All around Salt Lake City, on the roads leading to the University of Utah campus, there were banners that read: “Utah football: Fasten your seatbelts.” Anyone who saw the Utes during their record-setting 2004 season knew that was good advice. If you didn’t buckle up, you could get whiplash watching an offense that scored more than 40 points in nine of 11 regular season and conference games.
Coach Urban Meyer was the architect of that offense. He led the school to its first outright Mountain West Conference championship since 1957 and its first unbeaten and untied season since 1930. Meyer also made Utah the first team from outside the six Bowl Championship Series conference to force its way into BCS game. The Utes, ranked fifth in the nation, went to the Fiesta Bowl where they routed Pitt 35-7 to finish the season 12-0.
“He’s a disciplinarian and he’s a leader,” Utah athletic director Chris Hill said of the 40-year-old Meyer. “Leadership is so important in building a football program.”
A native of Ashtabula, Ohio, and former assistant coach at Ohio State, Meyer is a life-long admirer of Buckeye coaching legend Woody Hayes, who was famous for running one of the most demanding — and successful — programs in college football. Meyer took the Hayes formula and applied it at Bowling Green, where he was 17-6 in two seasons (2001-02) and Utah, where he lost only two of 24 games the last two years.
When Meyer took over at Utah in 2003, he put the team through a grueling spring practice which set the tone for the season ahead. “Every coach was there yelling, (players) were throwing up,” running back Marty Johnson told Viki Michaelis of USA Today. “It was a sign of things to come…hard work.”
“You know how coal goes through fire and comes out diamonds? I guess that’s what Coach Meyer has done,” said defensive lineman Sione Pouha.
Meyer, who becomes the first coach from the Mountain West Conference to win the Maxwell Club’s George Munger Award as college football Coach of the Year, installed a spread offense that scored points at a record pace. In 2004, they easily defeated schools from bigger conferences, posting wins over Texas A&M (41-21), Arizona (23-6) and North Carolina (46-16) before rolling over Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl.
“When Coach Meyer first got here, I didn’t know what to expect,” said quarterback Alex Smith who completed 29 of 37 pass attempts for 328 yards and four touchdowns against Pitt. “We didn’t know how successful we were going to be, what kind of shape our team was going to take. But (with) how hard we worked, I definitely thought this was a place we could get to.”
Meyer’s success in 2004 brought offers from bigger schools, including Notre Dame and Florida. Meyer accepted the job at Florida, where his hiring was cause for celebration among the Gator Nation. Meyer said he fell in love with Florida football during the Steve Spurrier years.
“Coaches would be lying if they said they watched the University of Florida play in those years and didn’t get excited,” Meyer said. “If I saw them coming on TV, I made sure I sat down and watched. I loved their swagger. It’s like the Yankees. People stop what they’re doing when the Yankees take the field.”
University of Utah