Urban Meyer has been a college football coach for nearly three decades, a profession that has involved seven schools of varying stature, a process that started at Ohio State in 1986 as a graduate assistant and brought him back to the Buckeyes as coach in 2012.
In all that time, Meyer spent only 11 months working with Gary Andersen. But it was such a profound, exhilarating experience that Meyer still revels in it.
“In 27 years of coaching — I actually talked to our (current) staff about it — there are very few teams that I’ve ever seen a staff completely aligned,” Meyer said in July during the Big Ten Conference media get-together in Chicago. “There’s been maybe five or six times I can say that staff was completely, exactly in order about what’s expected.
“It’s magical when it happens. It’s so rare.”
Meyer was in his second season as coach at Utah in 2004 when he hired Andersen to be his defensive line coach. A year after going 10-2, the Utes finished 12-0 and ranked in the top five. Meyer said the upgrade in performance had much to do with how Andersen related to his players on a personal level, drawing them to greatness.
“I give Gary a lot of credit for that season,” Meyer said.
The two men became fast friends. When Meyer left Utah to become the coach at Florida in 2005, he asked Andersen to come with him. Meyer did this knowing Andersen would probably stay at his alma mater and become the defensive coordinator under Kyle Whittingham, his mentor who had been hired to replace Meyer as coach of the Utes.
“We’re very close,” Meyer said of his relationship with Andersen.
Their friendly dynamic is a major topic of discussion this week as fourth-ranked Ohio State prepares to host the 23rd-ranked University of Wisconsin in a Big Ten showdown Saturday night at Ohio Stadium.
Three weeks after Meyer guided the Buckeyes to a 12-0 regular season last November, Andersen was hired as coach at UW, replacing Bret Bielema, who took the job at Arkansas.
Among those watching with great interest will be Whittingham, who thought about flying to Columbus, Ohio, to watch his good friends match wits while maximizing a late September bye week. He decided to have practice and watch from afar instead.
“I’ll be glued to my TV,” he said.
Whittingham was the defensive coordinator at Utah in 2004 when he lobbied Meyer to hire Andersen away from his job as coach at Southern Utah, a Football Championship Subdivision program.
“I had a strong feeling they’d be compatible,” Whittingham said.
UW fans might have a difficult time embracing that concept. Meyer, who won two national championships at Florida and is 16-0 at Ohio State, can come off as haughty, while Andersen has received rave reviews for his methods and personality. But Whittingham said the two share several major traits.
“They both care tremendously about their players, which I think is a common thread that runs through both of them,” Whittingham said Tuesday. “Both are meticulously organized. They’re both excellent coaches from an X and O standpoint. I think they’re very consistent in their approach with the players. I think players respect and appreciate when they know what to expect on a daily basis.”
According to Whittingham, he and Andersen had made a deal early in their careers that if either got a head coaching job the other would come along and work as defensive coordinator. That helps explain why Andersen turned Meyer down and chose his alma mater over Florida.
Andersen subsequently spent four seasons successfully rebuilding the program at Utah State before coming to Madison, while Whittingham is 74-33 in his ninth full season as coach of the Utes.
“I think it worked out for everybody,” Whittingham said.
Instead of a prickly coaching matchup — Meyer vs. the cage-rattling persona of Bielema — it looks like the marquee duel at the Horseshoe will be something kinder and gentler.
“I think there’s a mutual respect between coach Andersen and that staff over there, so I think that’s something that might be a little different this year,” UW senior nose guard Beau Allen said. “I don’t think the fact that coach Andersen and coach Meyer are friends is going to make anything different. It’s kind of like when you’ve got a good friend and you’re really competitive with them, you want to do your best to kick their (butt).
“I don’t think it will change anything at all,” Allen continued. “If anything, it might motivate coach Andersen to prep us even better.”
Whittingham will watch with pride from a safe distance, rooting only for good theater.
“They’re both my guys,” he said. “I wish the best for both of them.”