Jan. 5, 2007
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) -One took the fast track to the top of the profession. The other toiled in the minors for years before finally getting called to the big show.
Just four seasons after taking his first head coaching job, Florida's Urban Meyer was the most wanted man in the business, courted by two of college football's elite programs.
After 15 years in Division I-AA, Jim Tressel had to convince Ohio State he was ready to hold the job he coveted.
Much has been made of the similarities between Meyer and Tressel as the top-ranked Buckeyes (12-0) and No. 2 Gators (12-1) prepare for the BCS national championship game Monday night.
Both are Ohio natives with deep Buckeyes roots. They share a mentor, an obsession for detail and a passion for special teams. They talk about a team being a family and players being accountable for making that family flourish.
Over the last six seasons, few college coaches have had more success than Meyer, who is 60-12 in that time, and Tressel, who is 62-13. Both make over $2 million per year.
"I think what they have in common is their both good teachers on the field, they're leaders because they lead by example," said Earle Bruce, the former Ohio State and Colorado State coach who had both Tressel and Meyer as assistants. "Most certainly they're the guys in charge on the field."
But their paths to stardom and their first head-to-head meeting in Glendale have been quite different.
The 42-year-old Meyer is tall, dark and handsome, still built like the college football player and minor league baseball player he once was. Smiles don't seem to come easy for him. Intensity does.
"I think Urban is much more emotional than Jim," Bruce said Friday. "We always think of Jim as being very calm, collected and in charge of his emotions."
Meyer rooted for Ohio State growing up in Ashtabula in northeast Ohio. He still has buckeyes in his home and a picture of former Ohio State coaching great Woody Hayes. His first college coaching job was as a graduate assistant under Bruce in 1986.
In two years in Columbus, Meyer got a taste of big-time college football that became the foundation for his career.
"I get to Ohio State and meet Earle Bruce and watch the way things are done and got a piece of that tradition," Meyer said. "Everything we do ties into building tradition. The Gator Walk. Singing the fight song with the student body. All those types of things I learned first at Ohio State."
Florida targeted Meyer in 2004 as he was leading Utah to an unbeaten season. So did Notre Dame. He had quickly risen to the top of the charts among young coaches by engineering rapid turnarounds at Bowling Green, where he went 17-6 in 2001-02, and with the Utes, who 22 won games in his two seasons.
"The biggest thing I learned, and it is an offshoot of the guys I worked for, Lou Holtz, Bob Davie, Earle Bruce, is that the head coach's job is to get involved in every aspect of the program and turn it over to no one," Meyer said Friday during media day at University of Phoenix Stadium. "Ultimately, it is your responsibility."
Meyer surprised many by turning down Notre Dame because he had been an assistant in South Bend and his contract with Utah had a clause that would've allowed him to opt out to coach the Fighting Irish. He took over a Florida program in need of a new direction. The Gators were a talented but undisciplined group.
"I think (Meyer) just made all the guys really accountable for one another," Florida quarterback Chris Leak said. "He really stressed teamwork and what it takes to be a championship team of guys coming together and working hard in the offseason and growing as a family."
Leak and the Gators have blossomed in two years under Meyer and will play for the school's second national title Monday.
The 54-year-old Tressel, with his trademark sweater vests and silver hair parted to the side, has the look of a man who would scold his players for leaving a messy locker room behind after practice - which he does.
"He thinks there is a direct correlation to how you act off the field and how you perform on the field," Ohio State defensive tackle David Patterson said. "The more we are respectful to the people at our hotel, the more our grades are taken care, the more we are courteous in cleaning up our locker room at the end of a day's practice, he thinks those little things have a direct effect on how we play on the field.
"I believe him because it's working for us."
The son of a football coach, his father, Lee, won a Division III title with Baldwin-Wallace, Tressel had been running backs and receivers coach under Bruce at Ohio State from 1983-85.
Tressel left in 1986 - the same year Bruce hired Meyer as a graduate assistant - for Youngstown State. And there he stayed, even becoming athletic director for a while.
"You know, those years in Youngstown really helped me understand how much impact a good football program can have," he said. "That was a great learning time for me."
He landed his dream job with the Buckeyes in 2001 by winning over then-athletic director Andy Geiger and beating out the other top candidate, former Ohio State player Glen Mason, who was fired by Minnesota last week.
"Ohio State didn't really come to me," said Tressel, who won four national championships at Youngstown State. "I called Ohio State in this particular case."
The Buckeyes were wise to pick up.
Tressel has gone 5-1 against Michigan, won his last four bowl games and established himself as maybe the best big-game coach in the country - with one more chance to prove it on Monday against Meyer.