Lou Holtz’s 11-year reign at Notre Dame was coming to a close in 1996 when he tabbed 31-year-old Urban Meyer to coach his receivers.
The strongest recommendation came from Skip Holtz, Lou’s son, who had graduated from Notre Dame as a walk-on receiver and had begun his own coaching journey in the footsteps of his father.
As Skip Holtz was leaving a one-year stint under Earle Bruce at Colorado State in 1989, 26-year-old Urban Meyer was arriving in Fort Collins as his coaching career commenced.
Holtz the elder took Holtz the younger’s recommendation a few years later, bringing Meyer into the Notre Dame program in his final season with the Irish.
Meyer was a young, brash, opinionated, but above all, dedicated football coach with a creative flair on offense that wouldn’t be fully realized until he landed the head coaching position at Bowling Green, where he would implement his cutting-edge spread option offense.
In 1998, as Meyer transitioned under Holtz to Bob Davie at Notre Dame, the position of offensive coordinator opened up following Jim Colletto’s two-year stint with the Irish.
Davie selected Kevin Rogers, a veteran coordinator at Syracuse, to succeed Colletto. Two years later, despite never holding a coordinator’s title, Meyer was tabbed by Bowling Green as its head coach (17-6 from 2001-02).
Now, 14 years removed from his first head-coaching gig, Meyer has a 153-27 record at four stops, including Utah (22-2 from 2003-04), Florida (65-15 from 2005-10) and now Ohio State (49-4 from 2012-present). He has three national titles to his name – two at Florida (2006, 2008) and one at Ohio State (2014).
When Meyer served his first year at Notre Dame in 1996, the Irish threw the football just 250 times. But the game was changing, and with Davie taking over as head coach in 1997, the passing game began to expand with Meyer as Davie’s receivers coach.
Three of Meyer’s most successful receivers at Notre Dame were Malcolm Johnson, Bobby Brown and Joey Getherall. Johnson (1995-98) caught 110 passes for 1,737 yards and 10 touchdowns. Brown (1996-99) snagged 96 passes for 1,521 yards and 12 scores. Getherall (1997-2000), who also was a standout in Notre Dame’s return game, caught 74 passes for 1,059 yards and eight touchdowns.
Here are their comments/reflections on their days at Notre Dame playing under the hard-nosed Meyer, who will square off with his Ohio State Buckeyes in the Jan. 1, 2016 Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame.
MEYER THE RECEIVERS COACH
Brown: “He was very detail-oriented. I think he got a lot of that from Coach Holtz. You could tell that first year that he, as well as Coach Meyer, shaped us by demanding excellence.
“Some of the cliché things you might think about receivers, it was the exact opposite with him. He wanted us to play the game physically. They were very, very, very, very physical practices. Our attitude was reflected in him as our leader. It was one of those things where everyone respected him and realized how sharp his football mind was.”
Getherall: “There was never a dull day with that guy. He was an extremely animated guy. Reality sets in when you step foot on campus and you go through those first few days of practice. Before that, you get the ‘Can’t wait to have you here. You’ll be at a great place.’ All that schmoozing…that was gone once you got on campus.”
Johnson: “Urban gave me a clean slate. My first spring with him was a lot of yelling and not a lot of positive reinforcement. But he said this is the way you’re going to get good enough, and this is what you’re going to have to prove to me before you deserve to play.
“He said, ‘We struck out on Randy Moss, so you’re it. You’re what we got. Randy’s not showing next fall. It’s going to be you, Emmett Mosley, Cikai Champion and if you guys can’t get it done, we’ll go recruit the next Randy Moss.’”
MEYER THE DISCIPLINARIAN
Brown: “The way he said things wasn’t always nice. You really had to check your feelings at the door. The people that couldn’t do that got gobbled up.
“Very blunt, very straightforward. I can see the smirk on his face when you’d say certain things. Of that group, he was probably toughest on me because our personalities were built for these clashes. But he treated everyone firm.
“He always made us hit. He’d say, ‘Butt ‘em up.’ That would mean there was going to be some physical exercise he had going on. He’d have drills and pick the strongest, most physical walk-on to come over there. They would back up five yards and run full speed ahead into each other, stuff you probably couldn’t do today. But his thought was that if you could do that aggressively in practice, once game time came, we were going to be far more aggressive than the defensive backs. That way we could do our part by blocking for the running backs.
“I remember him being critical of anyone he thought was not contributing. He would say, ‘He’s stealing money.’ Like they hadn’t earned their keep and they were fraudulently consuming a scholarship. He didn’t say that based on productivity. He said it more about effort.
“There were walk-ons who would never see the field but were his favorite players on the team. He felt like contributions could come in any shape, form or fashion. But you’ve got to contribute in some way and make the team better. He was very critical of people who were just there and very complacent. He hated that.”
Getherall: “I remember one of his first speeches to the freshmen. He said, ‘I’m not here to be your buddy. I’m not here to be your friend. I’m not here to be your father. I’m here to just coach you. So don’t expect me to be a friend of yours.’ And I’m thinking, ‘What the hell did I get into?’
“He definitely was a motivator. He had that Bobby Knight-style of coaching where he’s in your face and it’s my way or the highway. He definitely challenged us and tried to get the best out of us.”
THAT MEYER MOMENT
Getherall: “I remember running the wrong route in practice and him sprinting about 40 yards downfield just to make sure he let me know how upset he was and what I did wrong. He also let me know that if I made the same mistake again, I would not be stepping on the field again. He was that type of guy.
“I’ve seen him throw remotes, break remotes…I’ve seen him challenge players in front of everybody on special teams. Damn near question their manhood. I saw him get into shoving matches with the receivers. I saw it all.
“He almost wanted that. He wanted to see if you would back down to him. He’d challenge you, and I can remember getting right back in his face, like, ‘Now what?’ He still jokes about that with me.
“I think it was the West Virginia game (2000). I caught a pass and I stumbled. And he was like, ‘You need to score! You’re at Notre Dame! You need to be scoring 60-yard touchdowns!’ Well, the next quarter, I returned a punt for like 70 yards and I made sure I found him and got in his face. I said, ‘Now what!?!’
“With him, it was never, ‘Get ‘em next time.’ It was, ‘Get it done or you’re done!’ Next guy up. He had his ways of motivating players. Did it work? Yeah, it definitely worked. He’s won a few national championships, which says it all.”
Brown: “I wish someone would have taped some of the arguments Urban and I had. We had some classic arguments in that receiver room. I knew how to pick my battles. When he was really upset, I would get real quiet. If you knew how to bite your tongue, at the end of the day, he was so instrumental in making us better.”
Johnson: “He’s a man among men. He’s unquestionably tough and he will fight you, and I mean that literally. He’ll fight you. He may not win, but you’ve got to respect a guy that’s not afraid to fight you.
“He’d say, ‘If you’ve got a problem with me, you can fight and do it my way or you can fight and not do it my way. Some guys would say I want to fight and he would. His toughness can’t be questioned.
“You see the results of a guy who said, ‘Do it this way, I’m in your corner, I’m going to fight for you.’ Then when you have success, now that’s your guy. Now you don’t question what he asks you; you just go do it.”
SHAPING LIVES, CAREERS
Johnson: “I love Coach Meyer to death. There are less than five men, outside of my dad, that I would say I truly look up to and value their opinion on any major life decision. He’s a very sincere, genuine, direct individual. My dad was the same way.
“He got me at a very delicate time in my life. Not only was I a young kid away from home, but my parents were going through a divorce when he joined the staff. I wasn’t playing a lot and I started to think Lou thought I was a recruiting mistake. I didn’t know if I’d ever get on the field.
“But (Meyer) gave me a chance, and that was good enough for me. I thought all I needed was a chance. He told me I had to get stronger. He was very clear on the fact that we were only passing the ball 15 times a game and you might see two passes thrown your way. So I had to be a good blocker and had to be tough. (Strength) Coach (Mickey) Marotti became my best friend, and by the fall, I was good enough to play.”
Brown: “He was one of those people that while he said it in a certain way, he loved us to death. The fact he’s maintained a relationship with a good number of the receivers from Notre Dame is proof he cared about us. That’s the thing I respect about him and Coach Holtz. Years later, when they’re still responding to guys, it’s proof it was genuine and that they actually cared.”
Getherall: “I spent about a week out there in Utah when I thought about getting into coaching. I spent a week at his house. You want to work for a demanding coach because you want to learn under the tutelage of a coach that’s a winner. I wanted to do it, but seeing how many hours those guys put into a day, it’s kind of mind-boggling.”
ON MEYER NOT BEING NAMED OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR AT NOTRE DAME
Brown: “At one point, we hoped he would be hired as offensive coordinator because we knew how he thought, not only expecting greatness from the receivers, but everyone on the offense. He set the bar pretty high and still does that, which is why his way of going about it has translated into success.
“Every single position on the offense, he could analyze. He would tell us as he was watching film, ‘Look at this right here. This is why the play didn’t work.’ He seemed to take a much broader view of the offense than just a position coach. He had already gained the respect of everyone because they would look over and see how hard the receivers were working. We had a very physical practice every single practice.
“(laughing) Plus, the receivers hoped he would be the offensive coordinator because we thought he’d throw the ball more.”
Getherall: “Anyone in his position who was there already and didn’t get the coordinator’s job would be disappointed. His drive for excellence sometimes scared people off a little bit. Maybe it scared Coach Davie off a little bit.
“He was the quarterback coach for a little bit and I think he was moved back to receivers because sometimes you’ve got to take a step back as a quarterback coach. These quarterbacks already have a lot of stress on them and they don’t need someone in their grill yelling and screaming.”
Johnson: “Coach Meyer was absolutely a technician and understood the passing game; we just didn’t pass it much.
“One thing that really stands out in my mind was the game plan that I know he was instrumental in crafting on our senior day in 1998 against LSU (a 39-36 Notre Dame victory). We really needed that win, and Coach Meyer was able to get us to open up the offense a little bit. We slung it all around the park that day. That was an indication of what he was able to do. Unfortunately, we lost (quarterback) Jarious Jackson to an injury in that game and we had to go back to our old offense for the USC game (a 10-0 loss).
“I knew if he had an opportunity to put together a game plan, he could and it would be effective.”
MEYER THE HEAD COACH
Johnson: “He’s a great head coach because he’s a great communicator. You know what he’s like on the field. Off the field is more important, especially for college-aged guys because you have to know that he has your back.
“I loved the way he treated the Ezekiel Elliott situation. He got bashed for not burying Ezekiel Elliott a couple of weeks ago, and he said, ‘You know what? I was wrong. I should have gotten the ball to him a little more. On top of that, I’m calling the plays next week to make sure (Elliott) does get the ball more.’
“Now what can Ezekiel Elliott do except go out and have a great game against Michigan? Those are the things that players love.
“I knew Coach Meyer was going to be a head coach. The only thing that surprised me was how quickly he had success. He’s in a very small group with the best of the best. When he’s done, wherever he finishes up, there will be a statue of him on campus because he deserves it.”
Getherall: “Oh, you definitely could see he was going to be a head coach.
“You see all these coaches with different coaching styles and he’s learned from different types. He learned as a grad assistant at Ohio State and Colorado State. Being under Earle Bruce, Coach Holtz, the Hall of Famers and legends…I think he took bits and pieces from each guy and learned a variety of ideas. It gives you an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t work, and he’s trimmed the fat of what didn’t work.
“I visited him at every one of his previous coaching stops. I saw him evolve as a head coach. He’s not the same type of coach that he was as a wide receiver coach at Notre Dame. You have to take a step back and allow your coaching staff to take over some of that authority and demand of the players. Of course, he can’t let go. I know he still runs special teams because he wants to be a part of it, in the mix.”
Brown: “None of us were surprised when he started out as a head coach and had immediate success. It’s interesting to see now that he’s kind of mellowing out. With time, you figure out a better way to communicate with guys.
“If you could stomach the way he communicated and ignore how he said it and listen to what he said, he always had a very pointed lesson. He’s a darn good coach when it comes to X’s and O’s.”
THE MEYER WAY OR THE HIGHWAY
Johnson: “A guy I really liked was David Terrell, who was a big-time receiver coming out of Newport News that went to Michigan. David and I got real close during the recruiting process. He hung out with me and Bobby (Brown) and my girlfriend, and I was assured he was coming to Notre Dame.
“About a week before signing day, someone in David’s camp of advisors called Coach Meyer and said, ‘David is committed to coming, but only if you don’t allow Malcolm Johnson to come back for his fifth year.’ He called me immediately and said, ‘We just turned down David Terrell because apparently he’s afraid of competition, so I guess he’s not coming.’
I said, ‘What? We need him!’ And he said, ‘If a guy doesn’t want to fight for a spot, we don’t want him.’ That was that. David had a great career at Michigan, but that’s Urban. Anybody who is one of Urban’s guys, whether it’s Tebow, or Elliott or Braxton Miller, who I know, you’ve got to believe they’re good kids, otherwise he won’t go to bat for you.”
EVOLVING WITH THE GAME
Getherall: “Do I think his way of coaching was the best way? Probably not, but that was the way he wanted to coach us. Has he progressed over the years and improved himself as a coach? Definitely. He’s grown as a coach and that’s what you do as a young guy dealing with a bunch of teenagers and guys in their early 20s. You’ve got to demand respect. He demanded it and he earned it by being knowledgeable of the game.
“He’s grown as a coach. You see him with that calm demeanor on the sideline now whereas before he was screaming to the point where he had some medical issues.”
MEYER’S MEDICAL ISSUES
Getherall: “I remember my sophomore year, he dropped to a knee and I’m saying, ‘Coach, are you okay?’ The medical staff came over and talked to him. I thought, ‘Is he going to have a heart attack?’ I remember him grabbing his chest, grabbing his head…
“When people said, ‘Is he lying about why he’s leaving Florida?’ I definitely believed it. He definitely was a stress case and he put everything into football. Everything he does, he puts 100 percent effort into it.
“So when people ask me, ‘Was it believable?’ Yes, I 100 percent believe he was having health issues at Florida. It looks like he’s learned to control those issues.”