But as his former assistant Steve Addazio – now the head coach at Boston College – pointed out in a recent interview, it isn’t enough to produce great teams and great players. The best coaches, he argued, produce more great coaches.
“I think great coaches have good trees,” Addazio said. “Coach Saban has a good tree. Urban has a great tree right now. I wouldn’t be the head coach at Boston College without Urban. Without what we did at Florida, I wouldn’t be sitting here as the head coach of Boston College. He had a great impact on me. We think a lot alike in a lot of ways. He might be a little more into the throw game and I’m a little more into the run game, but if you cut us open we’re the same inside. That’s why we get along so well.”
While there’s no doubt that a coach’s legacy can be bolstered by the success of those who learned from him, it’s just as important – if not more so – to come from a great coaching tree.
“I think it’s really important that you have great mentors in your life,” said Texas head coach Charlie Strong, who worked with Meyer at Florida from 2005-09. “It’s critical to have people that can help prepare you for your next opportunity, whether that be as a coordinator or head coach. Those are the ones you’ll lean on when you need advice or that you can look back at some notes from something they said in a meeting to help you handle tough situations. I think Urban and I have both been really fortunate with the guys we’ve been able to work for over the years.”
Meyer credits his success as a coach to the lessons he learned while working for Earle Bruce and Lou Holtz. He coached under Bruce at Ohio State from 1986-87 and again at Colorado State from 1990-92. Meyer spent several seasons at Notre Dame after leaving Colorado State in 1995, but his first season in South Bend was the last for Holtz. Although he spent just six years combined between the two coaches, they are the ones he points to when asked how he developed into the coach he is today.
“To this day, everything in our program came from Earle Bruce or Lou Holtz,” Meyer said. “I’ve been lucky. A lot of times, guys don’t get that. We’ll get a coach that is not used to the kind of attention to detail that we have, and it’s great to see them learn.”
Holtz, who later helped Meyer land his first head coaching job at Bowling Green, embraced the inevitability of staff turnover better than most. The famously bespectacled coach used to spend time working with his assistant coaches to prepare them for what they’d need to do to land (and keep) a head coaching job of their own.
“Lou Holtz would say, ‘We’re having a meeting today, and I’m going to help you become a head coach.’ He’d go through a lot of the things that I now share with my staff. I think Coach Holtz took that as an obligation,” Meyer said. “When I first started, I didn’t even think about that. Some of my mentors like Earle Bruce and Lou Holtz would always remind me – they said the older you get, one of your great legacies will be the guys that worked for you that go on to thrive.”
Now, more than a decade into his head coaching career, Meyer is prideful about where his assistants end up. He was quick to point out that every assistant that has left Ohio State was either hired as a head coach or took a job in the NFL.
Houston head coach Tom Herman, who was Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Ohio State from 2012-14, said he and Meyer had a number of conversations about what Herman would need to do to become a successful head coach.
“We spoke quite frequently, especially when you’re driving around recruiting,” Herman said. “What are the first things I need to do? What are the pitfalls, what do I need to stay away from? The advice he gave me is too numerous to list, but we certainly had plenty of conversations on his experiences and hopefully trying to learn from his mistakes and successes.”
It’s a departure from his early days, when he said he didn’t give much thought to the impact he could have on an assistant's career. Those days are gone, and the fourth-year Ohio State coach still routinely hears from some of his former charges. In fact, Meyer’s answer about meeting with Holtz for coaching advice was briefly interrupted by the ring of his cell phone. He glanced down, issued one of his trademark wry grins, and held up the phone. It was Addazio, calling to speak to his former boss.