we talked about it, and talked about it, and finally I flew up there, and it was really interesting, because he agreed to the access. And he might totally contradict me on this, but he didn’t start off very engaged. I think he was like, “I agreed to do this, I don’t know why I agreed to do this.”
I think with every profile, you need to show the person who you’re writing about that you’re engaged in their life. That you’ve thought about the things that are troubling to them. So often, media narrative, the narrative that people obsess over in public has very little to do with the actual drama in people’s lives and jobs.
So I found his favorite book and I read it, and I underlined everything in there I thought described him. And the first time we had any time together was in the car, driving from Columbus to Cleveland. I just started reading to him about himself.
Everything changed. At least in my sense. And again, he might have a totally different view of this, but from my perspective, everything changed. He was unbelievably open. And I asked him a lot of really, really blunt, hard questions.
Which book was that? Was it the one from the story, from when he went for that run?
No, the one I’d read before I went up there, that I read to him in the car, was Change or Die. And then he started telling me about that run, and that book was Lead For God’s Sake. He actually gave it to me. It’s funny—I want to read it, so we can talk about it some more.
So he gave it to me, I went back to my hotel—keeping up with Urban Meyer, that’s more of an Olympic event than handball. I was freaking exhausted. It’s 10 o’clock. I ordered a pizza, and I was going to sit up and read this book. And I got, I don’t know, 20-30 pages into it. And I woke up and it was 3:45 in the morning, and I was supposed to meet him at 7 in his office.
But anyway, I woke up and I was like, holy shit. I’ve got to read this book. So I woke up and I went to Buckeye Donuts, right there on campus. It’s open all night. And I pounded coffee, and I knew I had to finish by 6:45. And so from 4 to 6:30 I read the book, underlining and making notes, so we could go and talk about it.
(laughs) He gave me homework. Had to pull an all-nighter. But it was a really, really cool time. A really cool week. Really getting to think about how someone, getting to think about somebody’s life. And them being open to discussing it in a very intimate, personal way.
When were you up there?
I don’t know. It was at the end of a really crazy run. I was on vacation (near the beginning of June), I got home, the next day I flew to Liverpool to write all the stuff that ran during the British Open broadcast. (Editor’s note: Here’s one, and here’s another; both are excellent.) I flew straight from Liverpool to New York, because, that was a Friday. I was going to the Belmont the next day. I landed and walked off the plane into breaking news on the television that the damn horse (I’ll Have Another) had scratched.
I went straight out to Belmont Park, found the trainer, wrote a column, then woke up the next morning, and instead of going to the race I flew a day early to Sacramento for an E:60 shoot, and was in Sacramento Saturday, Sunday, and then Sunday night I took the red-eye back to Connecticut for a meeting Monday and then Tuesday flew home, and then I think I was home for a couple days and flew to Columbus.
So nine days or so, I was all around. It was a pretty crazy run. And it’s not normally like that.
But it was pretty insane. A lot of redeyes and no sleep. But anyway, I was in Columbus about a week, I guess.
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that someone of that status, that notoriety and fame, it’s got to be very difficult to get them to open up and trust people with the more intimate details of their life. Since earning trust is such a big part of this, how did you go about that—did you feel like that was a way to do that, reading those books, staying up all night to read them, to talk to him about him, really caring about the things that were clearly important to him?
Yeah, but I don’t think it was to show I did it. To me, it was being intellectually engaged in the question. To me it’s not, “Oh, this guy stayed up so I’m going to reward him with this.” I think it’s, you can, all people want is to have an interesting conversation, and everyone’s favorite topic is themselves.
So if you can ask questions that feel honest and true to them—God, that sounded like a bad Hemingway ripoff. Honest and true. The fish was good and true.
But you know what I mean? If you ask people real questions, I think they respond a lot of times. The problem is, they answer so many dumb questions that you have to really show, I’m not here to say, oh, can you just talk about the role of the option offense and talk about the defense? So I just think that their natural assumption every time somebody walks in is that you’re that guy.
It seems like almost just a “Duh,” thing, but how important is really caring about your subject matter, to you?
It’s everything. If you don’t care, you shouldn’t be there. If I didn’t really want to know the answer to the question, which in this story is, “Can Urban Meyer Change?” But it’s not a story about him changing. He hasn’t changed. It’s a story about, can he? And if I wasn’t genuinely interested in that answer, not just because of the micro of him, but because of the macro that, dude, I think about that in my own life. I could be a lot better friend, a better husband. You don’t think it’s ironic I was in nine cities, however many cities, in as many days before flying to Columbus to write a story about somebody looking for balance? I get it.
Almost all the email and Twitter action I’ve gotten today and yesterday has been from people who’ve made these mistakes in their own lives and see themselves in his story, see their struggle in his struggle.
The best stories are universal. There’s a great Steinbeck quote, I’m gonna find the book because it’s too good a quote and I don’t want to mess it up.
God, my house is a disaster. Well, my office is. I’m going to do a profile on Lionel Messi, and Sonia, my wife, she’s never heard of Lionel Messi. She’s like, who is it? I’m like, "His name’s Lionel Messi." She goes, "Oh, messy—you guys will get along great."
Let’s see. Here it is. This is from East of Eden: “If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And here I make a rule—a great and lasting story is about everyone, or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting—only the deeply personal and familiar.”
So many people do a story about the one-legged goalie, because they think, but that’s the total wrong way. You don’t look for the abnormal. You look for the universal. At least I do.
So does that inform most of your work? Finding —
Yeah, I want to know how it speaks to me. I just found something deeply familiar about Urban Meyer’s struggle, and I think a lot of people do.
I’m always really interested to see how the stories we write affect us personally. To me, dealing with people so intimately and personally always has some effect on me. So I’m curious if that’s true with you.
I don’t know. Look, everybody wants more balance. I do. I have two speeds. Off and a thousand miles an hour. (laughs) I’d sure like a middle speed. But it’s the only way I know how to do it. It’s not a choice. God, I would love to—there are plenty of people who can turn it off and still do great work.
What is a thousand miles to you, as a writer? Is it stuff like nine-day trips all over the world to do this and that, and all-night reading marathons—what else is a thousand miles an hour for you?
It’s all of it. Being fully engaged in the questions. It’s, you know, six months without a day off. It’s just being all in. You know what I mean? Just fully committed to doing it well.
I’m as hungry today as when I walked into the Times-Picayune 11 years ago.
Is that something that’s just always been in you, then? That curiosity about different people, that hunger just to know certain people?
I’ve got a list of people I’m fascinated by. I’ve been trying to get Roger Federer for years. Literally. Four, five years, every couple months I’ll email whoever does his PR. There’s a long list of people I’m interested in that I’m trying to work my way through.
Well, that makes me feel a little more normal. I feel like I have a touch of that. I feel like I’m barreling toward your two binders six inches thick obsession level on some things.
There’s just something there, where, some days, I’m like, I gotta chill out. Or something. I feel like I’m still learning to embrace it. It’s something I’m having to get comfortable with and learn to understand. It’s how I was when I was trying to make it as a baseball player. It was my life. And now it’s translated over to writing, which, thankfully, I’m a little better at than baseball. Because that didn’t go well.
But anyway. Urban Meyer. Did you come away from this believing he can change?
I don’t know. I’m hoping. I’m rooting for him. I don’t know the answer to that. I think, honestly—that’s a good question. The best you could say is, “Maybe.” In some ways, the poignancy is in fighting to change, even if that change is unlikely. “Because that’s what living is.” If I was gonna channel my inner Oliver Stone, I would just say, “Six inches in front of your face!”
No, but that’s it. I don’t know the answer to the question. It’s not gonna be easy. I think the last scene in that story is a pretty powerful indication of what could be to come in this odd set of rage and love.
We’ll see when the season starts, when the bullets start flying.
(Editor’s note/Spoiler Alert: Last scene below)
The door shuts, and his last meeting of the day begins. For the first time, the freshmen and veterans gather, the 2012 Buckeyes in full. Meyer sits calmly at the front of the room, as composed as the crisp lines on his shirt. A quote on the wall is from Matthew, 16th chapter: "What good is a man that gains the world yet loses his soul?" Behind him in his office, there's a blue rock and a pink piece of paper. He's been at the facility almost 12 hours. Breaking No. 4 -- working no more than nine hours a day -- couldn't be helped. Meyer lived up to all but one of his promises today.
His calm lasts until a player giggles.
From the back of the room, it's not clear who laughed, or why exactly, only that the players were making fun of a teammate while an assistant coach gave a speech. Meyer listens, waiting for the coach to finish, stewing, simmering, slowly beginning to burn. If he were transparent, like one of those med school teaching dummies, maybe you could see exactly where his rage lives and how it spreads. In imagination, it's a tiny, burning dot, surrounded by his humor and love for teaching, by the warm memories of 1986, by his desire to grow old and gray with Shelley, and the dot spreads and spreads until there's nothing but fire.
Meyer rises and interrupts the flow of the meeting, looking out at his team. His voice holds steady, but he says he's struggling not to climb into the seats and find the offending giggler. The fire is growing. He paces, back and forth, back and forth, waving his finger toward the center of the room. The air feels tense. Nobody makes a sound. There is one voice.
"Giggle-f---s," he says.
He slips, his language rough and mean, giving himself over to his rage: f-bombs, a flurry of curses, pounding on the soft and the weak, the unworthy who'd rather giggle than chase something bigger than themselves.
In 43 days, he says, Marotti will hand him a piece of paper with a list of names. "Grown-ass men," he says. That's who belongs on his team. No "giggle-f---s," he promises, pointing toward the big pictures of Ohio Stadium to his right.
"We're talking about our season," he roars. "We're going to that place."
His mind is there already.
The players will gather in the tunnel, walking out in scarlet, sunlight blinking off their silver helmets. He'll raise his fist and call the first-team defense. He can see it, a personification of his hopes and fears, of his contradictions: first the grown-ass men moving as one, then the giggle-f---s who can destroy what he spent months building. The sun will shine on silver helmets. The crowd will roar. The band will play. Maybe he'll slip off his headset for a moment, feeling the hot rain. Nothing else will matter. The helmets will sparkle, and the Buckeyes will advance, an army of gray. Standing before his players in the meeting room, he can smell it, hear it -- feel it even, in places he doesn't understand and can't control. Nobody makes a sound. Meyer's shirt is wrinkled, untucked a bit. Thick veins rise on both sides of his neck. He squints out at the team, his eyes dark, hiding everything and nothing at all.
What were some of those questions that you asked him that were so hard and blunt, and were there any he didn’t want to answer?
I don’t really remember. I asked him one question after another for days. He said there were other conversations he had with his dad that he didn’t want to talk about, and there is a picture of a weeping willow tree in his office, and he wouldn’t tell me what it was. Those are literally the only two things he shied away from.
He was really open. There was nothing off the table.
What was the overall process? How much time did the story take, from once you got the go-ahead, to reporting it, researching it, writing it, editing it, all that?
I was in Columbus probably Monday through, I think Saturday. Then I went home and I immediately transcribed all the tape. And I immediately started writing. I got home Saturday, then I started writing the next day, so I had to transcribe tape.
I had the greatest transcription day I’ve ever had on this story. We actually went and got drinks to celebrate. I did six or seven hours in a day. And so what I thought was gonna take a week to type, don’t hold me to this, I don’t really remember, but I think I did the whole thing in three days and then I started writing immediately.
I wrote for six days. And then I had a very small group of people who I send stuff to and we talk about it, and then I had two days of pretty heavy revisions on my own, where I probably went through 3-4 different variations.
By that Wednesday, I guess, which would’ve been two weeks, two and a half weeks after I got back, I sent it in to Paul Kix at the magazine, and we started that process, and he and I went through three or four goes, and then I was in San Fransisco with Sonia, and I was working on it in the mornings. So I would work half a day, then she and I would go puck around.
And then it closed on July 30. And then went online yesterday (Wednesday, Aug. 8). So from getting on an airplane to it appearing it would’ve been from June 17 to Aug. 8.
That’s a pretty quick turnaround for a lot of your stories, isn’t it?
It’s a really quick turnaround. I didn’t really do anything else.
And it came in over 7,000 words, didn’t it?
I know that for online that’s not necessarily long, for you, but the magazine typically doesn’t run stuff at that length.
It’s long for anything. (laughs)
How was that to navigate?
Well, it’s just, what’s the story? I felt real strong about it when it was done. When I sent it in. and I sent it in way early because I knew it was gonna need eight or nine pages and I just wanted to give everybody as much of a chance—everybody likes great stories and wants to run them. Just, certain realities exist about space and everything that has to work in concert. The difference between magazine and online is that online the only thing that matters is the story be as great as it can be, and in the magazine, that’s just not true. Because there are all sorts of other things. It’s an enormous, complicated puzzle that needs to be put together. So I just wanted to make sure everyone had as much time as they needed, and they were awesome. Great edit from Paul, and then from J.B. and Chad.
Chad is as good an editor-in-chief as there is anywhere. He did the last edit with me where we just went through it on the phone, just real subtle stuff that made it better, which is an awesome feeling, and you can see it. These guys are fun. We had really great conversations about almost every sentence. What is this trying to do? Why? What is this accomplishing? What are you giving up? It’s a really awesome, that’s the fun stuff. I don’t really, it running is not nearly as exciting as the process. That stuff’s awesome. That’s what you dream about when you do this. To have really thoughtful, interesting conversations about stories. And it’s a whole group of people from Paul to J.B. to Chad to Hallie, research, everybody, fully invested in you doing well—it’s freaking awesome. It’s a rush. It’s a really cool thing.
Yeah, that team aspect of writing is something, because writing is so often such a solitary thing, to get all those different people involved and get that team feel going, yeah, it’s awesome. Is that something that means something to you, getting to work with people after spending so much time toiling alone?
Actually, I want people invested in the beginning. I was talking the entire time on the phone to Paul, from Columbus. Every day. It’s teamwork. It’s, I don’t know. The correct pronoun for any story is “we.”
I guess I was thinking more in terms of the transcribing and just the hours by yourself in front of the computer, writing.
Oh, that part sucks, yeah. Absolutely.
Who’s in that group of friends you send your stories to?
It changes by story.
Who was it for this one?
Seth Wickersham (ESPN The Magazine), Claire Howorth (The Daily), and Ben Montgomery (Tampa Bay Times, Gangrey.com).
Does Sonia (Wright’s wife) read your stuff, too?
Oh, nah, she doesn’t give a shit.
(laugh) Yeah, it’s funny.
Oh yeah, she didn’t read this story.
What does she do?
She’s a magazine editor. (laughs)
No way, that’s really funny. Very interesting dynamic there.
Well, it’s her job, she doesn’t want to work when she comes home.
What was your expectation going into the story, if you had one, and then how did things evolve?
I didn’t really have one. I wanted to answer my own questions about what was going on here. What had gone wrong? And would it go wrong again? What was he doing? Why is he coaching? These simple questions. And then the story was just set up to be structured to be about the same conflict manifest in many different ways, but it moves along an arc.
It’s ’86 versus 2009. It’s love versus rage. It’s calm versus rage. It’s old versus new, it’s change versus reverting. It’s all these things at play and they move along an arc.
You end up watching someone struggle—that’s the idea.
Did you talk to his wife and kids at length, too?
I talked to Shelley for a long time, and then I talked to Nate, I talked to Gigi for like 30 seconds. She was going somewhere. Then I went back to him a lot. I went back to Shelley, I went back to Urban three, four, five times. So yeah. There was a lot of going back, a lot of phone conversations and emails.
How did they feel about the story, compared to Meyer? Were they pretty open?
I thought they were open. I thought Shelley was, and she might disagree, but I thought she seemed protective of him. Everybody was just cautiously open.
Any particularly difficult obstacles that popped up along the way, or anything else that was a particular challenge?
I had all sorts of stuff—priceless, behind the scenes stuff from this football program—that just didn’t really fit into the story. Didn’t make it. Some of that was difficult.
I was in there when they were planning the philosophy of the offense. Nothing to do with the story. Super interesting, but nothing to do with the story, so it’s not in there.
What to leave out is always challenging.
What would you think of, if at The Mag or the dot-com or wherever, if they put together like an outtakes package or deleted scenes type of thing, sort of like you find on DVDs and whatnot? I’ve always found that interesting, and I’ve seen it done here or there, but yeah, was wondering what you’d think of something like that.
No, I wouldn’t want it. I wouldn’t want to do that. The story is the story. You know what I mean? I don’t think it should be a notebook dump. I think you go and you tell your story, and if it doesn’t make it, it doesn’t make it. I hated them re-releasing all the other endings to The Sun Also Rises. The man picked the ending. Fucking burn the rest of them.
Did you have any favorite parts of this whole process?
There were a couple days of really intense conversation, and it was fun. Just a fun process of exploration. And it was very clear that everything was on the table. So I don’t know. The reporting is always the most fun, for me.
Anything else you’d like to plug? Anything else you got going on?
There’s a lot in the early stages. The Lionel Messi profile. Then I’m going to the World Cup in Sri Lanka.
How’s the Messi profile coming along?
I haven’t done anything. Well, I’ve done a lot of reading. Well not a lot. I’ve read, three or four hundred pages of clips and a biography.
When do you think you’ll be heading over there?
I’m going to Argentina on the 24th.
That should be cool, I’m looking forward to reading that.
Yeah, I’m real excited about it.
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I really can't thank Wright and all the Stories' Stories participants over the past several months enough for sharing their insight into the craft.
Make sure to show Wright some love in the comments or on Twitter, where he is @wrightthompson. And if you have any questions for me or Wright about the story or anything else, the comments are open.