Notre Dame has always been important to Urban Meyer.
Growing up in a Catholic family in Ohio, the Fighting Irish resonated with him. His wife, Shelley, however, was less enthralled. In fact, when then-Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz called to offer her husband a job on his 1996 coaching staff, Shelley was devastated and said she cried for days at the thought of leaving Fort Collins, Colo., where Urban had been coaching with Colorado State.
Meyer took the job, though, and it wouldn’t be long before the whole family embraced Notre Dame as Meyer always had.
Meyer has always made sure his entire family knows the fight song of whatever school he is coaching at, and in his first year at Notre Dame his 3-year-old daughter, Gigi, was not excluded.
“I used to take them over to practice a lot,” Shelley said of her daughters, Nicki and Gigi. “We were over at the facility a lot, and we were very close to the secretaries at the building. They loved my little girls. And Gigi was standing out in the hall of the football offices singing at the top of her lungs, ‘Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame!’ Knew the whole song at 3 years old, and all of a sudden Lou Holtz comes out of his office and he knelt down to her level and sang with her.
“Urban was there and it was really cool to see Coach Holtz do that with Gigi. It was so cute.”
While Gigi was taught the Notre Dame fight song when her father began coaching there, Meyer had known it for years. On Jan. 1, he’ll hear it on game day for the first time since he coached there as Ohio State takes on Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, a special matchup for the coach.
Growing up firmly in the footprint of Fighting Irish fandom, Meyer had a special relationship with the school as an Irish Catholic, a connection that remains despite the fact he hasn’t coached there in 15 years.
“There were two places that were near and dear to by heart my entire life, and that was Ohio State and Notre Dame,” he said. “I spent five years there, my son (Nate) was born there, baptized there and I loved it. So it’s very near and dear to our hearts in a lot of respects, that great place.”
Meyer’s love of Notre Dame is no secret.
When the Fighting Irish were looking for a head coach in 2005, Meyer was rumored to be a top contender for the position but landed at Florida as New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis took the job. Before current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was hired prior to the 2010 season, Meyer’s name came up once again.
That was all before Meyer took the head coaching position at Ohio State, the place he began his coaching career as a graduate assistant and one that he’s said has always been as important to him as Notre Dame.
Still, Kelly knows that some in the Fighting Irish fan base are still waiting for Meyer to take the position.
“We’re going to wrestle, arm wrestle before the game, and whoever wins gets the Notre Dame job,” Kelly joked during a Dec. 6 press conference.
“No, I mean, I think that’s just great talk for the fans, and Urban is a great coach. Who knows? I’m not going to be here forever. Maybe he’ll get a chance one day to coach at Notre Dame if that’s what he wants.”
For now, Meyer’s time at Notre Dame is in the rearview.
He coached for Notre Dame for five years – one under Holtz and another four under Bob Davie – and the experiences he had there helped shape him as a coach. To that point in his career, Meyer had been a full-time coach at Illinois State and Colorado State, and the chance to work under a national championship coach was a formative experience, something he referred to as a “game changer” in his coaching career..
“It was unfortunate he only had one year with Coach Holtz there, but he learned so much in that year that Coach Holtz has remained one of his mentors over his entire career and he’s always one of the first ones he calls to get advice or feedback,” Shelley said. “He really grew in that year."
The five years the Meyer family spent at Notre Dame was about more than football, however, as it also allowed Meyer to marvel at the iconic figures that he’d become accustomed to growing up. For five years he was immersed in The Word Of Life – the official title of the mural better known as Touchdown Jesus – the Fair Catch Corby statue and all the other history associated with the Golden Domers.
It was also significant for Meyer’s spiritual side as he and Shelley both pointed to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, a reproduction of the French shrine where the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Bernadette in 1858, as a spot that ranked among their favorites in their time at Notre Dame.
“That was my first exposure as a full-time coach to that level of football,” the OSU coach said. “I still remember the day that I was hired and took a tour, it was very cold, I took a tour throughout the Touchdown Jesus, the Fair Catch Corby all the great statues and all the great traditions on that campus. Even on a side note when my (mom’s cancer recurred), every night I came home I would stop by the grotto. It’s a very spiritual place, a place that has a special place in my heart.”
Given the affinity Meyer had for Notre Dame throughout his life, it seemed preordained that his bond with Notre Dame would be both immediate and lasting. For Shelley, however, it took some time.
She was not raised Catholic, and thus was not spiritually connected to the university. After she was dragged by her husband across the country – her choice of words for the trip – she slowly warmed up to South Bend and the history it had. As the family’s time at Notre Dame went on, the university became nearly as special to her as it always was to her husband.
“I knew about Notre Dame, I had seen Touchdown Jesus on TV and all of that. I was pretty starstruck when we got there, just seeing all that. It’s almost like going out to Hollywood and seeing all those spots that you see. I thought it was really cool. Just getting to know what that place was about. Fall Saturdays were very special. It just took me a little bit to get there once we moved.”
While Fort Collins remains important to Shelley and Urban because it’s where the Meyer family began to grow with both Nicki and Gigi born there, South Bend became special because, as mentioned, it’s where the final piece of the family was added in Nate Meyer, who was baptized in the Log Chapel on campus.
Notre Dame is important to Meyer for what it meant to him growing up and what it did for his career but the school in South Bend and the family’s home in nearby Granger, Ind., will forever be important to the Meyer family for the same reasons a place is important to any family who spent their formative years there.
“It was one of our very favorite places that we ever lived as far as the best street we ever lived on,” Shelley said. “We lived on a cul-de-sac and all of our neighbors that lived on that cul-de-sac, we were all best friends, we all had kids the same ages. There were about 30 kids on the street and they hung in a pack all day long. We did a lot of block parties together.
“Those are really special times, and Urban and I talk about it all the time. It’s the best place we ever lived just in terms of the connections with the people right where we lived.”
Now those connections will be tested.
It’s the first time in his coaching career that Meyer will face off against the Fighting Irish. While there is no doubt whom the Meyer family is supporting in the game, Shelley said she hates playing any school that her husband used to work for, especially one as important to the family as Notre Dame.
She knows, however, how important the Fiesta Bowl will be for her husband.
“He has so much respect for both universities, and having spent five years at Notre Dame he knows it so well,” she said. “That attachment has never gone away for him with Notre Dame. He’s always loved that place even after we’ve been gone from there. He still has great respect for it, still thinks it’s one of the top programs in the nation. It’s hard to play a school that you feel so close to and so connected to, but you still want to beat them.”
While Notre Dame has always been important to Meyer, for the first time in his career beating the Fighting Irish has become just as essential.
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