COLUMBUS, Ohio - Born, raised and educated in Ohio, Urban Meyer now finds himself trying to destroy the championship dreams of the team he rooted for as a kid.
When Florida's second-year coach leads the Gators into the national championship game against top-ranked Ohio State on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz., his past will collide with his present.
"You walk into my home now and there's a picture of Woody Hayes. There is _ a big one, too," Meyer said. "I don't want to tell you I genuflect in front of it, but darn close. That's the way I was raised."
In 1986, Ohio State coach Earle Bruce hired Meyer as a graduate assistant. Something about the enthusiastic and intelligent kid caught his eye.
"He was a very knowledgeable football guy and very conscientious about what he did and how he did it," Bruce said. "I found out he was one hell of a football coach."
Meyer arrived in Columbus having been steeped in Ohio State's traditions, memorable games and legendary performances. He spent two years as a graduate assistant at Ohio State, and picked up a master's degree.
"I love Ohio State," Meyer said.
Meyer's intensity stood out at an early age while playing football and baseball at St. John High School in Ashtabula, a town that sits along Lake Erie in the northeast corner of the state.
The son of a chemical engineer, school came first in the family, followed closely by sports.
"He was always very focused," said Don Cannell, the school's former principal. "I'm not surprised he's carried that over to coaching."
On one occasion, Meyer's intensity got the best of him.
"He is the only player I've ever had that was thrown out of a game arguing a strike-two call," said Bill Schmidt, Meyer's old baseball coach. "It's kind of funny to think about now."
Meyer was a captain of the football team, but baseball was his best sport. Scouts followed his every move during his senior year, and he was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 13th round.
He struggled in the minors before going off to the University of Cincinnati, where he walked on to the football team in 1984. He saw limited action, totaling one tackle and two assists on special teams while holding for kicks.
After Bruce abruptly was fired by Ohio State in 1987, he became the head coach at Colorado State in 1990. He never forgot about the bright young assistant and hired him as receivers coach. Meyer had spent two years coaching at Illinois State, waiting for the call.
"He could have been anything. He was a great recruiter, he knew the game of football, he taught the game on the field, he was knowledgeable about how to call plays," said Bruce, now retired from coaching and a football analyst for a Columbus radio station.
After five years with Bruce at Colorado State, Meyer moved over to Notre Dame, where he coached wide receivers from 1996-2000. Bowling Green had an opening for a head coach in 2001 and alumni were asking around for quality candidates.
"I said, 'There's only one. Go get him. He's at Notre Dame,'" Bruce said. "And they went and got him."
Meyer took over Bowling Green in 2001 after seven straight losing seasons, and told his new players that their first priority was going to class. They didn't get the message and what followed was "the death run," said Ryan Wingrove, a defensive lineman on Meyer's first team.
Meyer had the entire team running sprints and doing push-ups and sit-ups before dawn.
"He was telling us what he thought of us the whole time," Wingrove said with a laugh. "What he said was true and it worked out."
Before the first game, a dozen players left the team. The Falcons finished 8-3 and Meyer was named the Mid-American Conference's coach of the year.
The following season, Bowling Green won nine games and broke into the Top 25. "He had an immense impact, and he was there for only two years," Wingrove said.
Meyer changed the culture surrounding Bowling Green's football program. He visited campus dormitories to encourage students to attend games, and challenged boosters to get more involved.
"I've never met a guy who paid more attention to every small detail," said Tim Dunn, a member of Bowling Green's booster group. "He made things happen."
After Bowling Green came another successful two years at Utah, during which his teams went 22-2 _ including a perfect 12-0 mark in 2004 and a No. 4 ranking in the final poll. Then he had the choice of two jobs _ Notre Dame or Florida. After much deliberation, he took the latter.
Two years later, with 21 wins in 25 games, he's got the Gators in the national championship game _ against a team from his past.
"Ohio's a great place, man," Meyer said. "It's all about the Buckeyes."