The Man Selling Ketchup Popsicles
Why Mike Vrabel is Already Breaking the Mold at Ohio State
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — A year ago Mike Vrabel wasn’t sure he wanted to be a coach.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Six months ago Urban Meyer wasn’t sure he wanted him on his staff at Ohio State.
Now the two have formed what has developed into one of the more dangerous recruiting combinations in the country.
With the help of his 36-year old defensive line coach, Meyer has landed some of the biggest names in recruiting since taking over the program after last season. He also may have discovered one of the brightest young recruiters in the game.
“Basically, he went out on a two-week mission to show me he could go recruit,” Meyer said of Vrabel, who enters his second season on the coaching staff at Ohio State.
“I would have to say, with all due respect to the other eight coaches on the staff, if he’s not the best, he’s one of the best recruiters I have on staff. That tells you what kind of future this young guy has in college football.”
It also says a lot about how far Vrabel has come in just one year, though he isn’t taking all the credit.
“It's easy to sell Ohio State,” Vrabel said of his alma mater.
“It's not a very hard sell job. So it's our players, it's the people that are here. It's easy for me because I experienced it. That's not a real tough sell job. It's not like I'm trying to sell ketchup popsicles to a woman in white gloves. It's pretty easy.”
More Than Rings
Photo by Jim Davidson
Meyer wasn’t really sure what to make of Vrabel when Meyer agreed to become the Buckeyes’ head coach in November, but he certainly wanted to find out. He was intrigued enough to place a phone call to his good friend Bill Belichick, who coached Vrabel for seven years in New England.
“The NFL is dominated by X's and O's and film study, and while that is certainly an important part of college football, the NFL really obsesses over it,” said Marc Givler, who covers all aspects of Ohio State recruiting for BuckeyeGrove.com, an affiliate of the Rivals/Yahoo! Sports network.
“Because of that, you often have guys coming from the NFL who aren't prepared to recruit—and recruiting is absolutely the most important aspect of attaining success at the college level. Some guys can't get out of that X's and O's mode and would much rather spend their entire day breaking down film and working on schemes instead of building relationships with recruits.”
That was Meyer’s biggest concern when it came to Vrabel, a Pro Bowl linebacker who played the game with an edge, even back when he was at Ohio State. Meyer wanted to find out if Vrabel’s heart was really into coaching, or if he was just looking for something to do.
“Kids might initially be impressed by flashing the Super Bowl rings and talking about the NFL career but ultimately there has to be some substance to go along with that,” Givler told the-Ozone.
(MORE: Check out our full Q & A with Givler)
“Recruiting is a marathon and is largely based upon building relationships. Vrabel has already proven he understands that. He has done a great job of really getting through to the kids that he has been able to work with at camps and on the team during practices.”
A football player, and a darn good one for so many years, Vrabel was still trying to finish out his NFL career in Kansas City—or anywhere else in need of a savvy, veteran linebacker who had lost a few steps—at this time a year ago.
The NFL was locked out and Vrabel wasn’t sure what his future would hold, or which teams might take a flyer on him, when he answered a phone call that would change his path in football, forever.
On the other end of that call was Luke Fickell, Vrabel’s college roommate and teammate on Ohio State’s defensive line in the mid 1990s.
“I don’t know if Mike was quite ready to be done with football yet, but Luke needed someone he could trust in a tough situation,” said John McCallister, a former high school teacher and football coach in Northwest Ohio who works closely on scouting with colleges around the area.
“Plus, it gave Mike a way to retire from the NFL gracefully without having to be told it was time to go.”
Force to Be Reckoned With
As player, Vrabel was one of the all-time greats for the scarlet and gray. He still holds the school record for sacks (36) and tackles for loss (66) in Columbus. He was a two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year who won three Super Bowls with the Patriots, but none of that qualified him to be a member of Meyer’s “all-star” coaching staff.
“When I talked to him about keeping him on the Ohio State staff, I said it’s very simple,” Meyer exclaimed.
“We are, at the end of the day, going to be judged by the talent level and how good you are at bringing quality student-athletes to Ohio State.”
That’s where Vrabel has already made a mark in his brief time as a recruiter. It was during that two-week mission back in December that Vrabel helped Meyer land a commitment from Pennsylvania defensive end Noah Spence—widely considered to be one of the top defensive prospects in the entire country.
Vrabel also had a hand in the recruitment of linebacker Camren Williams—son of former Patriots linebacker Brent Williams—and his teammate Armani Reeves—two kids of Massachusetts who will be suiting up for the Buckeyes this fall.
“His connections in that part of the country were the big reason Ohio State was able to get into that mix when things at Penn State began to fall apart in the winter,” Givler said.
Vrabel also played a major role in landing commitments from defensive end Tracy Sprinkle and blue-chip defensive tackle Michael Hill—considered to be the top player in the state of South Carolina for the 2013 class.
According to Givler, Vrabel also has Ohio State in the mix for 4-star Tarboro (N.C.) defensive end Tyquan Lewis in this class, along with kids like Clifton Garrett and Da'Shawn Hand—two of the top defensive players in the country for the class of 2014.
“Obviously the NFL experience and all of the accolades have helped him,” Givler said.
“That gets your foot in the door with the kids, but once your foot is in the door, you have to be able to relate to them and communicate with them, and I think he's been way ahead of the curve in that aspect.”
So does McCallister, who has known Vrabel since he was a prep star coming out of Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls back in 1993. He agrees that Super Bowl rings will open doors, but kids today are looking for more.
“I think what has really impressed me is the way he teaches the game,” McCallister said.
“Some guys can do it but they can’t teach it. Mike really gets in there and shows kids, not just what they’re doing wrong, but how to do it right. I think they realize he is going to make them a better football player.”
At 36 years old, he’s just getting started.
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