Summer Book Review

Urban Meyer’s “Above the Line”

In honor of my book being published (Cautious Aggression – click the link to get your copy), I figured I’d review the book I read to start the summer, Urban Meyer’s “Above the Line.” I believe that reading allows us to open our minds and truly think critically about the actions we have taken. Reading pushes us to redefine our reality and forces us to take a critical eye on our actions. Fiction books allow us to escape, highlighting the things we are trying to run away from. Non-fiction and coaching books, in particular, force the reader to look inward and inspires us to do better than we have been. As Harry S. Truman once put it, “… all leaders are readers.” Maybe you are looking for more ideas on leadership or a new way to approach the game of football, reading helps us grow. Meyer’s says it clearly at the beginning of his book, “Leaders are learners,” (p. 7).

I was introduced to Urban Meyer’s book last year when the concept of “Above the Line” became our motto for the season at Lovejoy. This summer my new head coach, Doug Wendel (Midlothian HS, TX), gave each member of the staff a copy of the book and challenged us to find 6-7 items to discuss. Luckily I was looking for a book to read and being introduced to the title and concept last year I was excited to get started.

Though I am not a big Urban Meyer/Ohio State guy, being from Big 12 and SEC country, he has always been a coach I’ve taken pause to listen too. Since he was a young coach Meyer has won. What intrigued me the most about this book was that these are his thoughts post-Florida. We call know Meyer’s health was an issue in Gainsville, and he details this in the book. As coaches, we sometimes get too caught up in the game and forget what is really important, our well-being and families. The book “Above the Line” is much more than an indoctrinating piece on how to run a program, a self-serving look at Meyer’s career, or even how to be an “Ohio man.” Meyer details a step-by-step philosophy for building a culture that is truly worth a read.

Above the Line

Great coaches are brutally honest because they have to be. Meyer’s states, “If you avoid the truth… you are teaching your players that it’s OK to do the same thing.” It is their culture that they must protect and in order to do that everyone has to be aligned, player to head coach. The more I listen to coaches like Meyer, Belichick, and Saban, the more I believe in the stoic philosophy of self-control and fortitude. As coaches we preach “stay the course,” “loyalty,” and discipline, but how often do we practice what we preach in our daily lives or career?

I wrote in the prologue of my book about my battle with ego and how Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, really made me realize how selfishness can really undermine your goals and compromise the dreams of those around you. Read below:

… At the end of the day we all have to make decisions. As Ryan Holiday put it in his book Ego is the Enemy:

To be or to do – life is a constant roll call.”

In this section of the book, Holiday explains that in life we have to make choices. That there is an unavoidable fork in the road. We can either be some-body or do something. To be somebody is what our culture has impressed upon us from a young age. The problem with being somebody is that we have to make compromises and many times those compromises make us lose ourselves. We make choices selfishly and don’t realize the damage we are doing to those that love us, our family.

Cautious Aggression p. 14-15

Urban Meyer was at the peak of his career and had to quit because it became too much, he was losing his family and his sanity. “Above the Line” is a direct reaction to Meyer’s fight against his ego and his failures at Florida (though there weren’t many). With the help of Tim Kight, Meyer established ground rules and a strict guideline for what it would take to be an Ohio State Buckeye.

Most coaches understand the in order to move forward a program must be aligned from top to bottom and everyone must carry their own weight. Meyer’s book describes his system for all coaches and leaders alike to read. Each chapter describes a fundamental principle within the Buckeye program and culminates with Meyer’s and the Buckeyes winning a National Title (his comments on Saban the year prior while watching them as an analyst are priceless). Below are some of the key quotes that really made me think:

“Average leaders have quotes. Good leaders have a plan. Exceptional leaders have a system.” – p. 9

I love this quote because too many times we run across “quote guys,” or coaches that say one thing then do the other. It is important to understand, if you want to be seen as a great leader then you must toe the line. As Marcus Aurelius stated, “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” Don’t BE anything, DO great things and the rest will follow.

Elite performers win in their minds first. – p. 45

The greats are great because of their minds. Elite is nothing more than mental preparation meeting talent. We’ve all seen great athletes fall to the wayside because the mental part of the game was too much, or they didn’t want to work for it. I wrote in my book and I believe in it wholeheartedly, now more than ever, football is an intellectual’s game. Mind over matter. If you want to be an elite coach and you want to have elite players, start with the head first. That goes for resiliency too. Mental toughness is learned right along with preparation. Meyer explains later in the book, “We believe that being elite is not about how talented you are. It is about how tough you are,” (p. 89).

Preparation + Mental Toughness = Elite Performances. Don’t be it, DO it!

“Your team, business, or organization will preform to the level of leadership you provide.” – p. 65

Whether a position coach or the top dog, you set the standard for what happens under your watch. You must have the highest expectations in the room. Players can be lifted up or chained to the expectations we put on them. Be the standard and challenge your athletes to DO BETTER. Meyer says it best right after the above quote, “…leadership isn’t the difference, it is the difference maker.

Meyer’s “not-so-hidden” secret to success:

“…clarify what you really want, then work as hard as you can for as long as it takes.” – p.91

We live in the age of “fake-it-’til-you-make-it,” but that does not lead to sustained success. Everyone gets lucky sometimes, but how do you keep success once you have it? By working hard and getting better each day! Being a great coach takes time. Throughout the book, Meyer is candid about his many failures as a coach and leader, but there is one thing he never lacked, toughness and an embrace for the grind. Being an elite leader and achieving extraordinary goals takes clear standards and concise expectations. I like to say, “Have a plan and execute!” Meyer explains that success is a result of what we do each day. Earn your success, otherwise, you’ll be a flash in the pan!

“…trust is earned through your behavior, not granted by your postion.” – p.127

A lot of coaches make the mistake of “title.” They believe that because they hold some position on a piece of paper that the players and coaches under them will follow. One of my favorite leadership quotes is from John C. Maxwell and goes as follows, “If you think you’re leading, but no one is following, then you are only taking a walk.” Many times coaches are so blinded by their title they forget to empower those around them. True leadership is about building up those around you so that you may reach greater heights. The greatest coaches of all time have tremendously successful coaching trees. That is not by accident. You want to be elite? Build up those under you!

The same goes for your athletes. Players must know you care in order for them to allow you to coach them (and coaches too!). A resume will get their attention, but earning the people under you’s trust will create buy-in. If you want the people around you to honor the culture you are trying to build, be the standard and hold the bar… high.

“…time is a nonrenewable resource. If you waste it, you never get it back. So it’s essential to pick your battles wisely.” – p.163

In this chapter of the book, Meyer discusses his 10-80-10 rule. His point is clear, the top and bottom 10% are who they are and most likely will not change. The top 10% are your workhorses, leaders, and set the standard without you asking them to. Meyer’s explains you don’t need to spend all your time working with them. Instead, Meyer explains, challenge the top 10% to do better and find a way to reach the 80% of the team that is just there or doing what they are supposed to do (build more 10%-ers!). The bottom 10%? Don’t waste your breath, it will only waste your time figuring out how to reach the 80% and make that top 10% grow – this is where Meyer explains is where champions are made.

“There is great conceit in believing that there’s no way the job will get done right if I don’t do it.” – p. 197

This is the greatest coach killer and culture destroyer. We have all been to blame and suffered at the wrath of our egos, but by empowering those around you and coaching those under you, the job is done better and with more efficiency. If you are doing everything and micromanaging how are you building an elite culture? How are people growing? I’ve struggled with this too.

At Baylor, I tried to do everything. I felt it was MY job, MY responsibility to get everything done. It wasn’t until my last year there that I realized having help was awesome. We were more efficient and I was able to actually enjoy the process and truly learn the intricacies of what we were doing. My quality of life went up exponentially. Looking back, I had wasted the two previous years with my nose in a computer and what did I really have to show for it? Had I reached out for help or developed some interns, I might have been able to grow even more as a young coach. It’s one thing to “embrace the grind,” another to empty your tank. Championship coaches understand this better than most. In order to be standing at the end, you need to have fuel in the tank. Work smarter, not harder. After all, this is a TEAM game.

Overall, the book was an awesome read. It is not self-serving like some “championship” books. Meyer does a great job detailing his plan for building a culture and the experiences of taking over a team that didn’t want him there. Ohio State was always going to be great again, but what Meyer was able to do in that short amount of time is a testament to how great of a coach he is. In everything you do, stay “above the line.”


Here are the links to the books I discussed in this article:

Above the Line” – Urban Meyer

Ego is the Enemy” & “Obstacle is the Way” – Ryan Holiday (the latter was read by the Seattle Seahawks when they won their first Super Bowl)

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– Coach A.

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