The first six years of the system designed by then-SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer had played out exactly as those in power had hoped. Every BCS bowl team, up to that point, had come from one of the six automatic qualifying conferences. Three teams – 1998 Tulane, 1999 Marshall and 2003 Miami (Ohio) – had cracked the top 12 of the BCS standings only to be left out when the four top bowl slots were doled out.
So when Utah head coach Urban Meyer took his top-10 team to Wyoming for a nationally televised contest on ABC that was pegged as a viable trap game for the 9-0 Utes, he wasn’t about to miss the chance to show the country his program belonged with the top teams in college football.
As fate would have it, a blown transformer knocked out the power in War Memorial Stadium prior to kickoff, leading to a two-hour delay. The 15-degree windchill sent the teams inside to wait out the delay, leaving the staff to stew over an unwelcome development at a road venue they worried would bring enough trouble in the game itself. Sonnie Aloia, the team’s director of football operations, had the unhappy task of herding the Wyoming athletic director Gary Barta into the room where Meyer’s team was gathered to inform the second-year Utes coach that there was a chance the game wouldn’t be played.
“I brought him down to have a conversation with Coach Meyer in the locker room,” Aloia said. “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 went on to easily defeat the upstart Cowboys, 45-28. His team, the champions of the Mountain West Conference, finished the regular season undefeated and then trounced Pittsburgh, 35-7, in the Fiesta Bowl.
That afternoon in Wyoming was just one small piece of the puzzle, but it demonstrated one of the fundamental lessons that his staff members learned during Meyer’s two-year stint in Salt Lake City.
“When I first met him, it was obvious Urban Meyer had a plan,” said current Oregon State coach Gary Andersen, who was the defensive line coach for that 2004 Utah team. “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.”
A decade later, members of that 2004 Utah staff were again at the forefront of a college football first. The 2014 season ushered in a new era, with playoff football replacing the oft-criticized system of human polls and computer numbers that treated teams like that Utah squad as some sort of glitch in the formula.
Dan Mullen, Utah’s quarterbacks coach in 2004, was well into his tenure as head coach at Mississippi State by 2014. When the first College Football Playoff rankings were released following the ninth week of the season, it was Mullen’s Bulldogs in the top spot – where they stayed until finally dropping a game in mid-November.
Meyer was asked in a post-practice interview on Oct. 29, 2014, about his thoughts on a former assistant holding the nation’s No. 1 ranking. Smiling after a pause, he rattled off the names of three members of that Utah staff he was excited to see having success before zeroing in on Mullen.
“Dan Mullen in particular, I’m just really fired up for him. He’s a very good coach,” Meyer said. “I take great pride in the fact those guys are doing very well.”
Kyle Whittingham, Meyer’s defensive coordinator in 2004, was doing his own part to shape the playoff race. The Utes’ up-and-down 2014 campaign ended with a 9-4 record, but Utah came away with a 30-28 road win at No. 8 UCLA on Oct. 4 and took down No. 20 USC at home on Oct. 25 en route to a top-25 finish.
Perhaps the biggest impact on the national championship race came when Meyer squared off with Andersen, then the head coach at Wisconsin, in the 2014 Big Ten title game. Andersen’s favored squad, which entered with a 10-2 record and a seven-game winning streak, melted down. Ohio State ran away in a shocking 59-0 victory that helped the Buckeyes earn the fourth and final spot in the playoff they ultimately won.
It wasn’t just his former Utah assistants who helped impact the 2014 season. Marshall head coach Doc Holliday, who was Meyer’s associate head coach and recruiting coordinator from 2005-07 at Florida, put together an 11-0 start that had the Herd in the discussion for a berth in one of the New Year's Six bowls. A 67-66 overtime loss to Western Kentucky in the final regular season game killed those chances, but Holliday still piloted Marshall to a 13-1 record that included a Conference USA title and a Boca Raton Bowl victory.
The 2014 season might have been the high-water mark to this point for Meyer’s coaching tree. The eight former Meyer assistants who held FBS head coaching jobs in 2014 combined to go 65-39, a .625 winning percentage. A handful of others are still coaching at the FCS level, and Meyer added a new name to the FBS ranks for the 2015 season when Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman was hired as Houston’s head coach.
“I’ve never been more proud,” Meyer told BuckeyeSports.com. “I think we have 11 or 12 guys and they always win, they follow the rules, they’re good people. I’m just so proud of them. The talent I have that I’m not embarrassed to say is that I hire really good people. They’re not good people – great people.”