Coaching matchup heightens rivalry that’s been percolating

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

It was a welcome detour, an invitation that, for a few hours, pulled Urban Meyer away from the unrelenting worries about what the next evolution in his father Bud’s declining health might look like.

Roughly three months removed from his second national championship at Florida, Meyer was blown away in April of 2008 by a relative stranger, in some ways a perfect stranger, and a man whom Meyer suddenly and unwaveringly perceived to be an ascending star in the coaching business.

That that man, Brian Kelly, and Urban Meyer finally oppose each other and on such an elevated stage, Friday in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., almost seemed inevitable.

That they do so as major college football’s winningest active coach by victory (Kelly, 226) and winningest active coach by winning percentage (Meyer, .850) adds to the style but largely ignores the most compelling substance of only the sixth-ever clash between No. 8 Notre Dame (10-2) and seventh-ranked Ohio State (11-1).

The talent quotient among the two teams almost blinds you with its gaudy sheen, the false assumption being that parallel streams of five-star talent simply progressed according to nature. What’s overlooked is the player development piece so necessary to the success and so prevalent in each coach’s hard-wiring.

And the ability to handle the big moments, and the taffy-pull of demands and the ability to build a culture that transcends both big egos and big obstacles and survive unwieldy expectations, all of which had to be cultivated.

Friday’s game presents more of a referendum for Notre Dame than it does for Ohio State in terms of the state of that culture, in large part because the Irish are so much further removed from their most recent national title.

That was captured in the Fiesta Bowl — of all venues back — back in 1988, well before any of the players on either team was born. And way back when two of college football’s more progressive and productive offensive minds today were cutting their coaching teeth on defense.

Kelly was a graduate assistant coach that season at Division II Grand Valley State, in charge of the defensive backs, and rooming with current ND associate head coach Mike Denbrock and eating Ramen Noodles together to stretch their underwhelming paychecks.

Meyer was an outside linebackers coach at FCS school Illinois State, sandwiched in between his own GA-ship, under Earle Bruce at Ohio State and going to work full-time as an offensive assistant under Bruce at Colorado State after Bruce had been deposed at OSU. (A star running back for the Rams was Tony Alford, who would later go on to coach for both Kelly and Meyer.)

From 1988, Kelly’s and Meyer’s paths diverged, with Meyer finding his way to Notre Dame in 1996 for Lou Holtz’s final season and Kelly’s route to Friday’s clash comprising way more off-the-GPS back roads, but learning many of the same lessons along the way and processing and manifesting them similarly.

“They both have a Lou Holtz quality about them,” said former Notre Dame assistant coach Rick Minter, whose own coaching path repeatedly crossed with Holtz’s and who came to know and appreciate both Kelly and Meyer along the way.

“In other words, they have a standard. I guarantee you they have a vision in their minds of what they want their product to look like, their team to look like.

“And they have an uncompromising value system that has people rise to that level of excellence and that standard of excellence rather than the coach compromising himself and lowering his standard.

‘Sometimes the very best coaches in the country can be known to be tough to work for, because the average guy will accept mediocrity and will waver. The guys that are relentless, like Brian Kelly and Urban Meyer, they are relentless in pursuit of excellence.

“And they have a quest for it and they have a thirst for it.”

That’s the rudiments of what Meyer saw that spring day in 2008, when Kelly invited the Florida coach back to his alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, for what was an otherwise mundane day of spring football practice.

Afterward Meyer huddled with reporters in Nippert Stadium, effusive in his impression of Kelly and the transformation he was commandeering.

“This was not a good football place when I was here,” said Meyer, who walked on at UC in 1984 after walking away from a minor-league baseball career that spanned two seasons.

Meyer had been drafted in 1982 out of St. John’s High School in Ashtabula, Ohio, by the Atlanta Braves as a shortstop, a 13th-round selection in a draft in which the first overall pick, future Chicago Cub Shawon Dunston, played the same position.

Meyer was taken a couple of rounds before outfielder Jose Canseco, but two years later became a defensive back for the Bearcats while majoring in psychology.

In his 1984 reintroduction to football, the Bearcats went 2-9, lost to Florida in Gainesville (48-17), lost to FCS school Youngstown State (27-23) a couple of years before Meyer’s Ohio State predecessor, Jim Tressel, took the reins at YSU, and edged Akron (28-27) two years before the Zips turned their program over to deposed ND coach Gerry Faust.

“I was not a good player,” Meyer continued. “It was not a good program and it was not a good place. There were players back in the day who would complain about the locker room, would complain about the weight room, would complain about all of this.

“The real complaint was that players were not committed. Now that I’ve been doing this a long time, it was comical. To see the way it is now, that was a good football practice. They have good players. That team will challenge for a (league title).

“It wasn’t major college football. It was a masquerade. It’s not what it is today. I’m leaving here going, ‘Wow, it’s legit.’ ”

Interestingly, Meyer’s family kind of had a hand in it.

Kelly befriended Bud Meyer, who in turn became an ardent supporter of Kelly’s. Meyer’s sister, Gigi Escoe, was a provost at Cincinnati whom Kelly said helped make an impact in recruiting. Kelly even retained one of Meyer’s coaching buddies, Tim Hinton, when Mark Dantonio left UC after the 2006 season to head to Michigan State.

Meyer would, in turn, hire Hinton away from Kelly after the 2011 season, when Meyer ended his one-year coaching hiatus to begin anew at Ohio State. Fellow Irish assistant Ed Warinner was poached by Meyer in the same cycle.

Three winters later, Kelly assistant Alford took the same parachute out.

And yet the Kelly response was to view it as an opportunity rather than a crisis. Elite recruiter and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand was Warinner’s replacement. Kelly filled Alford’s void with Florida native and ND all-time leading rusher Autry Denson.

It probably speaks to approach and resolve more than coincidence that Kelly’s two best ND teams followed raids from Meyer on his assistants.

“There’s no question there’s a rivalry element there now,” Minter said. “And you could always see it in recruiting.”

Indeed, a rivalry rises in the desert Friday.

But it’s been gurgling all along. Granted Maryland (2) is the only Big Ten team Notre Dame has met on the field less often than the Buckeyes, but all the acrimony and arrogance but, yes, respect and high standards that constitutes great rivalries have always been there.

Anti-Catholic sentiments, OSU coaching icon Woody Hayes’s stubbornness, and a long ND series with Michigan have all taken turns keeping the strong/hard feelings on more of a back-burner setting.

Kelly and Meyer and the College Football Playoff committee’s judgment not to split them up and pair them with Florida State and Houston have coaxed all that pent-up animosity and admiration for all the college football world to see.

The first meeting between these coaches almost happened in 2009 in the Sugar Bowl, but Kelly vacated his position to start building at ND weeks before Cincinnati would oppose Meyer’s Florida Gators just weeks after Meyer got through a health scare.

Many of Kelly’s ND building blocks have come from Ohio, 20, in fact, when you count the two 2016 commitments from the state. Florida, where Alford once recruited for Kelly and now Denson does, will finally catch up in February with 20 of its own. No other state has produced more than 13 Irish players in the Kelly Era.

The back stories hit the pause button Friday when the teams spill out onto the natural turf at University of Phoenix Stadium, a school that actually has no football team and a higher default rate on student loans (19 percent) than its graduation rate (16 percent), but a venue in which both teams would like to return next January, when it hosts a national playoff semifinal.

For now, it hosts a perceptual war or friendly rivals, but rivals, nevertheless.

“These are important games,” Kelly said. “You're also measuring yourself in this game, Where are we?

“We measured ourselves in 2012, found out we were a little short. Now we're back here in '15/'16, get a chance to measure ourselves again. To me, that's more the important thing. We need to win the game, but we're still measuring where we are.”

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer pose for photos next to the Fiesta Bowl trophy on Thursday in advance of Friday's matchup in Glendale, Ariz. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)