COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Imagine, if you will, someone who had emerged from beneath the earth into Ohio Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, someone who hadn't had internet access or been in a room with a television or read a single word of sports news in, let's say, two months. Imagine that someone simply had shown up to watch Ohio State host Tulane in a football game. If someone had done that, and had been able to take in the mismatch at surface level, with zero context, they likely wouldn't have had any idea that anything in Columbus was any different than it ever is on an cool autumn Saturday afternoon.
That's exactly how Urban Meyer wanted it when he returned to the sideline after serving a three-week suspension for improperly handling spousal abuse allegations against longtime assistant coach Zach Smith. That's how the majority of the 103,336 fans in attendance wanted it. Everyone wanted everything to return to normal. A normal game-day routine. A normal win over an overwhelmed opponent. A normal postgame news conference so that everyone could file his or her normal postgame story. Just please feel normal.
But there is context. There are plenty of levels below the surface of this situation. Anyone with awareness of the past two months in Columbus who really watched Meyer, his team and his supporters saw cracks in the facade everywhere.
It did not feel normal. It will not feel normal. Especially with the biggest game of No. 4 Ohio State's season rapidly approaching -- Saturday's visit to No. 9 Penn State (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
"That was an extremely emotional moment for me," Meyer admitted this past Saturday when asked about his first game-day appearance of 2018. "I'll be honest, it caught me off-guard."
A couple of hours before kickoff of the Tulane game, Meyer led his team into the Skull Session, the traditional pep rally held in St. John Arena, across Woody Hayes Drive from the fabled Horseshoe. That was normal. The standing ovation he received was not. The packed house was normal. The T-shirts they wore and the signs they held that read "Urban Legends Never Die," "Urban Strong" and "Free at Last!" were not.
"I missed you, band," is how Meyer opened his comments once the applause finally ebbed.
The street preacher set up at the corner of Jesse Owens Plaza, awaiting the team en route the stadium, his presence was normal. His message was not. "I warn you, you cannot hide!" he shouted. "Your sin will find you out! Ask Urban Meyer. It took a year, but his sin found him out!" A nearby family member, handing out religious tracts, explained: "His message on sin is always the same. But today's example is new. It has been revised."
Before and during the game, Meyer's routine was also revised. Many of his traditional pregame handshakes and hugs for his players lingered a little longer. He laughed it up and hugged it out with early-arriving fans. He even completed an "O-H" cheer from the student section with an "I-O" hand motion. On the sideline, he kept his hands on shoulder pads longer and smiled more. After the game, he talked about not taking things for granted, the rawness of absence, the out-of-body experience of watching his team on television, the pain of missing out on the little beauties that come with the job.
He even admitted to getting a little choked up when the band played "Hang On Sloopy." Urban Meyer loves that song. That's no secret. But emotional? Over the 1965 hit -- the only hit -- of The McCoys? That, most definitely, isn't normal. Is it? "It's always the same one," he said when asked to identify the most poignant moment of the day. "Between the third and fourth quarters and hearing the band play 'Hang On Sloopy.' It's been that way now for seven years."
OK, maybe that is normal for Meyer. As normal as it can be.
Meyer reflects on first game back
Urban Meyer discusses his emotions during his first game back on the sideline for Ohio State after a three-game suspension.
Part of the new normal is to treat Zach Smith as a scarlet and gray Lord Voldemort. No one on the banks of the Olentangy River between I-670 and I-270 dares say his name aloud. At least they all try not to. They don't really have to try, because he's not going away, certainly not if the Buckeyes keep winning.
In the end, many still can't resist.
"Who doesn't know a married couple that's having major issues, am I right?" Tony Johnson, a contractor from the Cincinnati area said from the wooden seats of St. John, moments before Meyer entered the Skull Session. Johnson held a "Welcome Back Coach Meyer" sign as his wife nodded in agreement over his shoulder. "The only mistake Urban has made is being too good of a guy. But I hope he's not too good of a guy when we're kicking Penn State's ass next weekend."
"You want everyone to forget about Zach Smith?" an eavesdropping fan interjected from two rows back. "Beat Tulane today. Beat Penn State next week. By the time we stomp Michigan's asses, people will be asking, 'Zach who?'"
Maybe. That's certainly the hope, to bend the 2018 conversation back toward football. That's what Meyer did during his post-Tulane interviews. That's what he did during his Monday and Tuesday media appearances. But the Zach Smith story still managed to bubble to the surface Sunday morning, when Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith awoke to reports of a head-coach-in-waiting designation for Ryan Day, who held the reins during Meyer's absence, going 3-0. Gene Smith denied it. Meyer said, "I haven't given any thought to that."
It happened again on Tuesday afternoon, when Shelley Meyer, the coach's wife and a major name in the Zach Smith investigation, took to social media to respond to a Penn State version of an Urban Meyer T-shirt that read "Urban Liar." "This is the lowest thing I have seen from a fan base," she wrote in a now-deleted tweet. "Doesn't match up w what your coach said he wants for visitors. Thanks for the hospitality."
Penn State fans responded with reminders of some ill-advised post-Jerry Sandusky scandal apparel and signage from Ohio State fans since the story of the convicted child predator and former assistant coach erupted in 2011. Shelley Meyer deleted her tweet as the exchange descended into further internet madness.
See? Not going away. That's a reality Penn State is all too familiar with, a campus and football program that still holds its collective breath each day, hoping no one mentions Sandusky's name even now, seven years later. They, too, are familiar with the idea of throwing oneself into football as a refuge and distraction, hoping that the rest of the world follows along.
"The outside noise, no matter what the story or what the cause or how long ago it took place, all you can do is turn to what you know and what you can control," Penn State head coach James Franklin explained one year ago, delicately addressing the scandal that still clouds the name of his employer, all while preparing for a game that at the time was every bit as big as this weekend's Ohio State matchup. "The kids on that roster, if they didn't cause whatever it was that's threatening to send your program into a tailspin, then your job is keep them focused on their job. That challenge comes with how you handle the highs and how you handle the lows. Because honestly, the amount of noise attached to both, when you're 19 years old, there's not a lot of difference. Either one can eat you alive. The real leaders are the ones who can step up to that moment and say, 'OK, follow me.' When it's going bad, you pray you have the leaders in your building who can do that."
That's exactly what Urban Meyer was thinking as he drove home from Ohio Stadium after the Tulane game. After spending the day wrestling with own feelings about how to bring back what was normal, he thought back to his own comments at the postgame podium. Somewhere between juggling questions about his return and Penn State, he'd fielded a handful of questions about his quarterback, Dwayne Haskins. Now, with some drive-time clarity, he remembered how the framing of those questions about the sophomore's nearly flawless performance (21-of-24, 304 yards, 5 TDs) and his 16 TD passes in four games and his rising Heisman stock and ... wait ... had Meyer really said that Haskins was the kind of leader it would take to go into Happy Valley and lead a team to victory? Did he really compare him to Alex Smith at Utah and Cardale Jones during his legendary College Football Playoff performance of 2015?
The coach, now finally in full football mode, picked up the phone and called his quarterback.
"I called him just with that message, to stay focused," Meyer explained Monday. "We've had some pretty high-profile guys around here, and I've seen it. I've seen it, you know, go both ways. One thing about Columbus, Ohio: This is the show. They become bigger than life ..."
Yes, they do. Meyer knows firsthand. They become bigger than life in Gainesville, Florida, too. So big that it becomes easy to lose touch, hidden within echo chambers constructed by yes-men, where one begins to believe that it's OK to fumble the details, then act like you didn't. Even when that system breaks down and situations go bad, people still hold rallies in your honor and print defiant T-shirts with your name on them. Bigger than life becomes a way of life. Until that life is taken away, even if for only three games.
"It was so good to have Coach Meyer back in the locker room and on the sideline, knowing that he's back now for good," Haskins said this past Saturday night. "Things felt new, but they also felt normal. It was great to feel normal again."
Ohio State will see on Saturday night just what its new normal is, and if it can hold up within the crucible of one of college football's most abnormal environments.