According to a new research article by Steve Gavazzi, dean of Ohio State Mansfield, Ohio State football players must navigate a rite-of-passage system put in place by head coach Urban Meyer if they want to be recognized as successful team members and leaders.
By Adam King
If Ohio State football players believe they are big men on campus as soon as they walk through the doors of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, they’re in for a bit of a surprise.
According to a new research article by Steve Gavazzi, dean of Ohio State Mansfield, players must navigate a rite-of-passage system put in place by head coach Urban Meyer if they want to be recognized as successful team members and leaders. The article, “Turning Boys into Men: The Incentive-based System in Urban Meyer’s Plan to Win,” appeared in the September issue of the International Sport Coaching Journal.
The players climb a Blue-Red-Gold (BRG) privilege ladder, which they ascend as they show more mature behaviors on and off the field. The system intrigued Gavazzi when he read a newspaper article about it, mainly because it paralleled his research with adolescents and families as a professor of human development and family science.
“It felt like a no-brainer to me that Urban was setting up a rite of passage for his players,” said Gavazzi, who developed a similar system at a mental health clinic as a graduate student. “He wasn’t familiar with the rites-of-passage literature, but it struck a chord for him during our conversations and very much resonated with how he’s always worked with his football players.”
Gavazzi had two in-depth interviews with Meyer and several meetings with Brian Voltolini, the Buckeyes’ director of football operations. Gavazzi wanted to get a feel for how the system worked, the belief system behind it and how it compared with the systems of football programs around the country.
Meyer told Gavazzi he created the BRG system not just to win football games but also to build better men who in the future will be good husbands and fathers. Its core values feature “behavioral commandments (honesty, respect for women, no drugs, no stealing and no weapons) and a strong emphasis on classroom success,” Gavazzi wrote. All players attend a meeting that explains the BRG process before the season starts, and they and their parents receive a printed handbook detailing the system.
“Urban has had great success everywhere he went. But his plan now is refined to a point that it’s extraordinary,” Gavazzi said. “For someone like me to find that inside a football program, it was very surprising. But it made a lot of sense given the degree of success he’s had.”
In the system, any new player starts at the Blue level, defined by a need for critical academic attention. That means eight hours of mandatory tutoring per week and zero tolerance for unexcused class absences.
When players show they can minimize academic difficulties — getting good grades and having good class attendance — they advance to the Red level. Mandatory tutoring falls to six hours a week and players are allowed two unexcused absences from class each semester before discipline is handed down.
Reaching the Gold level signifies players have become men. Here, they are consistently showing responsibility in their academics and behavior, leading to more latitude in how they are monitored. At this stage, tutoring sessions are voluntary and players are allowed three unexcused absences.
“What was most impressive was the fact that Urban was applying this methodology to all aspects of the student-athlete’s life,” Gavazzi said. “There was a Blue-Red-Gold system for the weight room, for practices and for classes. He uses the same methodology in the recruitment process and rates the athletes as they’re coming up and [he’s] watching them develop.”
Exceptional behavior in BRG is recognized through the Champions Club, which entails a quarterly awards ceremony and annual banquet for players who are always prompt for workouts and have no discipline or academic issues. More than just a verbal pat on the back, players can receive such things as higher-quality athletic clothing or steak dinners while other players are served hot dogs.
Players at all levels of the system comprise the BRG’s Leadership Committee, which acts as a court of peers. Meyer and strength coach Mickey Marotti personally select committee members for their leadership qualities or potential. “The motto here is ‘your teammates decide your fate,’” Gavazzi wrote in his paper.
Gavazzi hopes to write additional papers exploring Meyer’s system. Next, he wants to compare and contrast BRG with other coaches’ systems and talk to former players and their relatives to see how much they credit the system for the players’ successes in life after leaving Ohio State.
“I know that if I had a son who was going to play football at that level, this is the kind of coach I would want him to play for,” Gavazzi said.