The 2004 Utah Utes went 12-0, knocking off Texas A&M, Arizona, North Carolina en route to a perfect season that ended with the first BCS bowl by a non-power conference team. In the Fiesta Bowl, Utah blew out No. 20 Pittsburgh in a 35-7 romp and finished with a top-5 ranking in both the AP and Coaches Polls.
“You got the idea by mid-November that something crazy was going to happen, but at first it was just a bunch of guys that were really good at their jobs and really loved what they did,” said Sonnie Aloia, the director of football operations on that 2004 staff. “We really didn’t expect it. It was a fun group. Dan Mullen, that’s one of the most fun guys to hang out with. It was awesome. I just felt really fortunate to be a part of that whole experience.”
A decade later, head coach Urban Meyer is leading an Ohio State team on the cusp of a playoff berth. His quarterbacks coach at the time, Mullen, is now the head coach of the 10-2 Mississippi State Bulldogs that spent several weeks ranked as the No. 1 team in the country. Cornerbacks coach Chuck Heater is now the defensive coordinator at Marshall, which looked like a threat to crack one of the four non-playoff New Year’s bowls as the highest-ranked team outside a Power 5 conference.
It’s the newcomer to that 2004 Utah coaching staff, though, that holds one of the more intriguing roles in the championship weekend of college football. That would be defensive line coach Gary Andersen, the current Wisconsin head coach and the man who members of that staff say most resembled the man whose season he is tasked with ruining on Saturday in Indianapolis.
It’s entirely possible that Andersen never would have connected with Meyer if not for current Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who served as Meyer’s defensive coordinator in Salt Lake City. Utah’s defensive line coach in 2003, Mike Tuiasosopo, left after that season to join Mike Stoops’ staff at Arizona. That left the Utes searching for a new assistant, and Whittingham knew exactly where to look.
Whittingham and Andersen coached together at Idaho State from 1992-93 and then again at Utah from 1997-02. Whittingham was retained when Meyer arrived in 2002, but Andersen left to become the head coach at Southern Utah.
“Urban’s second year we had an opening at the defensive line position and there was no question in my mind Gary was the right guy for the job because the track record that he had and the great job he had already done working for me,” Whittingham told BuckeyeSports.com. “It was an easy decision. It wasn’t a gamble, it wasn’t a guess, it wasn’t speculation. He was a proven commodity.
Whittingham persuaded Meyer to give the Southern Utah coach a shot, and so Andersen and his wife Stacey made the trip Salt Lake City to have dinner with Urban and Shelley Meyer. At that point, it was an easy decision for Meyer.
“He brought Gary in and once that happened there was no sell job needed whatsoever,” Whittingham said. “Once he had a chance to sit down with Gary and talk philosophy and talk football with him, I think it became very apparent to Urban as well that Gary was the guy we needed.”
Learning From Meyer
What became apparent over the next year was that Meyer had hired a guy who very closely resembled himself.
Whittingham noticed their attention to detail and intense personalities, but Aloia took the comparison between the two Big Ten head coaches even further.
“Man, it’s funny. They’re very closely aligned,” he said. “Personality-wise, they’re both very intense – extremely intense. They have similar builds, similar backgrounds, similar intensity. There are a lot of parallels there. It’s kind of uncanny. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Gary is as successful as he is.
“To be frank with you, he learned a lot of it from Urban. Urban really had it down, and Gary has really picked that up and refined his trade.”
One thing in particular that stuck with Andersen was Meyer’s planning ability. In a conference call on Sunday, the second-year Wisconsin coach said he picked up on Meyer’s detail-oriented nature during their first meeting.
“I would say this: when I first met him, it was obvious Urban Meyer had a plan,” Andersen said. “He knew what he wanted to do. He appeared to be a very good leader and I saw that in a very short period of time and was excited to have the ability to go back and work for him.
“Urban is a players’ coach, but he has a plan and he’s going to stick to that plan. His ability to stick to his guns and have a plan is impressive.”
Never was Meyer’s single-minded focus on a plan more obvious than during on a Saturday afternoon on November 13, 2004, when the Utes’ game against Wyoming was set for a national TV audience on ABC. A power failure knocked out the lights in the stadium, leading to a nearly two-hour long delay.
The 15-degree windchill sent the teams inside, where Aloia had the unfortunate task of bringing the Wyoming athletic director to tell Meyer that there was a chance the game might be postponed.
“With Urban, this is one of the memories that I’ll never shake,” Aloia said. “I had to go grab the athletic director and brought him down to have a conversation with Coach Meyer in the locker room. There’s just an emergency generator and we had a flashlight on the wall giving us light. Urban was pretty direct that we were going to play that game that day. The intensity was at an all-time high. That really stands out to me.”
Meyer won that battle and the Utes won that game, 45-28.
Meyer took the Florida job after that season, and Andersen ascended to the defensive coordinator position on Whittingham’s staff.
“Gary was our D-line coach, but he stepped into being the defensive coordinator effortlessly when Coach Whittingham came on as the head coach,” Aloia said. “He has an awesome football mind. He knew how to get his guys peaking at the right now. He is very much a players’ coach. Day-to-day, I would interact with the assistants more than the head coach and I had so much fun with Gary. He’s one funny guy.”
Andersen certainly has the Badgers playing their best at the right time now, as Wisconsin heads into the Big Ten title game as a favorite over Ohio State. He’ll be looking for his first win against Meyer, who took home a 31-24 victory over Andersen in Columbus last season.
Whittingham said that he doesn’t anticipate the familiarity between the two head coaches playing a large factor. If Andersen does win, though, it will be in part because Meyer made him the coach he is today.
“I learned a lot, a lot from Coach Meyer in that year in a lot of different ways,” Andersen said. “I put that into a lot of my philosophies as a head football coach. It was a great experience, a great learning experience.”