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CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

Urban strikes gold right away; stigma of Tressel scandal already gone


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Thirteen months ago in the conference room not too far from here, a career was falling apart and Ohio State football was breaking apart.

You remember the legend formerly known as Tressel and mess he caused. You wouldn't have Wednesday, even though it had been slightly more than a year since the Tattoogate scandal broke here, in full bloom setting off a year of college athletics scandal in 2011. When Urban Meyer emerged to announce his first Ohio State recruiting class, the stain had been removed, the stench cleared away.

"It's like nothing happened," recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. "Business as usual."

Goodbye Buckeye Five, hello Meyer's first 25. A Hazmat crew couldn't have cleaned up this program's toxic spill any quicker. Ohio State is among only a handful of schools -- maybe five or 10 -- that could have survived such a day-by-day (bleep) storm that was 2011. Ohio State might be the only one that could have out of it -- improved.

Consider that the school traded in a national championship coach for one who has two titles. The ranking of this year's class, No. 3 with a bullet according to Lemming, suggests the recruits themselves were able to look past the sleazy goings-on that disgraced the proud Ohio State heritage.

"People have a six-month memory," Lemming said. "That's why Miami is doing well. North Carolina will do well. USC did well after that major infraction."

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All of those schools are, or will be, on NCAA probation. Ohio State began to dig out Wednesday with a class heavy on linemen -- a good place to start in the Big Ten. Meyer was able to turn -- recruitniks call it "flip" -- eight prospects who had previously been committed to other schools.

When the fax machine stopped, it was like 2010 never happened. Officially, of course, it didn't -- the season was vacated as the scandal grew. But a year ago, we hadn't found out yet that Tressel had hidden those emails detailing benefits gained from a tattoo parlor owner. A year ago, Terrelle Pryor was still a legitimate Heisman candidate for 2011. It was only six months ago when Ohio State faced the NCAA infractions committee.

Then it was like everything happened. Sixty-five days ago, Meyer took the job. Twenty-two days after that, Ohio State got handed that one-year bowl ban.

Urban's renewal suffered a body blow, or as he called it, "a shot."

"When it hit, it was damage control for two, three weeks," Meyer said. "Everyone was taken aback."

The new staff, still shaking hands getting to know each other, lowered their heads and moved the pile. Recruiting versions of Archie Griffin with cell phones stuck to their ears. They landed Noah Spence, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound defensive end that Meyer compared to Florida's Jarvis Moss. They got similarly sized Se'Von Pittman, another defensive end from nearby Canton.

Cleveland offensive lineman Kyle Dodson faxed in his letter of intent so late, the press releases had to be redistributed to the media. For all the baubles Meyer has developed in his career -- Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Jeff Demps, etc. -- he understands that strength in both lines is going to get him back to the top.

Meyer turned as he left the press conference podium to hammer home the point.

"Dodson," he said, "was huge."

Is huge at 6-foot-6, 310. A local kid from Cleveland. Pat Elflein was another one. The 6-3, 285-pound offensive lineman signed his papers during a school assembly at nearby Pickerington North High. Someone snuck in a cardboard cutout of mascot Brutus. The proceedings quickly turned into a scarlet and gray pep rally.

All that was left was for someone to scream, "We're back!"

"I don't think the bowl ban matters," said Tom Phillips, Elflein's high school coach. "You have an Ohio State prospect in the state of Ohio. They want to play for Ohio State. I was sold on Ohio State. I want to play for Ohio State."

The Bucks are ramping back up so fast it might be the 2012 Midwest version of USC. The Trojans had the best record in the Pac-12 South Division but was going through the second year of a postseason ban. That left mediocre UCLA to get thumped by Oregon in an underwhelming first Pac-12 title game. By the end of the year, USC might have been the best team you didn't see in the postseason.

"[Ohio State administration] calculated the NCAA penalties and it didn't come out the right way," said John Epitropoulos, son of Frank, an incoming receiver from Upper Arlington, Ohio. "I know I wasn't happy as a parent. Even though your son is going to be a freshman, you still want that bowl experience, bowl practice. It really helps your underclassmen."

So we are left to watch how the once-fragile existence of Meyer progresses in a bowl vacuum. The coach who suffered from exhaustion, esophageal spasms and had lost so much weight at Florida, strength coach Mickey Marotti said: "His pants were sagging, [like] he had poop in his drawers," has been renewed. The conduct that wore him down -- that relentless drive -- has made him great again.

If you're going to work for Meyer, you have to want to recruit. He carefully assembled his staff with three holdovers (former interim head coach Luke Fickell and Buckeyes legend Mike Vrabel among them), a familiar Florida guy (Marotti) and six other new coaches.

"I love it," Meyer said of recruiting. "To say I enjoy getting on a plane and flying the red-eyes and all this, I probably would be lying to you. Enjoying that I know I have 6-6, 6-8 offensive tackles where we need them is every bit worth it. Love that part of it."

Back in April as the scandal grew, a local paper called Lemming to ask who could replace Tressel.

"I told them only two guys could save you, Nick Saban or Urban Meyer," Lemming said. "They bring in coaches and they understand their job description is for 365 days a year, they have to recruit."

With one two-time national champion coach spoken for, Ohio State quickly snatched up the best coaching free agent on the market. Meyer's second retirement from Florida lasted less than a year.

"I also know him pretty well," Marotti said. "What else was he going to do?"

An Ohio native came home because he could tap into a rich recruiting pipeline. Fickell was asked that if everything had gone wrong -- multiple-year bowl ban, more scholarships taken away -- could Ohio State have survived even then? Sure, with just Ohio kids. There are enough of them. Fickell -- having been born, raised and played his football in Columbus -- ought to know.

"Absolutely," he said. "Ohio State has a great foundation. It will always be a great place to be. If they bring somebody new in, the foundation will never change."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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