Back in Salt Lake City, Urban Meyer reminisces on undefeated 2004 season and gives his thoughts on Utah’s 2024 team

Former Utah coach Urban Meyer speaks at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, March 23, 2024.
Former Utah coach Urban Meyer speaks at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

Walking back onto the Rice-Eccles Stadium field to watch practice with his old defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham, Urban Meyer couldn’t help but marvel on how the place has changed in the 20 years since he’s been gone.

The stadium is an enclosed bowl now, and there’s a fancy new south end zone with luxury boxes and a snazzy new locker room for the team — a far cry from when Meyer coached the Utes for two seasons in 2003 and 2004.

“I walked through the, I think that south end zone’s the best in college football and to think, we didn’t even have a training table when I was here before. It was so cool to see what’s happening,” Meyer said.

The former Ute coach, and three-time national champion, was back in Salt Lake City to speak at a clinic for high school coaches put on by Utah.

One of the most successful coaches in the modern era of college football, Meyer hasn’t worn a whistle since 2021 — he was fired by the Jacksonville Jaguars following a disastrous 13-game stint — and currently works as an analyst for Fox’s “Big Noon Kickoff” pregame show.

Meyer took the Utah program to new heights as a young coach, leading the Utes to their first outright conference championship since 1957 in 2003 and capping that 10-2 season off with a win over Southern Miss in the Liberty Bowl.

The next year, the Meyer-coached Utes became the first team from a non-automatic qualifying conference to play in a Bowl Championship Series game after going 11-0 in the regular season, and they defeated Pittsburgh 35-7 to win the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.

The school’s first-ever undefeated season in the modern era was led by Meyer’s spread offense, run to perfection by quarterback Alex Smith, who finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting and was the first overall selection in the 2005 NFL Draft, and receivers Paris Warren and Steve Savoy, with running backs Marty Johnson and Quinton Ganther.

The Whittingham-coached defense was headlined by future NFL players Eric Weddle, Steve Fifita, Sione Pouha and Spencer Toone, with Morgan Scalley leading the team in interceptions with six.

There was no College Football Playoff back then, but Meyer still believes the Utes would have defeated 2004 national champion USC that year, something he’s told Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, who were the stars of that Trojan team. Meyer worked alongside the two on “Big Noon Kickoff.”

“The good thing is I tell Matt and Reggie that all the time ... I swear, man to man — we didn’t have the depth — but that starting 22 and my coaching staff, we could have played any team in the country that year and would’ve found a way to win that game. That’s how good that team was,” Meyer said.

Wearing a white quarter-zip emblazoned with Utah’s logo, Meyer was introduced to the crowd of coaches by Whittingham, who recounted that he was up for Utah’s head coaching job, along with Meyer, when Ron McBride was fired following the 2002 season.

While losing out on the job to Meyer was an initial disappointment for Whittingham, who had been on staff at Utah since 1994, he called working as the defensive coordinator for Meyer “the best thing that ever happened to me in my coaching career.”

“I learned more in those two years than I learned in my entire coaching career,” Whittingham said, noting that he was “much better equipped to be a coach” when he got the job in 2005 after Meyer left to coach Florida.

“That’s not a knock against anybody that I worked for before, but you talk about a guy that’s the most meticulous, organized, detailed football coach that you’ve ever been around, that’s what embodies Coach Meyer. Nothing was left to chance. He’s got a plan for everything.”

There definitely had to be some nostalgia kicking in for Meyer as he paced the same field where he won 11 of his 12 home games (Meyer had a 22-2 overall record at Utah) with Whittingham.

“I remember, I think I called him, I said, ‘Hey man, we did a good job getting us to the Pac-12. Now tiger, you got to go do it,’” Meyer said. “He’s not only done it, how about this, it’s the second winningest program in the Pac-12, the last five years. Kyle, I’m so proud of you,” Meyer said.

Whittingham rose from Utah’s defensive coordinator under Meyer to a steady presence that guided the Utes to an undefeated season in 2008, a transition to the Pac-12 (winning two conference titles) and now another new era — this time in the Big 12.

“... In 2003, 2004, if someone said Utah’s going to go to the Pac-12, they’re not only going to go to the Pac-12, they’re going to be the second winningest program and also win two of the last three championships in the Pac-12 Conference and now they’re going to go do the same thing in the Big 12 Conference. So very honored and so proud of Kyle,” Meyer said.

During his hour-plus speech, Meyer drew the biggest laugh of the day from the crowd when he told the story of his first recruiting trip with Whittingham to California, visiting a recruit at home.

“I swear the kid’s neck was that big,” Meyer said, pinching his index finger and thumb together. “I’m moving my family across the country to the Mountain West Conference and I’m recruiting that. I look at this kid, he’s this big, his neck’s that big, he’s got some kind of Fonzie haircut.”

After securing the player’s commitment, Meyer had a talk with Whittingham in the car.

“I look at Kyle, I go, ‘Kyle, what the hell was that?’ I’m going to move my family across the country ... and that’s what I’m going to recruit? No, we’re not doing it that way,” Meyer said.

Whittingham told Meyer that he had recruited Southern California for 10 years, he knew every coach in the area and every coach said this player was the most competitive, toughest player in the conference.

That player was Weddle, who played two years for Meyer — he started four seasons on Utah’s defense at cornerback, safety and nickel and also played on offense — and went on to have a successful 14-year NFL career that featured eight Pro Bowls and ended with a Super Bowl ring.

“I think Michigan State, Wisconsin and Utah are the best I’ve ever seen that take that guy and make him a draft pick,” Meyer said. “... I think Coach Whitt has an uncanny ability with his staff to make good great.”

The main course of Meyer’s talk was focused on three points that were taught to him when he was a graduate assistant for Earle Bruce — academics, toughness and selflessness.

Watching Utah’s practice on Saturday morning, Meyer certainly saw a lot of that.

“You want to watch toughness, go out and watch Utah football practice. They’re unlike others,” Meyer said.

As for his thoughts on the current team after being around it for two days, Meyer is liking what he’s seeing.

“I love the team. I love Cam Rising. Coming back is so critical. He’s a winner. They won two championships with him,” Meyer said.

Scalley, who played safety for two years under Meyer and is now Utah’s defensive coordinator, helped organize a dinner with Meyer, Whittingham and players from the 2003 and 2004 teams last night.

“It was nothing but warm feelings and great stories and they’re like fish stories, they got bigger and better, but it was great,” Meyer said.

Being back in Salt Lake City conjured up a lot of good memories for Meyer.

“We love it here. Shelley (Meyer’s wife) and I are going to come back. We just agreed, at least twice a year now we’re coming back here,” he said. “We only spent two years, but we have great friends. I love Utah and Salt Lake and I’m the biggest Utah fan there is.”