"It always came down to the Ohio State game," said Heater, now on his fourth staff with Florida Coach Urban Meyer. Heater was the secondary coach at Ohio State when Meyer landed his first coaching gig as a graduate assistant under Earle Bruce. They were assistants on Sonny Lubick's staff at Colorado State, and Heater was Meyer's secondary coach at Utah.
Michigan entered the Ohio State game with a 10-0 record for three consecutive years. In 1972, the Wolverines lost to the Buckeyes 14-11 in Columbus. The two teams tied, 10-10, in 1973 at the Big House in Ann Arbor and in 1974, Ohio State won 12-10. Heater started at tailback in 1972 and 1973. He was the starting wingback in 1974.
Michigan did beat Ohio State (10-7) in Ann Arbor in Heater's freshman year of 1971 but it was another year before the NCAA granted freshman eligibility. In his freshman year the Wolverines went to the Rose Bowl with an 11-0 record but they were upset by Stanford, 13-12.
"Probably the best team Bo (Schembechler) ever had was my freshman year," said Heater. "We got upset by Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The teams that I was a part of at Michigan were 41-3-1 for the four years and won four or tied for four Big Ten championships."
For Michigan and Ohio State, the final game of the season is not only an annual renewal of one of college football's most intense rivalries it is quite often the game that determines the Big Ten championship. The game was for all the marbles in 1972-74. Ohio State's win in 1972 gave the Buckeyes a tie for the Big Ten championship and since Michigan had gone to the Rose Bowl the year before, Ohio State got the nod from the conference presidents and athletic directors.
If the same rules had been followed in 1973, it would have been Michigan's turn to go to the Rose Bowl but Heater says the rules were changed on the spot.
"My junior year we tied the game and we were tied for the championship," he said. "By the rules of the previous year, it was our turn to go to the Rose Bowl, but they changed the rule and said they were determined to send the most representative team. The athletic directors voted to send Ohio State."
The 1974 season followed the script of the previous two. Michigan came into the final game unbeaten but Ohio State ended up in the Rose Bowl.
"I really wasn't all that upset about not going to a bowl until my last year," said Heater. "I told Coach Bo 'you were so hard and so tough on us that I wasn't so sure I wanted another 30 days of practice' but when it got to my last year, I really wanted to go to the Rose Bowl … but we lost the last game."
Heater finally went to the Rose Bowl in 2001 when he was part of the University of Washington staff as the cornerbacks coach and recruiting coordinator.
"It was a tremendous experience," he said. "I think I appreciated it a bit more because I never got there as a player. If you're like I was and you never got to a bowl game as a player, you really appreciate the opportunities."
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Bo Schembechler was a product of Miami, Ohio, which is called "The Cradle of Coaches." He had served as an assistant coach to another Miami product, Woody Hayes, at Ohio State. Like Hayes, Bo played the game close to the vest.
"When I started out the game was pretty much played between the tackles," he said. "It was an off-tackle kind of game where if you got 3-4 yards, that was considered a pretty good play. My senior year Bo opened things up."
In that off-tackle kind of game, Heater ran for 1,995 yards, which still ranks as number 19 all time on the Michigan list. He averaged a most respectable 4.9 yards per carry and he scored 17 career touchdowns.
Even though Schembechler changed the Michigan game his senior year to include a more diverse passing attack, the foundation of the offense was a pound the ball mentality in which toughness was a requirement, not an option.
"That was the only way that I could have gotten on the field," said Heater. "I really wasn't blessed with as much ability as I would have liked so if I had an edge it was because Coach Bo liked tough guys. That was my edge and I had to keep it or else I wouldn't have ever had a chance to play."
Heater was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the 1975 NFL draft. One year later he got his start in coaching at Northern Arizona where he was the running backs coach. Since then there have been stops at Toledo, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Colorado State, Colorado, Washington and Utah.
At each of the stops he has earned a reputation as a great recruiter and a strong coach of fundamentals. His mellow, laid back personality off the field gives way to a coach who demands toughness on the field. He says the source of the toughness was Schembechler.
"Bo Schembechler was absolutely a great coach," said Heater. "He was able to get his players to play hard and play tough all the time. There was no place for people who took plays off."
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Heater sees some of Bo Schembechler in his boss at Florida, Urban Meyer. Meyer goes about his job with that same kind of mentality. He wants tough, physical football players who are dedicated to the team and who have the right kind of attitude on and off the football field.
The demands that Meyer puts on his football team are also the same demands that he places on his staff. The demands are taken seriously by players and assistant coaches for one good reason.
"There is absolutely nothing that he [Meyer] will ask of you that he won't ask of himself," said Heater. "There is no inconsistency in that regard. He's a hard working guy who plays by the rules and he expects everyone else to be a hard working guy who plays by the rules. That's true for assistant coaches, players, everyone involved with the program."
Much has been made of Meyer's demands that the team clean up its off the field act. Living right off the field is a staple of Meyer's success formula. After three offseasons in which the Gators had some high profile players in trouble with the law, this has been a quiet few months since the spring game. There have been no arrests and no players spending more time with their lawyers than they do in the weight room.
The transformation of Florida's image from that of a program with a lot of players in offseason trouble to that of a group of Boy Scouts who are kind to their neighbors and help little old ladies across the street starts at the very top. Heater says that Meyer sets the example, therefore raising the bar of expectation for everyone else.
Throughout the offeseason, Meyer would often quote the legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, who said that the supreme function of a leader is to set a standard and then get everyone to raise their level to that standard. Heater says that Meyer is in the process of raising the standards at Florida by getting everyone to raise their level of expectation.
"I think it is very important in his case to have people who share his values," said Heater. "He has a high set of values that he really believes in and he surrounds himself with people who share the same values. You need to believe those things if you're going to be a part of his program. He expects that. With him, there is not a lot of ambiguity when it comes to expectations."
Because he's worked with Meyer in the past, he has had the chance to see Florida's head coach grow into the outstanding leader that he has shown as a head coach in stops at Bowling Green (17-6 record) and Utah (22-2) before Florida.
"There are a lot of ways to be successful," said Heater. "I don't think that there's just one way to get there but his way works because he's driven, well organized and very consistent so it's not really difficult to buy into it. He's learned from the people he's worked for and he's put together a system that fits his personality and the things he bleieves in.
"He's also a very hard working guy so he expects everyone else to be a hard working guy. Players see the head coach working hard, then they see the assistant coaches working hard and their strength and conditioning coaches working hard … it trickles down and they want to work hard, too. We've seen that happen here."
Before Meyer stepped foot on the Florida campus, there were questions galore about how the players would accept a coach who demands discipline on and off the field. There were predictions of a house cleaning, of a mass exodus by players who were accustomed to a more relaxed attitude when it came to their off the field activities. The house cleaning didn't happen, nor did the mass exodus. Heater believes the reason is that Florida's players simply want to win so they're more than willing to buy into a new way of doing things.
"I think people want leadership and people want to be told face to face what's expected of them," he said. "When you know what is expected you're more inclined to do what you're told to do. These are really good kids who are extremely talented. They wanted to be told what to do and how to do it. We came here and we did that.
"I think you have to be very clear and you have to be very consistent. You can't be all over the place. If you are clear about your expectations and the kids have the desire to be successful, then the transition really isn't all that tough."
One of the first things that Heater noticed when he got to Florida was the disappointment in three straight seasons with five losses. He says the Florida staff recognized immediately that the players were willing to buy into any way of doing things that would get them out of that five-loss per season rut.
"They didn't come to the University of Florida expecting to lose this much," he said. "They came here expecting to win and they haven't done that. I think we have a team that is really not happy with what they've done so far because this is not what they expected when they came to Florida.
"You come to Florida because it is a place where you can reach to the highest levels. Florida's got everything. They believe and they trust that we can help them get where they wanted to be when they signed with Florida. Now it's up to us to get them there."