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Urban Meyer walked to the middle of the Rice-Eccles Stadium field, looked into the camera and delivered a promise.
"They brought us here to shake things up. We did that," he said in one of a series of television commercials in 2004. "But I'll let ya in on a little secret: You ain't seen nothin' yet."
Meyer followed through on the marketing campaign with a 12-0 season that ended with a Fiesta Bowl victory. As it turns out, 10 years later, that remarkable era in Utah really was nothing compared with what Meyer has gone on to do. If Ohio State wins Monday's national championship game vs. Oregon, I'll argue that Urban Frank Meyer III should be viewed as the greatest college football coach of all time.
That's saying a lot, I know. This is only Meyer's 13th season as a head coach. Yet if he can win a third national title with a second school, he will have done it with a former No. 3 quarterback, as added difficulty. The competitive, balanced nature of college football in this century makes it so much tougher to dominate anymore that Meyer's achievements would rise above those of even Alabama's Bear Bryant, USC's John McKay, Oklahoma's Barry Switzer and Bud Wilkinson or Notre Dame's Frank Leahy. So then, the competition comes down to Meyer and Alabama's Nick Saban, who has four national championships (including one at LSU).
What distinguishes Meyer is his record at four schools, and that's where Utah comes into play. Meyer (Bowling Green) and Saban (Toledo) each started his head coaching career at a Mid-American Conference school, then made another stop before beginning to win national titles at the next destination.
Meyer went 22-2 at Utah; Saban went 34-24-1 at Michigan State. Meyer produced another unbeaten season at Ohio State in 2012, when the Buckeyes were ineligible for a bowl bid, giving him further distinction.
Meyer's .843 winning percentage is phenomenal enough, but he merits even more credit when you factor in the state of the programs he inherited. Prior to his arrival, Bowling Green (2-9), Utah (5-6), Florida (7-5) and Ohio State (6-7) were struggling or at least underachieving, with a combined record of 20-27 in those preceding years. And he's gone 141-26.
Meyer is shrewd enough to recognize the possibilities of those programs particularly Utah, Florida and Ohio State even amid their temporary downturns. He chose them well. Nobody knows that better than I do, having waited for him on the Notre Dame campus in December 2004 because we thought that's where he would move, only to have him pick Florida.
In the case of Utah, he's always credited Ron McBride for starting something that Meyer could finish. Florida and Ohio State had enough recent history of success to make Meyer believe he could maximize his opportunities.
Meyer is dogged by questions about his failure to address off-field issues at Florida and how he supposedly retired for family reasons before coming back to take the Ohio State job. Even a close friend, Utah athletic director Chris Hill, will acknowledge, "Urban has his pluses and minuses."
Yet Hill speaks fondly of "a romantic time" in their careers, when Meyer was raising the expectations of Utah's fan base. He showed what was possible on that campus, eventually leading to the Utes' becoming established in the Pac-12 under coach Kyle Whittingham, his former defensive coordinator.
His players always have responded to Meyer. As former Ute defensive back Morgan Scalley said last summer, "He made you think you were the best. People started to believe it, started to act like it."
Weber State coach Jay Hill, then a graduate assistant/administrator under Meyer, is applying what he learned. "You try to emulate the way he motivated," Hill said. "The biggest thing is how he gets his players to believe in the program, the system and the assistant coaches. … He's so good at getting players to play at a super-high level."
That's true, wherever Meyer goes.
Urban Meyer's career record
School Years W-L
Bowling Green 2001-02 17-6
Utah 2003-04 22-2
Florida 2005-10 65-15
Ohio State 2012-14 37-3