Wisconsin coach Gary Anderson is a former Urban Meyer assistant and was eager to see how his longtime friend would go about choosing a staff for his first season at Ohio State in 2012.
In the past, Meyer has generally gone with close associates. But of the nine assistants he hired at OSU, he had previous ties with only two of them.
Either way, Anderson knew his ex-boss would make careful, calculated decisions. And no one can question Meyer’s eye for talent.
“Coach Meyer always has a plan. When he finds a coach he likes, he does his homework — whether it’s on his staff or as a young coach. He crosses paths with them and watches their position group play,” Anderson said at the Big Ten media event in Chicago last month.
“I found myself being very much the same way, trying to stay ahead like him, because he understands when you hire coaches, it’s like game day for you as a head coach.”
Meyer’s thoughtful approach certainly is paying off. Ten of his former assistants have become FBS head coaches, including Louisville’s Charlie Strong, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham. Another four currently are either offensive or defensive coordinators at college football’s top level.
The Buckeye staff is filled with rising stars in the business, too. Quarterbacks coach Tom Herman, running backs coach Stan Drayton, offensive line coach Ed Warinner and co-defensive coordinators Everett Withers and Luke Fickell are mentioned most often as candidates to eventually run their own programs.
“I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve hired some really great coaches,” Meyer said. “If you go through and study our ’05 Florida team, I think there’s four head coaches from there (Strong, Mullen, Marshall’s Doc Holliday and Boston College’s Steve Addazio). And Kyle Whittingham is one of the top coaches in America.
“I take my time when I hire them,” Meyer added. “I don’t necessarily listen to other people. There are certain qualities I look for — character being No. 1. I don’t want (NCAA) violations. I don’t want to deal with extracurricular stuff that disrupts our team.”
Coaching continuity is important in a program, and the Buckeyes were able to keep its staff from last year intact — despite attempts to lure some of those assistants away.
“We had three guys who could have left,” Meyer said. “Tom Herman could have left. Stan Drayton could have left and stayed. Everett Withers could have left and stayed. That’s just off the top of my head. And it wasn’t just financial (considerations that kept them at OSU). In fact, a couple could have made more than they’re making now.
“They enjoy working and getting up every day and coming to Ohio State.”
Meyer’s right-hand man for years has been Buckeyes strength coach Mickey Marotti. But among the nine assistants, only receivers coach Zach Smith (a grad assistant at Florida) and Drayton (who spent one year as running backs coach and recruiting coordinator with the Gators) had previously worked under Meyer.
Although plenty of his friends wanted to join him at OSU, Meyer turned most of them down because they weren’t the right fits.
Asked how often he’s done that, Meyer said: “A lot. And it’s hard to do.”
Meyer, though, can be influenced at times. At Utah, Whittingham was the defensive coordinator and lobbied hard for Anderson. Meyer wasn’t going in direction but relented.
He’s glad he did.
“Gary was arguably one of the most important hires we ever made,” Meyer said. “We were 10-2 (in 2003) and had a good team coming back, and I hired Gary Andreson my second year and went undefeated. He took one of our weakest units, the defensive line, and (made difference with) just his overall presence, his attitude, his character, what kind of guy he is — and obviously he’s a great X’s-and-O’s coach.”
Wittingham may have had some pull, but Anderson won the job on his own merits.
“I went out and had dinner with Gary and his wife and was completely blown away,” Meyer said. “The people in Wisconsin are going to find out not only what a great coach he is, but great guy and great family man. I love Gary Anderson.”
After five years in Utah, Anderson spent four years as head coach at Utah State, going 11-2 and winning the WAC last season.
When Wisconsin was doing its coaching search to replace Bret Bielema, Meyer received a call from athletic director Barry Alvarez and had high praise for his former protégé.
“I would put (Anderson) in one of the top two or three hires I’ve ever made,” Meyer said.
Anderson and Meyer — who will match wits in the Buckeyes’ Big Ten opener Sept. 28 in Columbus — actually only spent one year together. Meyer parlayed that unbeaten season into a job at Florida.
Asked if he ever did anything to get on Meyer’s bad side, Anderson laughed and said: “I never lost a game with him. We were undefeated. (The average victory margin) was 21 points. There wasn’t a lot of issues in that area.
“I worked hard there and recruited my tail off,” he added. “We had good discussions. We had a good friendship. I didn’t have any problems. Was he demanding? Hell, if you’re not demanding in this profession, you’ve got problems. You’ll be out of it in about six months.”
Urban Meyer coaching tree
Former assistants who became college head coaches
Steve Addazio Boston College
Gary Anderson Wisconsin
Gregg Brandon* Bowling Green
Tim Beckman Illinois
John “Doc” Holliday Marshall
Dan McCarney North Texas
Dan Mullen Mississippi State
Mike Sanford Indiana State
Charlie Strong Louisville
Kyle Whittingham Utah
*Brandon is currently offensive coordinator at New Mexico State