If ESPN ever wanted to make a “30 for 30” on the 2001 Bowling Green football team – and just about everyone involved on that team agrees it’s a hell of a story – we can already give them the tagline.
“What if I told you,” the ever-serious voiceover would intone, “that a team that didn’t even make a bowl game changed college football history?”
That’s right, the 2001 Falcons were 8-3 on the year, certainly a good season but not a great one by many measures. The way things were done in the Mid-American Conference at the time, that wasn’t enough to qualify for postseason play.
But dig a little deeper and the story becomes more clear. It jumps off the page, even. That first team nearly did the impossible, playing above its skill level and using sheer will to capture those eight wins.
Oh, and it did so under Urban Meyer.
Now nationally renowned, a veritable college football legend known in every corner of the state from Ashtabula to Zanesville and probably from Andorra to Zanzibar too, Meyer was in his first season as a head coach. There was no guarantee the hard-charging, famously intense 37-year-old named after a pope would survive let alone thrive in charge of a program, even one as tradition-rich yet victory-starved as Bowling Green.
Sure, Meyer had coached under Lou Holtz, Bob Davie and Earle Bruce. Yes, he had developed a reputation already as a demanding sort, the kind of guy who ran blocking drills so hard as a receivers coach at Notre Dame that they earned the nickname “Vietnam.”
But no one knew for sure if this guy had what it took to win as the head honcho. There had to be even more doubts when he ruled with an iron fist early on in his tenure, forcing a program that had grown lax in its work ethic to bend to his will, chasing off some of his starters and veterans along the way.
“That could have been a one-shot deal,” his wife Shelley recently told BuckeyeSports.com. “You might only have that one chance to prove yourself as a head coach. We were nervous about it. We had no idea what kind of leaders we’d be. We had no idea what kind of program he could put together.
“The course of the rest of our lives depended on that job, really.”
Of course, it worked. A 2-9 became an 8-3 team, one that posted wins against three power-conference foes and drubbed its heated rival. It made Meyer not just the MAC coach of the year but a hot commodity in coaching circles. In fact, the 2001 Falcons launched the career of Meyer, Ohio State coach and a three-time national champ whose face adorns the Mount Rushmore of modern college football.
What if I told you it all started with trash cans?
A Rocky Beginning
When the Bowling Green players arrived for the 5 a.m. workout, they had a feeling something bad was about to happen.
The indoor facility at Bowling Green provided a welcome respite from frigid winter morning, but the trash cans placed strategically around the field were a foreboding sign.
A few Bowling Green players had missed class, something that by all accounts was pretty common under the team’s previous regime. And those players would soon find out it was not going to be tolerated under Urban Frank Meyer III.
The players were summoned to run and run some more. In the years since then, it has become a famous story, with Meyer even admitting what would become known as “Black Wednesday” was over the top. But at the time, the new head coach was looking for a certain culture, and he was going to use a grueling workout that left players lining up to toss their cookies into trash cans to get it.
“It was a radically new sheriff in town,” said Matt Markey, who covered Meyer’s Bowling Green teams for the Toledo Blade. “Things had gotten very lax under his predecessor. Their stats in the police report were often better than their stats in the game. He comes in and it’s very clear this is a whole different deal. Every new coach says that, and a lot of times it’s bullcrap. But this was radically different.
“He got one of the first reports on the academic side of guys skipping class and it was 5 a.m. gassers. He was livid.”
Of course, things were a lot more genteel when Meyer first took the job. A program that had long contended for MAC titles had fallen on hard times, going 24-42 in the previous six seasons under longtime head coach Gary Blackney. A change was needed, and director of athletics Paul Krebs pulled the trigger. In his coaching search, he kept coming back to the intense Ohioan toiling on Davie’s staff in South Bend.
“Everyone I talked to told me this guy is a difference-maker,” Krebs said at the time. “Earle Bruce said it, Lou Holtz said it. He has a way with people. He's a leader. He's got head coach written all over him. The way he acts, the way he leads. He was the guy we focused on from the beginning. He was our No. 1 candidate.
"I think he's one of the best young coaches in America. Urban has a way with people. He has a way of getting people motivated and getting things done. He's relentless."
Meyer won the opening press conference. The red carpet was rolled out, with university dignitaries attending and Meyer talking up Bowling Green’s football tradition from behind a lectern featuring the team’s orange helmet. He spoke to the media as he often still does – directly, with passion in his eyes.
"When Meyer's words were unrehearsed, you would have thought he was in the locker room delivering a fiery halftime speech to his players,” Blade columnist John Harris wrote. “He was emotional and believable. A difference maker.”
That difference would be forged over the team’s first offseason, and it wasn’t an easy one. Multiple players left the program, unable or unwilling to live up to the demands Meyer set for his team in the classroom and in the strength and conditioning department.
Having spent his previous five years at Notre Dame, Meyer had seen college football at its highest level. Speaking in March of his first year at Bowling Green, he knew the Falcons had a long way to go.
"We have a ton of work to do,” he said at the time. “Hopefully, when we get together in August I'm going to say we're there, and you'll see it in my eyes that we are there. Because if we had to play tomorrow, we have no chance. No chance. Those kids actually think they're working hard, but they're doing the same things that every school in the country is doing.
"When we make it real hard on them, they think they're doing above and beyond what's needed, but they need to understand this is Division I, big-time college football. There's a certain standard that I'm familiar with, and I'm not changing. So they have to raise the level, and we have not achieved that."
The hard work continued through the spring and into two-a-day practices. Even though his team was short on scholarship players, Meyer believed a tough football team would be forged through a tough camp, and he had the Bowling Green players working to the brink of exhaustion under the summer sun.
“I remember the first two-a-days when we were there,” Shelley Meyer said. “It was so hard, and the players had just never seen anything like it. I remember talking to (defensive lineman) Ryan Wingrove after a two-a-day practice and he was just exhausted and sweaty. I said, ‘Ryan, just stick with it. Good things are going to happen.’ And he said, ‘OK, but can you just ask him to lighten up a little bit?’ ”
It was difficult, no doubt, but anyone not committed to Bowling Green football at the highest level was weeded out. There were fun times, too. The Meyers, with three young kids at the time, lived in the city of Bowling Green not far from campus. The players were welcomed to the family as much as NCAA rules allowed, and a camaraderie was forged.
Now, the Falcons just had to find out if they were any good. It wouldn’t take them long to get their answer.
An Opening Stunner
Bowling Green’s first game was at Missouri, and not much was expected of the Falcons in that opener. The team had lost its nonconference games by a 107-37 margin the year before and had been shut out in consecutive games vs. Big 12 foes, not exactly encouraging signs heading into a night game on the road against a power-conference team.
The Tigers also happened to be breaking in a new head coach of their own – former Toledo mentor Gary Pinkel, whose last Rockets team had whipped Bowling Green 51-17 the previous year.
In other words, there was no shortage of storylines at play when the game kicked off with Missouri the two-touchdown favorite. Despite a massive depth disadvantage, Bowling Green stayed close throughout. Missouri took a 13-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, but Bowling Green responded with a 5-yard scoring run up the gut by John Gibson with 10:07 to play. Shaun Suisham missed the extra point, but the game was even.
The Falcons took over the ball later in the fourth and moved down the field. Finally, with 3:40 to go, Joe Alls scored on an option run, and Suisham’s kick made it a 20-13 game. The defense held up and Bowling Green had the victory.
“I looked on the sidelines and you know what, I believed we were going to win because of the look (in their eyes),” Meyer told reporters afterward. “I’ve seen that look before. This is nothing new. I’ve seen that look in the fourth quarter. Before I got here, people told me they didn’t have that look. They had that look (tonight), and I’m so proud of these players and coaches for what they did.”
Not only did the Falcons win, they held the territorial advantage. BG had 19 first downs to the Tigers’ 13 and owned a 332-234 edge in total yards. Afterward, a humbled Pinkel could only admit defeat.
“I don't believe in upsets," Pinkel said postgame. "They outplayed us."
To this day, the win holds a special place in Meyer’s heart.
“I remember Urban telling me years later, ‘If we hadn’t won that game, I wouldn’t be here,’ ” Markey said. “In other words, if they had gone to Missouri and gotten their butts kicked, he might have lost those kids.”
Added Shelley Meyer, “We didn’t know if we’d win a game. Just getting that win validated Urban’s whole theory for how a program should be run. Getting that first win was huge – and a sigh of relief and a confidence booster. That was a fun night.”
A Season To Remember
From there, the Falcons shut out Buffalo, 35-0, in the home opener three days before the Sept. 11 attacks canceled the team’s next game vs. South Carolina. When BG returned to the field, Meyer became just the second coach in school history to start 3-0 as the Falcons welcomed Temple to Doyt Perry Stadium and took a 42-23 victory.
That set up a trip to Marshall, and taking on the Herd was no easy task. Marshall had won the MAC four years in a row, and the team had future NFL quarterback Byron Leftwich at the controls.
The game was back-and-forth from the beginning. On the way to a school-record 215 receiving yards, Robert Redd caught two first-half touchdowns as the Falcons took a 24-20 lead into the break. Kurt Gerling’s third-quarter touchdown grab made it 31-20, but Marshall scored the last 17 points – the last on a TD pass by Leftwich with 2:48 to play – to take a 37-31 victory.
“I go in the locker room afterward and guys are sobbing – weeping,” Markey remembered. “I go in the press conference and Urban is standing there and he looked like he just stormed Omaha Beach. He’s whipped. I said, expecting a certain response, ‘Tough loss. Doesn’t it tear you up to see those guys just destroyed by this?’ And he said, ‘No, that’s exactly how I want them to feel. When they lose, I want them to just be sick.’ I thought, ‘Well, that makes sense.’ That was him. That was the value of winning.”
The Falcons went on to alternate wins and losses for a few weeks. A 24-7 victory on homecoming against Kent State followed the Marshall game, but Bowling Green fell 37-28 at defending MAC West champ Western Michigan a week after that. A 16-11 win at Akron was next thanks to a late TD grab by Redd, but Miami came to town and pulled out a 24-21 victory against the Falcons to drop the team to 5-3.
At that point, Meyer – who had alternated the more experienced Andy Sahm with the more dynamic Josh Harris at quarterback – chose to go with Harris the rest of the year, and the team responded. The defense shined in a 17-0 shutout at Ohio the next week, leading up to one of the biggest games of the year – a Nov. 17 game at Northwestern hastily scheduled in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Wildcats had won the Big Ten the year prior and boasted a similarly wide-open offense to the Falcons, something shown in the stats. The teams traded blows all day, with the Wildcats and quarterback Zak Kustok taking a 42-28 lead in the fourth quarter.
But Bowling Green didn’t quit, scoring a touchdown to pull within seven. Just when all looked lost, Wingrove recovered a fumble in the dying minutes and the Falcons moved down the field with ease, going 78 yards in nine plays and scoring with 36 seconds left on a short TD pass from Harris to Redd.
With momentum on his side, Meyer gambled and went for two. Harris rolled left and handed off to Cole Magner on a reverse, with Magner sprinting to the corner and diving into the end zone to give the Falcons a 43-42 win.
"That was decided with six minutes left in the game," Meyer said after the game. "We were going for two in that situation - no question.
"After what these seniors have been through, and after what I was told about guys who have never won – we saw again that these are different people," the elated head coach added. "I've done this for 14 years, and I've been in some of the greatest games, but this is the best game I've ever been involved in. We saw some seniors who have just spilled their guts for each other – and look what happened."
The win made BG the first MAC team ever to beat three teams from BCS conferences in the same year.
“It gives me chills to this day still,” Shelley Meyer said. “It was Kurt Gerling’s birthday. I remember he was kneeling on the field crying, and I’m getting emotional just thinking about it. I just put my hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Happy birthday, Kurt.’ ”
A week later, back in the friendly confines of Doyt Perry Stadium, Toledo didn’t have a chance. The Rockets were without star quarterback Tavares Bolden, and Bowling Green turned the tables from the previous year’s rivalry thrashing.
When Meyer was hired, he had spoken of taking the Falcons to the point the stadium’s goal posts would be torn down in excitement, and that’s exactly what happened at the end of his first year when Bowling Green blitzed the Rockets in a 56-21 victory – the most points ever scored by BG in the rivalry game.
"I was a part of something this season that a lot of people never dreamed could happen here," Gerling said at the time. "Football was so different, so hard, so difficult, but so fun. I never saw football this way before, and now I hate that it is over for me. I wish my time here was just beginning, because I think Coach Meyer has really started something good."
A Memorable Run
Just about everyone knows what happens next. The Falcons built on their 2001 run a year later, starting 8-0 and entering the top 20 of each major poll before a 9-3 finish. From there, Meyer faced an agonizing decision – should he stay and finish what he had started at Bowling Green or move up the coaching ladder?
Meyer had planned to stay, but when he interviewed at Utah, he found the right fit, and in December 2002 he accepted the job as the Utes’ head coach.
"This is the toughest thing I've ever been through in coaching," Meyer said at the time. "We agonized over it, and it was much, much harder than I thought to come to a decision.”
Meyer made the right choice. Bowling Green continued its success the next few seasons under his offensive coordinator, Gregg Brandon, while Meyer racked up a 22-2 record at Utah. That allowed him to move on to Florida, where he won two national titles in six seasons before eventually ending up at Ohio State.
But the memory of that first Bowling Green team and what it accomplished has stood the test of time.
“It’s like when you have your first child,” Shelley Meyer said. “You love all of your children whether you have one or three or 15. But when you have that first one, it’s something special. That first team, to do what they did after a few years of not being very good, I feel like we adopted the whole team. We’re really close with them.”
This week, Meyer will suit up against the Falcons for the first time since he left Bowling Green more than a decade ago, and considering the spot the university still holds in their heart, it won’t be the easiest week for the Meyer family. But this is all part of the game, just like when Meyer has faced his alma mater, Cincinnati, in previous years.
And there will still be a photo splashed with orange in the Meyer home in Dublin. The 2001 Bowling Green team photo, a picture of the team that came together and made it all possible for Meyer, still hangs in the family home – and for good reason. What if I told you that if any team brings the accomplished close to tears, it’s that undermanned squad from northwest Ohio 15 full seasons ago?
“It’s always one of the first photos that goes up in my house,” Meyer told The Blade in 2013. “That’s probably the team I stay in touch with as much as anybody, maybe more. Those guys, the thing that I appreciated most is nowadays, it’s all about the media. It’s all about, I got one T-shirt, why didn’t I get two? There was no expectation level, other than a group of kids that I found out wanted to win in the worst way.
“And to this day ... when I see them, I tear up sometimes because I love these guys so much."