In New Orleans, Old Foes Urban Meyer and Nick Saban Reunite in Playoff Clash

By Patrick Maks on December 31, 2014 at 2:00 pm
The Sugar Bowl has stoked an old flame between Urban Meyer and Nick Saban.

NEW ORLEANS — Three days short of the four-year anniversary marking Urban Meyer’s resignation from Florida, the coach, now with Ohio State, hoisted the Big Ten Championship proud and high on a makeshift platform assembled midfield at Lucas Stadium Stadium.

It evoked the kind of images that remind you of the years that made Meyer a two-time national champion, college football’s alpha male, and likely future hall-of-famer.

So imagine, then, the kind of memories that come rushing back watching Meyer prepare for the Sugar Bowl — a game that defines his fourth-ranked Buckeyes as much as himself.

The stakes in New Orleans — the site of one of two College Football Playoff semifinal games — are at Kilimanjaro heights.

Now, make Alabama, the sport’s preeminent power and winners of three of the last national titles, his opponent.

Pit him against Nick Saban, an old nemesis who unseated him as top boss.

Make the prize a spot in the national championship, a place Meyer and Ohio State covet like a lost relic.

Despite what is perhaps the biggest moment in Meyer’s three-year tenure in Columbus, there appears to be a certain ease about the head coach who willingly admits he “worries about everything.”

At Sugar Bowl Media Day, the tale of Meyer’s call to Saban — then the head coach at Toledo 25 years ago — about an open graduate assistant job went unreturned became a popular subject. Saban’s wife, Terry, who answered the phone on the behalf of her husband, urged Nick to call back. The interest was unrequited.

“She said, ‘You know, I talked to a really interesting guy today: Urban Meyer. And I really do think you should talk to him when you hire your staff at Toledo," Saban said.

“And I was so kind of caught up and busy in what I was doing I never really followed up on that. That was a huge mistake on my part.”

When it was Meyer’s turn to approach the podium Wednesday morning, the following exchange happened:

Reporter: “Coach Saban was retelling the story about you calling and talking to his wife, I guess, in '89 or '90."

Meyer: “Calling his wife?”

Cue a crescendo of laughter and flustered reporter.

Reporter: “When you were a graduate assistant.”

Meyer: “That didn't sound right.”

More laughter.

Reporter: “Let me try that again … When he got the job at Toledo, do you remember that at all?

Meyer’s career, he said, was at a juncture. Earning $6,000 a year at Illinois State, he faced a decision to “stay in or out.”

“How might history have been changed,” the reporter said, "he said he regrets now not calling you back and considering you for his staff."

“He said he regrets it? I'm sure he does,” Meyer said, smiling.

Reporter: “Big mistake?" 

“I'm sure that's on his mind right now,” Meyer joked.

But here is the beginning of a relationship that’s helped mold the current landscape of college football.

At Florida, where Meyer dueled with Saban’s Alabama teams in monumental and classic bouts for the SEC Championship, a relationship turned into a rivalry.

As the Gators and the Tide battled for conference and, moreover, college football supremacy, Meyer-Saban became a rivalry, their paths intertwined.

When Meyer, who resigned from Florida over health concerns that began on the night Saban crushed his Florida team en route to winning the national championship in 2009, left the SEC, the fire that burned from their clashes dwindled to an ember.

The Sugar Bowl has stoked these flames again.

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