SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Florida's Urban Meyer is the prototype. He showed everybody how it's done. His was the ideal road map to the top. Win impressively outside the BCS, as Meyer did at Bowling Green and then Utah, and the big boys will come calling with their lucre and massive stadiums and sparkling facilities.
Meyer got his shot, picking Florida over Notre Dame in 2005, and with the Gators he won SEC titles and national championships under the brightest of spotlights and appeared to reach college football nirvana.
Yet it became clear this past weekend when Meyer went back and forth with a resignation for health and family reasons -- since retracted -- that even extraordinary success and a huge contract can't fully salve the day-to-day grind of coaching on the biggest stage.
Meanwhile, over at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Boise State coach Chris Petersen and TCU's Gary Patterson prepare their undefeated, top-six, non-automatic-qualifying teams to meet in a BCS bowl game on Monday.
"I totally get Urban's situation," Petersen said. "I think every head coach does. No matter what situation you are in, this is hard. This is a very hard job. There's tremendous stress that comes with it. It doesn't matter if you are at Florida or Boise State, it's hard. It's very easy to get your life out of balance and out of whack."
When you talk to Petersen and Patterson, however, what you sense is two lives in balance. The term both use when asked why they remain where they are -- out of the coaching fast lane despite numerous opportunities to cash in elsewhere -- is "quality of life."
They like where they live. They like where they work. They like the people and atmosphere that surround them. And their families are content.
"I don't have people talking about me on the Internet about what I'm wearing or what I'm doing or what I'm eating," Patterson said. "We've come a long way here, but I still get a chance to just be a normal person -- most of the time."
Both have built national programs outside the BCS. Both have won national coach of the year awards, Patterson this year, Petersen in 2006.
Patterson is 85-27 since replacing Dennis Franchione in 2000. Petersen is 48-4 in four seasons since stepping in for Dan Hawkins in 2006.
There are differences between the two. Patterson, who will turn 50 in February, is a fiery defensive guy. Petersen, 45, is a cerebral offensive guy. Patterson coached at 10 different places across the country before landing at TCU as defensive coordinator in 1998. Boise State is Petersen's fifth job, but all are on the West Coast other than one year at Pittsburgh, and the past three have been in the Northwest.
But more notable are their similarities. For one, neither was a stud Division I player. Patterson was a walk-on linebacker at Kansas State. Petersen played quarterback for UC Davis.
Both are succeeding in their first head-coaching job, building on the solid foundation that their predecessors left them. Both were X's and O's savants as coordinators who had to prove they could handle the CEO-like demands of being a head coach.
And both have been approached numerous times about BCS conference jobs. Petersen's name comes up with just about every vacancy, particularly on the West Coast -- not to mention places such as Mississippi State and Virginia -- while Patterson has interviewed for coaching jobs at Auburn, Tennessee and Minnesota.
"I've talked to people because I think it's a good learning experience to be able to do all that," Patterson said. "I like to see what other people are doing and how they do it."
Meyer's situation -- conflicted at the pinnacle -- isn't even close to the best cautionary tale about the perils of trying to climb the coaching ladder. Both Patterson's and Petersen's predecessors, Franchione and Hawkins, left for big-money jobs in BCS conferences. How are things going for them now?
Further, the money issue is relative. When talking about the potential allure of higher-paying jobs, both are quick to point out that they don't exactly make chump change.
This month, Patterson received a five-year contract extension that included a pay raise from $1.8 million to $2.5 million a year. Boise State and Petersen also are discussing a contract extension. His salary, boosted after the Broncos won the 2007 Fiesta Bowl over Oklahoma, is $850,000 a year, but thanks to performance-based incentives, his take will be more than $1.3 million this season.
Still, both, particularly Petersen, could make a lot more money if they coached inside a 100,000-seat stadium. Shouldn't that be their ultimate goal?
"Everybody wants to talk about money; everybody wants to talk about the size of the stadiums," Petersen said. "But at the end of the day those things have very little to do with a guy's happiness."
Petersen has added perspective on what's important in life because just as his coaching career was taking off 10 years ago, his then-13-month-old son Sam was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Sam is healthy today, but the healing process was long and stressful. It was an experience that made fame and fortune seem less important.
"From the start, I've never really been a guy to get in the fast lane, so to speak," Petersen said. "All I've really wanted to do is coach football with good guys and good players. Somehow as you go through this thing, the more society kind of says -- what everybody says -- is that 'we should be doing this.' But when something like that happens in your life, it certainly puts everything right back in perspective."
Beyond quality of life and family issues, there's something to be said for building a program over the long haul. Instead of joining the big boys, why not beat them? Leading TCU to a BCS bowl game means the other Texas schools that compete with Patterson for prospects just lost a powerful recruiting tactic they frequently used against the Horned Frogs.
"That was the only thing here in this part of the country that anybody we were recruiting against could say against us -- 'Well, TCU can't get to a BCS game. They can't play for a national championship.' That's no longer said anymore," Patterson said.
There are, however, no guarantees in life, and there are certainly no guarantees in college coaching. There are myriad reasons Patterson or Petersen could one day end up elsewhere, even if they aren't actively trying to climb the coaching ladder.
"The one thing I know is you never say never," Petersen said. "Your situation changes. Your life can change."
Petersen paused and took a breath, not unlike what his fan base might do upon reading the old "never say never" qualifier.
"With that being said," he continued, "there is not another job out there that I say, 'Well, if that opened up? What if they had interest in me?' There's not one of those. At all."
Ted Miller covers Pac-10 football for ESPN.com.