COLUMBUS — Mickey Marotti almost walked away on the spot.
The Ohio State strength coach had just sat down on a black bench in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for a conversation when the game ball he was given last week was mentioned.
“Oh stop,” Marotti said. “I mean, I don’t want the attention. God, no.
“At first, I was just like: ‘What are we doing? No, don’t do that.’ It’s not about me.”
After smiling and laughing, Marotti quickly shifted the attention to the rest of the army of support staffers at Ohio State who work alongside him every day, just like he did in the immediate aftermath of being presented a rare token of recognition in the locker room after the win last week over Michigan State.
Marotti has never sought the spotlight, has never tried to take any public credit for the success of a program that is forged through his legendary workouts and certainly didn’t expect that Ohio State coach Ryan Day would call him up to accept a game ball in front of the team. For starters, the Buckeyes rarely ever hand them out at all since they haven’t traditionally been given to players, and Marotti wasn’t the one out there on the field battling the Spartans.
But now in his eighth season with the program, Marotti has probably earned the recognition now more than ever given his importance in the transition from his old boss Urban Meyer to his new one. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that Marotti helped mold one of the most talented rosters Ohio State has ever seen and helped inject it with his own steely toughness, which has fueled the unbeaten start through the first six weeks of the season.
So, just like he was once the most important hire for Meyer in establishing the foundation of the program, Marotti being retained by Day was just as critical for the Buckeyes.
“I mean, I want to be here for the same reasons I was here before,” Marotti told Lettermen Row. “Everything that goes with Ohio State, the people, the excellence, the players, the program itself, the expectations, the highest level resources, the coaching staff — everybody. My role really wasn’t going to change, which was very important to me. You can’t be in a program and then have your role change, because kids are going to wonder what I’m doing.
“I believe in Coach Day, I have a history with him from here and even back at Florida. His people are my people. His little circle of trusted people are the same circle of trust people that I have. So, we have a lot in common, and I love the challenge here. If I can help our athletes understand where they’re at, where they need to be, what they’ve got to do to get there and what the process is, then I’m all in. If I can’t do that, then I won’t be a part of it. When Coach Day took over — it was like, this is the way we’re doing it, and they believe in it. Toughness has got to be the No. 1 thing.”
The Buckeyes have made that a calling card this season, and it’s become one of the most common words around the program everywhere from workouts to interview sessions to social-media posts highlighting the Tough Love theme embraced by Day.
Clearly, that mantra has trickled down for Ohio State. And it’s no secret who the primary messenger is at Ohio State.
“I thought to beat a team like [Michigan State], you have to play tough,” Day said. “We talked about that going into the game, and I thought we did. And to finish off these six games tough — we gave the game ball to Coach Mick, because he’s the guy that this whole thing is built upon. He’s the backbone. And he’s the blood that runs through this whole program.
“And to say we’re tough, it’s because of him and his strength staff and all the work that they put in with these guys and our coaching staff getting on the field and doing the same thing in the meeting room. It’s everybody involved. We’re all into this thing. And I think they’re taking a lot of pride in being tough.”
Marotti obviously gets a great deal of satisfaction out of seeing his players live up to that standard on the field, and those results and the development of the Buckeyes on and off the field are what his job is all about.
His relationship with the players is special, and he admitted that if he had tried to make his postgame speech about them on Saturday, he “probably would have broke down.” Fortunately for him, Marotti has been training for years to deflect the spotlight elsewhere, and in this case he knew exactly where he wanted it to go.
“I kind of diverted it to more of a reminder that these guys can’t do this without the rest of the strength staff and the trainers — because those are the unsung heroes,” Marotti said. “They take care of these kids all the time, and I thought that was a good time to recognize the rest of the performance staff.
“I mean, I’m humbled. I’ll put it up on my mantle. It’s cool, because this is a special team and you put a lot of hard work into these guys. … My wife was like, ‘Who has been getting game balls? Who got the game ball last week?’ We don’t give game balls, we never give game balls. We gave Ryan Day a game ball for his first win, we gave Gene Smith a game ball for one of his accomplishments, we gave Urban a game ball after The Team Up North. But we just don’t do that, because we recognize the players and you’re not allowed to give game balls to players.”
Mickey Marotti is worth an exception to the no game-ball rule. And he’s probably the only guy at Ohio State who might argue otherwise.