Better Be Very Prepared
Urban Meyer is commanding the game video with a remote control from his desk, flanked on his right by a half-empty bowl of cereal.
It’s Sunday morning after a Saturday trip to Logan has produced a 48-6 dissection of rival Utah State, a victory that will raise Utah’s standing to 3-0 overall and No. 14 in the national polls.
“Could you hit the light?” he says.
Meyer wants to show a visitor a version of his “spread” offense.
Only this setup involves his punt team.
Utah has the required seven men on the line of scrimmage, but they’re spaced sideline to sideline, rendering the other team’s punt-return team clueless.
This formation will have no bearing on the outcome of the game, yet, like everything else in the well-ordered world of what might be America’s best young college coach, it serves a purpose.
“We just like to do stuff to bother people,” Meyer says.
It seems to be working.
In less than two seasons, Meyer has taken Utah from relative football obscurity to national prominence with his intricate offense and firebrand frenzy.
Utah is bothering people, starting with Mountain West coaches.
After being picked to finish fifth in 2003, the Utes won their first outright conference title in 47 years.
Utah this year has a chance to become the first non-bowl championship series school to qualify for a major bowl. A non-BCS team must finish sixth or better in the final BCS standings to earn an automatic bid, 12th or better to be considered for one of two at-large spots.
Meyer is 13-2 since getting with the Utah program in December 2002 and has a better winning percentage against Pacific 10 conference foes the last two years -- he’s 3-0 for 100% -- than USC’s Pete Carroll, coach of the defending national co-champions.
Meyer is not only willing to take on the BCS, he is willing to meet it after school in the alley.
Blunt as a brick, Meyer calls the BCS “a joke.”
He says, “There are teams across the country that haven’t had a winning season in 20 years, and they’re BCS?”
He coaches in the Mountain West, not among the six major conferences -- plus Notre Dame -- that make up the BCS.
Meyer says: “I’d like the commissioner from whatever [BCS] conference to tell my quarterback [Alex Smith] he doesn’t have the same opportunity as his ... when my guy is a better student, a better football player and he’s on a better team.”
You might be able to light Ogden just by hooking wires to Meyer’s head.
He’s everything you’d want to be at 40: on top of his game, happily married with three kids, well-compensated and looking to knock heads.
He arrived in Salt Lake and scared the Ute-know-what out of players returning from Ron McBride’s 2002 team, which finished 5-6.
You might call Meyer Mr. Minutiae. He hired a top-shelf staff, which was assigned to keep detailed books on the players: what they liked to eat, wear, read.
Meyer and staff went to church with players, led them in weight workouts.
“He’s different, very different, but in a good way,” Utah’s offensive coordinator Mike Stanford, a onetime assistant coach at USC and Notre Dame, says of Meyer.
Sanford says he has never worked for a coach who drives his players the way Meyer does.
Meyer explains that you can jump down a player’s throat at a practice only if he knows you’re also going to be there for him afterward.
Smith, the team’s star junior quarterback, says getting used to Meyer took time.
“This team really found out what it was like to work when he got here,” Smith said. “Work off the field and work on the field. It was work everywhere. He’s a perfectionist, and he demands that. And he demands that in all areas of life. He demanded we go to class, demanded that we got good grades, he demanded everything.”
As this Utah mystery continues to unfold, a lingering question remains:
How in the name of Salt Lake did Meyer end up at Utah, a school that has produced two consensus All-Americans in 110 years and only a few names you’d recognize: Lee Grosscup, Scott Mitchell, Jamal Anderson, Steve Smith, Kevin Dyson, Mike Anderson?
Utah has had five first-round NFL draft choices. The University of Miami produced six first-round picks -- last year.
Meyer confesses, “I certainly didn’t wake up dreaming of Utah.”
He says he was “shocked” to learn last year’s conference title was the school’s first outright championship since the 1950s.
“I think they thought it was a basketball school for years,” he said.
Meyer was raised in startling contrast, in the small town of Ashtabula, Ohio, steeped in Catholicism and the gridiron gospel according to Woody Hayes and Earle Bruce.
When Meyer got his head-coaching break at 36, at Bowling Green in 2001, and turned the Falcons downside-up in one season, friends told Meyer to bide his time for the Notre Dame job or a Big Ten opening.
Notre Dame might have missed the boat when it bypassed Meyer, a former Irish assistant coach under Lou Holtz and Bob Davie.
And Meyer says he wasn’t going to take just any Big Ten job.
“We take losing very hard,” he explained. “My family does. I do, our staff does. To go to somewhere in the Big Ten where you are, at best, fifth or sixth? I wake up every morning knowing we have as good or better facilities than everybody we play.... You can’t say that about six or seven Big Ten schools.”
Meyer does have an “out” in his contract that would allow him to leave Utah for Michigan, Ohio State or Notre Dame.
Yet, he can also see himself staying in Utah for years, reigning over a budding dynasty that eventually renders the BCS designation meaningless.
Meyer asked himself the same question.
He turned the job down at first, only to reconsider at the strong urging of his wife, Shelley.
She had fallen in love with the West during the six years Meyer spent on Sonny Lubick’s staff at Colorado State. Shelley wanted to raise their kids, the oldest now a teen, in wide-open spaces.
Meyer investigated and learned that McBride had left plenty of talent. Meyer saw a campus perched on a hill, with high academic standards and first-rate facilities.
Given his fortitude, Meyer figured victories were a matter of time.
Where does he get his drive?
He is not one to flop down on a couch and bare his soul, yet he will let on that he was raised in a tough-love family led by a demanding dad, also named Urban.
Meyer says his father still calls every Sunday to make sure the house is in order.
“The biggest fear I know, personally, that I share only with the people I’m closest with, is the fear of not being prepared,” Meyer says. “If we lose, it’s because that team is better than we are. Not because we ran out of bounds with three seconds left.... I drive people crazy around here, the kids and the coaches, every situation has to be done over and over and over again.”
It’s difficult to say why some young coaches make it big and others don’t, why Meyer was able to instantly transform two losing programs. Maybe, for some young coaches, the losses don’t hurt as much.
For Meyer, defeat is a physically sickening event, leaving him unable to perform ordinary human chores. He is prone to getting excruciating headaches.
Meyer has lost only twice in 15 games at Utah -- and, to him, twice is enough.
He is an amalgam of ambition, football smarts and intense curiosity.
It would seem an anomaly that a coach steeped in the conservative tenets of Hayes at Ohio State would be directing a newfangled offense with lineage tied to Northwestern.
Yet, Meyer was smart enough to understand that college football has evolved in ways Hayes could not have imagined.
“I don’t think you can just line up in the I-formation,” Meyer said. “Defenses are too good, defenses are too multiple.
“For 16 years, I was receivers coach in an I-formation offense. I was the one who had to walk into those meetings and look those kids in the eye and know we weren’t putting them in the best chance to win.”
Meyer vowed that, when he became a head coach, his offense was going to blow doors down.
His shotgun-formation attack, with about a million offshoots and contributing editors, is loosely based on the offense Northwestern popularized in the late ‘90s.
Meyer’s philosophy is, go for the throat.
“If you blitz,” he says, “we’re going to try and score a touchdown.”
Last year, Utah scored 27 or more points in eight games.
Smith, an untested sophomore in 2003, completed 65% of his passes for 2,247 yards with 15 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Not only does the spread give his team the best chance to win, Meyer says, it helps in recruiting and puts fans in the seats.
Saturday, for example, Utah led at halftime, 41-0, before Meyer called off the assault at Utah State.
Smith says playing quarterback in Meyer’s system is almost a cerebral experience.
What does Smith admire most about Meyer?
“His intelligence,” Smith says, “if you want to talk about style of play and cutting-edge stuff. On offense, we’re doing stuff that no one else really does. His coaching staff is so smart and analyzes things so well.”
There’s no telling how far Utah can ride this dream.
Opposing coaches are already worried enough to be telling recruits that Meyer isn’t long for Utah.
“Recruiting is an ugly business, very ugly,” Meyer says. “I fight that every day.”
As for the long-term prospects of Meyer’s staying in Utah?
Well, he might not have the final say on that.
“All you have to do is contact my wife and kids,” Meyer jokes.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Utah Coach Urban Meyer had a remarkable debut season in 2003:
* National coach of year by the Sporting News
* First Utah coach named national coach of year
* Best debut for Utah football coach (10-2)
* 10-2 was tied for best record in school history
* First outright conference title since 1957
* Final national ranking of No. 21 in both major polls (AP and coaches)
* 6-1 record was the best by a Utah team since the MWC began in 1999
* One conference loss was fewest since 1981 (4-1-1 WAC)
* Conference win percentage (86) was best since 1953
* Road sweep of Brigham Young, Colorado State, Air Force a Utah first
* Utah beat Southern Mississippi, 17-0, in the AXA Liberty Bowl, Dec. 31
* Utah played in its first New Year’s Eve bowl
* Set home attendance season average record (41,478)
* Set single-game home attendance record (46,768 vs. California)
* Utah played on national television four times (two on ESPN, two on ESPN2)
* Utah was 4-0 on national television
* 2-0 vs. Pac-10 (California, Oregon)
* 1-0 vs. ranked teams (No. 19 Oregon)
* Ended BYU’s NCAA-record 361-game, 28-year scoring streak
Longest active winning streaks in NCAA Division I-A football: