SALT LAKE CITY — Urban Meyer returned to the University of Utah on Thursday. After visiting the football complex and touring the expanded conditioning facility, he walked the sidelines and stepped onto the field numerous times during spring practice at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
By late afternoon, Meyer addressed the football team — just like he did while coaching the Utes in 2003 and 2004.
"It was great to have him back," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose program is being profiled by his former boss as part of an ESPN series of reports on spring football.
Meyer began working for the network shortly after stepping down as Florida's head coach. Citing a desire to spend more time with his family, he left the Gators following six seasons at the helm and two national championships (2006, 2008).
"I guess it's been great. I don't know. I've got a knot in my stomach right now, missing it awful bad," Meyer said of his decision to leave coaching.
One thing he won't miss, however, is being able to watch his children play sports. He has two daughters playing college volleyball.
"I promised them at some point I was going to get a chance to watch them and the time was right," Meyer said.
And so, too, was the timing for a trip back to Salt Lake City.
When ESPN asked him to pick five football programs to visit this spring, Meyer made sure Utah was one of them. Michigan, Notre Dame, Oregon and Texas are the others.
"I haven't been back since the day I stepped foot on the bus to go to the Fiesta Bowl. I'm not proud of that. I just haven't been able to," Meyer said. "We had a couple of trips planned and then for whatever reason something came up."
This journey wasn't tough to sell. Meyer and Whittingham agreed that ESPN would do a good job highlighting the Utes and that it would be a "home run" for recruiting.
The future, though, took a back seat to the present.
"It's been awesome," Meyer said in the midst of his visit. He was engaging with the media and conversed with former players, colleagues, administrators and fans.
That, he explained, is what was really cool.
"How many coaches get to come back and just get along with everybody?" Meyer said. "Most coaches, it's a bad marriage and they ended up getting fired or thrown out or everybody is upset."
Meyer added that his reception in Utah was "awesome." He said he has a similar relationship with folks at Bowling Green and Florida, his other head coaching stints.
"It's nice to be able to have him see where this program has gone," said safeties coach Morgan Scalley, who was a captain on Meyer's last team at Utah.
Many of the principles that Meyer taught, he added, are still in place under Whittingham. Even the practice tempo is the same.
Scalley saw the light in Meyer's eyes during the practice and couldn't help but wonder if he'll get back into coaching someday.
"You almost expected him to start yelling and screaming, but afterwards when he spoke to the guys it was the same ol' Urban," Scalley said. "He knows what motivates. He knows what gets people to listen. It's good to have him back."
Meyer, who estimates he'll work 60-70 days a year for ESPN, took time to reminisce during his return. His first thought involved the stadium. He was glad to see more signage with "Utah" on it and called the scoreboard additions heralding the Utes' victories in the Fiesta and Sugar bowls as "first class."
Things, however, can be even better.
"Why can't this be the best stadium in college football?" Meyer asked.
After walking down to the field, Meyer remembered how hard everyone worked to build the program. He recalled coming out of the tunnel for his final home game with the Utes, a victory over BYU that secured the BCS berth.
"The 2004 team will go down as one of the best teams I've ever been around, and we've had two great teams at Florida. It's hard to differentiate," Meyer said. "But that '04 team and the players and the complete commitment to doing it the right way. That was awesome."
So, too, is how Whittingham "came in and kept the accelerator on it."
Meyer was pleased to hear that membership in the MUSS has grown to more than 6,000. Other plusses like Utah being an A-1 school and Salt Lake City, he added, have contributed to the program's continual success.
It all factored into Pac-12 membership.
Meyer said a successful transition will be on "everybody" from the training room to recruiting to fans. Playing at that level each week will be different than occasional games each season where the Utes could step up to the challenge against Pac-10 opponents.18 comments on this story
Meyer, however, is confident they'll do well. After watching the Utes practice, he considers them a "very talented team." He was especially impressed with the stable of backs and the program's typical big defensive line.
Besides Meyer, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach were also on hand to observe Utah's practice.
"All three guys are close friends of mine and just happened to be in town at the same time," Whittingham said. "It was great to have them out here."
Several former Utes, including Paul Kruger of the Baltimore Ravens, watched from the sidelines.