Ohio State’s Urban Meyer develops new approach to leadership from book

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There’s a text message in Urban Meyer’s cell phone offering some advice for Ohio State’s upcoming championship game.

It’s not the secret to beating Oregon. It’s not advice on handling the pressure of playing the first College Football Playoff championship. It’s a humble reminder to keep this whole thing in perspective.

“Don’t forget to step back and continue to be thankful for where you are.

Those are the words of Todd Gongwer, a Wakarusa, Indiana author whose book on finding the heart of leadership, LEAD…for God’s Sake, struck a chord with Meyer and served as the foundation for their friendship.

While the rest of the world is talking about Meyer’s chances against the Ducks, Gongwer is reminding the Buckeye coach of the key principles to the book that changed Meyer’s life.

Rewind to 2010, when Gongwer quietly self-published LEAD…for God’s Sake on the pages of an old printer.

The whole book is about why you do what you do. You can never forget the why. I forgot the why. The journey that life takes you goes in places that you may not expect. It gets back to the why you do this.
— Urban Meyer

He had spent the better part of the 1990s as a Bethel College assistant basketball coach under Mike Lightfoot and went on to work with several companies in the business world. From those experiences, Gongwer developed an interest in the subject of leadership and human dynamics. He embarked on what he called an “obsessive” journey to read 500 books about leadership, which sparked the creation of his own book.

But instead of a commentary or a list of seven secrets to become a better leader, Gongwer wrote his book as a parable. The story centers around a man who loses his sense of purpose on his way to becoming the winningest coach in Kentucky high school basketball history.

“I think that a story can maybe have a little more lasting effect,” Gongwer said. “Those can be easier to read in a broader market.”

The book received rave reviews — “I wish I had read it 30 years ago,” Lou Hotlz penned — but saw modest sales.

By 2011, Meyer had resigned as head coach at Florida, citing health and family concerns. During a shared stint at ESPN, former NFL quarterback Todd Blackledge gave Meyer a copy of Gongwer’s book. Meyer read it in full on a flight to California.

He was electrified by the message — calling the book “a game changer” — and became determined to reach out to its author.

Back in Wakarusa, Gongwer initially thought Meyer’s email was one of his friends pulling a prank. He replied, thanking the coach.

“I had my cell number on the bottom of the email,” Gongwer said. “Within five minutes of my reply, I get a call from a number I didn’t recognize. ‘Todd, it’s Urban Meyer.’ And he just started really pouring out his heart.”

By the end of the 40-minute conversation, Meyer offered to help spread the word about Gongwer’s book. The two met at Meyer’s home in Florida to film a sit-down interview about how the story helped the coach find peace.

“The whole book is about why you do what you do. You can never forget the why. I forgot the why,” Meyer told the Canton Repository in December.

“The journey that life takes you goes in places that you may not expect. It gets back to the why you do this. You do this because of the players and the purpose. This gives me a sense of purpose that I needed to find.”

Meyer has since made LEAD…for God’s Sake required reading for his staff and even wrote the forward for the next version of the book. His contributions gave Gongwer a marketing boost and high-profile reviews started pouring in. A publisher, Tyndale House, acquired the rights to the book. Coaches started flying Gongwer out to their colleges to speak to their players and staff.

The reviews on his website flash familiar names: Holtz, Meyer, Oklahoma football head coach Bob Stoops, Baylor basketball head coach Scott Drew, New Orleans Pelicans head coach Monty Williams. His travels include stops at Mississippi State, Indiana, USC and the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans.

Gongwer estimates that “80 to 90 percent” of his work takes him out of Indiana, but the success of the book isn’t so much that it keeps him away from his wife, Traci, and their three children, Kaden, 14, Kira, 11 and Wadson, a 4-year-old the couple adopted from Haiti.

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“Publishers even said it’s like nothing they’ve ever dealt with, especially with all the big names that have latched on to it,” he said. “It’s stayed somewhat under the radar.”

Gongwer said it’s hard to explain what to expect from LEAD…for God’s Sake, describing it as an “emotional journey.” He’ll tell inquiring minds to read the Amazon reviews instead of listening to the author.

“It’s a book about relationships and life and pursuits,” he said. “Everyone is pursuing something. The balance to keep our family and friends and relationships at the forefront is really hard. This is a story about that dynamic.”

The book has a Christian theme, but Gongwer has received positive feedback from all walks of life.

“There’s something for everyone,” he said. “It’s a message that goes to the heart. It’s moving people’s hearts in pretty cool ways.”

Gongwer has plans to write a sequel and he’s in early talks of adapting the book into a movie. If Gongwer decides to pursue a movie deal, he vows it won’t be a second-rate film with second-rate production.

“If we’re going to do the movie, we’re going to do it right,” he said.

Gongwer has kept in touch with Meyer over the years but typically stays quiet during the football season. He’ll shoot Meyer a text after big games, though, including Ohio State’s stunning win against Alabama on New Year’s Day.

Even in the most crucial moments of that game, Gongwer saw his friend exude a type of peace that was never present at Florida.

“I told him he would have won either way,” Gongwer said of his post-game celebratory text. “You can see the peace in his eyes. I saw that in that big game, even when things got tough.”

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