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COLUMBUS, Ohio - Historically the University of Wisconsin’s biggest rival is Minnesota; the longest running matchup between two division 1 schools that gives a big wooden axe to the victory. For Ohio State, it’s the border battle with Michigan is simply known as “The Game.”
But in the recent scope, there are few rivalries in the conference that have grabbed more headlines, played in more meaningful games than the Badgers and the Buckeyes. In the last 20 years, the programs rank 1-2 in the conference for number of victories. In the last eight years, either Ohio State or Wisconsin has won the conference championship.
And the rivalry didn’t always end on the field either, especially when it came to the head coaches.
It got so bad that former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said after one road loss at the Horseshoe that he “hates” losing to Ohio State and famously accused Urban Meyer of using recruiting tactics that were “illegal,” sending off a word of words between the two programs.
Whether it was factual or sour grapes from Bielema going 1-5 in his tenure against Ohio State we’ll never know, but it’s different that in the days leading up to tonight’s highly-anticipated Big Ten Leaders Division between No.23 Wisconsin and No.4 Ohio State at Ohio Stadium that one coach calls the other “a great friend” and the other says the two are “very close.”
Welcome to the new era of the Wisconsin-Ohio State rivalry, thanks to Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen and Meyer have great respect for one another that stems back to the days when the two worked together at the University of Utah.
“He’s an incredible person for myself and my family,” said Andersen of Meyer. “Look at him, look at his kids, look at his successes. It’s pretty clear to see what kind of person he is.”
Andersen and Meyer, both 49, worked together for one season (11 months to be exact), but it was enough to create a bond that extends to families, through personal crisis and through multiple head coaching stops.
Birth of a Friendship
Meyer initially didn’t want to hire Andersen to be on his second staff at Utah. Andersen left in a huff after his mentor, Rob McBride, was dismissed after 13 seasons. After six seasons as McBride’s assistant, Andersen left with a chip on his shoulder to take the head coaching job at Southern Utah, a Football Championship Subdivision program.
After talking to then defensive coordinator and current Utah head coach Kyle Wittingham, Meyer and his wife took Andersen and his wife out to dinner at Ruby River, a steakhouse in Salt Lake City, to just talk.
“It was really me being me,” said Andersen. “I made a decision when I had left Utah to go to Southern Utah. It was a great decision. I was young. I was frustrated that my mentor had gotten fired and I had a chip on my shoulder. I kind of left maybe abruptly, but I knew it was a great experience for me. I knew to come back was a good possibility to do if I had the opportunity.
“There was little x’s and o’s talk. It was about who I am, what I believe about Utah and why I wanted to come back and what kind of person I was. It was pretty quick and clean and a good dinner. I knew at that point I wanted to work for him.”
Meyer had no reservations about hiring a “Coach McBride guy,” as Andersen put it, to be his defensive line coach, which led to one of the more successful seasons by a non-BCS program. That year at Utah, the Utes went 12-0, crushed Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and finished the season ranked in the top five.
“He was one of the top two of three hires I’ve ever made,” said Meyer.
Despite being a young head coach at the time, Meyer, according to Andersen, showed great restraint when it came to the defense, choosing to focus on the offense and letting the defensive coaches come up with the game plan.
“He let us go, he let us coach and he expected us to coach the defense at a high level and take care of business, which we did,” said Andersen. “I respect that because I know it’s not like that a lot of times. Head coaches can get a line gun shy or nervous if we’re in the other room. Coach Meyer never did that.”
Years later, Meyer told Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez that Andersen saved that season because of Andersen’s ability to relate to the Polynesian players, who did not take a shine to Meyer. Andersen acknowledged the sentiment, but rejected the complement.
“There was about 12 draft picks and a bunch of really good players that saved that season,” said Andersen. “There were some really special players on that team.”
Outsiders might have a hard time seeing the similarities between the two head coaches on the sideline tonight. Meyer has been in the national spotlight since leading that 2004 Utah team, leaving the next season to coach a high-profile job at Florida and currently is a perfect 16-0 in his second year at Ohio State.
Andersen has been a program builder, first starting at Southern Utah and then taking Utah State from a doormat program to one that won 11 games last season.
But both coaches describe the other as someone who cares about their players, are organized, are great teachers of the game and consistent with the way they approach teaching the game. They also share the same kind of health issue.
Following a 41-7 road loss against a San Diego State team coached at the time by current Michigan coach Brady Hoke in 2010, Andersen, in his second season rebuilding Utah State, saw his health quickly deteriorate when he blacked out and crashed to the bathroom floor in the family home in Logan, Utah.
Sitting in the hospital hours later with two cracked vertebrae and a good cut on his forehead, Andersen was left waiting for answers.
“To say that was a scary situation was an understatement,” said Andersen. “Not knowing what was going on, going through MRIs, this, that and the other, only to have the doctor walk in and says, ‘You are an idiot, just so you know.’”
The doctor’s diagnosis was “idiotness,” as Andersen called it, saying the head coach was giving the problems to himself and to ease off.
"I'm not smart enough to be a coordinator, be a head coach and take care of 120 kids," he said. "I can't do it. I tried it for about a year and it was too much."
A year earlier after losing the SEC championship game, Meyer was quietly admitted into a Gainesville hospital suffering from chest pains, headaches and dehydration. He initially resigned, citing health and family concerns, before deciding to take a leave of absence following the bowl game.
After the 2010 season, Meyer announced his retirement and spent a season as a broadcaster before being hired by Ohio State.
Andersen picked up the phone and called Meyer, as the two talked frequently through the stress issues that had affected both of them.
“It changed my life and my assistant’s lives, too,” said Andersen, who had to wear a neck brace for a month following the fall. “Be with the kids more, but walk away from the big stuff that overwhelms you. I leaned on Urban. He was very influential to me. Stacey was good, too, just because of her saying ‘Knock it off and take it easy.’”
The only argument between the head coach at Wisconsin and Ohio State now doesn’t involve questionable tactics, unethical behavior or differently opinions. It involves who buys who dinner.
During the Big Ten’s preseason meetings, Meyer claimed Andersen was down seven meals to him, which included Meyer buying Andersen lunch during the two-day meetings.
“That is a flat not-true statement,” Andersen said, stifling his laughter, at the time. “The Big Ten bought us lunch.”
Andersen wouldn’t also call Meyer a “game changer” for the Big Ten; landing a coach in its conference that was responsible for two of the seven straight national championships won by the SEC. He simply called him a great friend and person.
“The way he carries himself and handles him family is exactly what I believe a big time head coach should do,” said Andersen.
And for the first time tonight, he’ll be a coaching rival. After that it will be back to arguing about the check.