In the winter of 2004, Urban Meyer was the ultimate coaching free agent. Having just led Utah to an undefeated season, he was approached by Notre Dame and Florida. The smart money at the time appeared to be on Notre Dame, and allow the man himself to tell you why.
"I'm Irish-Catholic, I grew up a Notre Dame fan," Meyer said Friday on The Herd. "I spent six years there, my son was baptized at Notre Dame. We loved it there.
"The bottom line in the coaching profession is you don't have time to build programs anymore. You better get it going right now," Meyer said.
Notre Dame had just fired Tyrone Willingham after (as it thought at the time) two bottom-out seasons. Hired in 2002, Willingham won his first eight games in South Bend and started 10-1 but he went 11-14 from that point forward, and Notre Dame fired him after a 41-10 loss to No. 1 USC that November.
Florida also felt it had bottomed out in three seasons under Ron Zook, but for them rock bottom meant a 23-14 record over three seasons. Florida actually finished in the coaches' Top 25 after all three Zook seasons, but Florida announced on Oct. 26, 2004, days after a 38-31 loss to 1-5 Mississippi State, that Zook would not return after the conclusion of the regular season. (His last game as Florida's head coach was actually a 20-13 win over No. 10 Florida State in Tallahassee.)
And so the chase for the coaching profession's top prospect was on. Both Florida AD Jeremy Foley and Notre Dame AD Kevin White pursued the 40-year-old coach, and Foley won out with a 7-year, $14 million contract. (This seems hilarious in retrospect, doesn't it? Much like how a gallon of milk cost 25 cents back in the 1930s, a 5-star coaching candidate could be had for the hilariously quaint price of $2 million a year.)
Fifteen years later, Meyer says it wasn't money that sold him on Florida.
"I felt Florida had the better roster," he said. "They had Chris Leak coming back, they had Chad Jackson, they had Bubba Caldwell. I did my homework and I thought, 'You know what? You get one swing and I think the best chance to win is going to be at the University of Florida.'"
Meyer went 9-3 and finished No. 12 in the AP poll in 2005, then rocketed the Gators to national championships in 2006 and '08. Leak was the starting quarterback for that 2006 title team, and Andre "Bubba" Caldwell led those Gators with 57 catches.
After losing out on the Meyer sweepstakes, White instead went the opposite direction and hired New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. And though Florida and Notre Dame would be in completely opposite places by Year 4 under their respective coaches, it actually would have been interesting to see what Meyer could have done at Notre Dame.
Led by Brady Quinn, the Irish went 19-6 in Weis's first two seasons. They came within a Bush Push from beating No. 1 USC in 2005 and played in BCS games in '05 and '06. By 2007, though, the "decided schematic advantage" Weis infamously promised in his introductory press conference finally began to show up: Notre Dame went 3-9 that season, 7-6 in '08 and 6-6 in '09, leading to Weis's firing and the hiring of Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly.
And that's where this story comes full circle. Meyer sat for the interview because he's not in coaching at the moment -- some would say he's retired, while the cynics and coaching-fiction writers among us would argue this coach-aholic is simply cooling off before he jumps back in the boiler.
Urban is still Irish-Catholic, he still grew up a Notre Dame fan and, if Kelly were to decide that 10 or 11 or 12 seasons at Notre Dame is enough for one lifetime, the Notre Dame program of the late 2010s/early 2020s is in a much better place than it was in 2004.