Before Urban Meyer won national titles at Ohio State and Florida, before he led Utah to a perfect season and turned Bowling Green upside-down overnight, he was an assistant coach at Notre Dame.
Not a coordinator, and not just on any staff. No, Meyer was a wide receivers coach, with colleagues who would go on to lead programs in the ACC, Big 12 and SEC.
And in Meyer's case, the Big Ten.
The fourth-year Ohio State coach has the Buckeyes in Friday's BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, the team that helped turn him into the dominant sideline force that he is today. He calls South Bend a "game changer" in terms of his development as a coach.
"That was my first exposure as a full‑time coach to that level of football," Meyer said of his experience under head coach Lou Holtz, who hired him in 1996. "I still remember the day I was hired. It was very cold, I took a tour throughout the Touchdown Jesus, Fair Catch Corby, all the great statues, all the great traditions on that campus."
Meyer is not alone in his feelings. Boston College coach Steve Addazio also raves about his experience in South Bend alongside Meyer.
"Am I where I am today without Urban Meyer?" Addazio said. "Well, the simple answer is no. I mean, it doesn't work that way."
Addazio and Meyer speak to each other regularly. The former colleagues met on the recruiting trail -- Addazio at Syracuse, Meyer at Notre Dame -- and each had earned the other's respect upon crossing paths before dawn one day at Central Bucks West High School in Pennsylvania.
"We were [the] only two knuckleheads up at like 5:30 in the morning to watch; they had some winter workouts with the high school team," Addazio said. "And we were laughing, hanging out. We could tell we kinda liked each other."
In 1999, then-Notre Dame coach Bob Davie hired Kevin Rogers from Syracuse to become the Irish's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The move was made in part because QBs coach Mike Sanford, father of the current Irish QBs coach of the same name, left for the NFL's San Diego Chargers. Rogers brought along Addazio as his offensive line coach, as well as Dan Mullen as a graduate assistant. Meyer took Mullen under his wing, bringing him to each of his first three head-coaching stops as a full-time assistant before Mullen was hired as Mississippi State's coach in 2009.
Addazio and Charlie Strong -- another assistant from Meyer's Notre Dame days -- reunited with Meyer at Florida, where the group won two national titles.
But to get that far, Meyer had to take a major leap -- from position coach to head coach -- that he wasn't sure he was capable of. When 2-9 Bowling Green came calling after the 2000 season, Meyer sought Holtz's counsel.
"If it was a good job, they certainly wouldn't be talking to you," Holtz told Meyer, according to Meyer's book, "Above The Line."
Meyer left for Bowling Green, of course, and took with him everything -- including his edge -- that he learned at Notre Dame. Here's how former Irish receiver Bobby Brown described one of his first meetings with Meyer.
"He walked in and said he doesn't need any 18-year-old friends," Brown recalled. "He just wanted us to know that his job was to get the best out of us, not to become our friends. As a leader, he's phenomenal with that."
An attorney now, Brown said his biggest takeaway from Meyer came off the field -- in setting a standard, and surrounding himself with people willing to meet it.
And yet that rugged demeanor belies some of Meyer's fondest memories of Notre Dame -- of his son, Nate, being baptized. Of his nightly visits to the Grotto to pray for his sick mother. Of the advice the late Father James Riehle gave him over coffee after Meyer took the Bowling Green job.
"For your whole career as a coach, you've been making suggestions," Riehle told Meyer, according to Meyer's book. "Now you are making decisions."
Meyer thought about that conversation after the 2013 season, as he weighed making staff changes. He opted against it, and his Buckeyes went on the next season to win the national title, his third as a head coach.
The stakes are slightly smaller a year later in Glendale, Arizona, but for Meyer, the gold helmets on the opposing sideline are reminders of the path he took to reach the sport's pinnacle, and of the impact those years made across the college football landscape.
"That's kinda what Notre Dame did for everybody," Addazio said. "It did it for Urban, too. I mean, it's a pretty cool story in there, really, when you talk about the hub of college football now."