The long road to get back home
It was fourth-and-10 at his Florida team’s 15-yard line, Urban Meyer’s Gators having blown a big lead to find themselves trailing in the 2006 Southeastern Conference championship game midway through the third quarter. Or as Meyer remembered, it was the moment of truth for him as a head coach.
What he did was what he had done since the first day he entered the college coaching profession as a 22-year-old graduate assistant to Ohio State’s Earle Bruce in 1986. He leaned on Bruce for guidance. More to the point, he looked down at the bottom of his play sheet to reread a pithy phrase Bruce had delivered to him in no uncertain terms the night before.
“What do I see? ‘Let the MF-er go,’” Meyer recalled during his speech at the memorial service for Bruce in April. “So I call a fake punt. I'm telling you the story because I'm not sure I would have survived if that had not happened.”
The fake punt-reverse run went for a first down. Florida rallied to win the SEC title and the first of three national championships of Meyer’s coaching career four weeks later, a 41-14 upset of No. 1 Ohio State in the national title game.
In his first six seasons as a head coach, he had turned heads in two-season intervals. He quickly lifted Bowling Green after the Falcons’ brass in 2001 took a chance on a man with a confident air and a determination to play all-out offense. In 2003, Utah also took a chance in hiring Meyer, and before he left for Florida two years later, he had guided the 2004 Utes to a 12-0 record that included a win over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl and a No. 6 final ranking.
What Meyer had done was live up to the promise Bruce had observed in him as that graduate assistant.
“He worked as hard or harder than any young coach I’d ever seen,” Bruce recalled for The Dispatch in 2013. “You could tell he was smart, and when you put that with his work habits, boy oh boy, you’ve got something.”
Not that it was always smooth sailing. Just two years into his college coaching career, still a G.A. at Ohio State, “We were fired,” Meyer said, referring to the dismissal of Bruce and his staff in 1987.
Meyer found work as an assistant at Illinois State for Jim Heacock, where he stayed two years before Bruce, hired at Colorado State in 1989, gave him his first major college assistant job in 1990 as receivers coach. This time he survived Bruce getting fired again in 1993 and was retained by successor Sonny Lubick.
A chance meeting in 1996 with Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz — Holtz’s son Skip set up the lunch encounter at a coaches convention — led to Meyer joining the Fighting Irish staff that season. At season’s end, Holtz announced his retirement, but Meyer again made the transition to work for successor Bob Davie.
At the end of the 2000 season when the Bowling Green job came open, he went for it, asked Holtz for a reference, was offered the job, then had second thoughts. BG had gone just 2-9 in Gary Blackney’s final season, and as Meyer told Holtz, he wasn’t sure it was a good program.
“I said, 'Urban, you’re right. It's not a good job. If it was a good job, the other guy would still be there,’” Holtz recalled several years ago. “Then he takes that job at Bowling Green, and the rest is history.”
Actually, Meyer said, “It was trial by error by a 36-year-old. Thank God there weren’t cellphones and social media and all the scrutiny that comes now.”
But four years later, he was the hottest name in the profession and had his choice of Florida or Notre Dame. He won two national titles with the Gators, including in 2008, ushered Tim Tebow to the 2007 Heisman Trophy, dealt with several problems with players off the field, and eventually ran out of gas.
The night after arguably his best Florida team lost the 2009 SEC title game to Alabama, Meyer suffered chest pains from what was determined to be an esophageal reflux disorder and dehydration. In late December that year he announced he was resigning to get his physical situation in order but announced the next day he was staying on but would take time out to recharge.
The comeback lasted just one year, Meyer resigning again at the end of the 2010 season citing the necessity to step out of the grind. He later said he almost immediately regretted the move, but as he took an ESPN analyst job, he worked to make that fill the void.
Then in late May 2011, Jim Tressel was forced to resign at Ohio State. Luke Fickell was named coach, but as the team slumped to a 6-6 regular season, Ohio State moved to hire Meyer.
It was serendipity, Meyer reiterated again last week, not a conspiracy.
“I remember some people saying that was all planned or something like that — no, Jim Tressel is a dear friend and I still talk to him quite a bit,” Meyer said. “When that happened to him I said ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ because I wasn’t going to get back into coaching if it wasn’t for that opportunity.”