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Tim May | The Columbus Dispatch | December 20, 2015

Urban Meyer, Brian Kelly tout their time in MAC

  Urban Meyer and Brian Kelly both started their FBS head coaching careers in the Mid-American Conference.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Competitively, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and Ohio State's Urban Meyer will go against each other for the first time on Jan.1 in the Fiesta Bowl. But geographically, and in some ways philosophically, they've often been in close proximity during their careers.

Take their Mid-American Conference connection, for example. Each spent a brief but impactful time in the league: Meyer in his first head-coaching job at Bowling Green from 2001 to 2002, and Kelly in his second top job -- but first in the Division I ranks -- at Central Michigan from 2004 to 2006. Each went on to bigger and better gigs, obviously, but each appreciated the chance to prove what they were about in the MAC.

"I remember my first press conference, there were two people there," Meyer, 51, said the other day to reporters, smiling as he recalled the lack of fanfare that accompanied his move from Notre Dame assistant to head coach at Bowling Green. "To this day, that's why I thank you guys for coming."

Kelly, 54, recollected the challenge of coaching in the MAC. He had prepared for it somewhat during his 13-year run at Division II Grand Valley State in western Michigan, where he had made a name for himself with two national titles. Central Michigan represented a step up to Division I, but the test was similar.

"Everybody's got a couple of really good players," Kelly said. "I think it's about getting your average players to play above their mean, and developing those players."

He spoke in South Bend on Saturday after a pre-bowl practice with his Fighting Irish. They are coming off a regular season in which they lost only to Clemson, which is No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and to No. 6 Stanford, both times by two points. And Notre Dame is playing an Ohio State team whose only loss was by three to No. 3 Michigan State.

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Both teams are loaded with talent. It wasn't that way for Kelly at Central Michigan, though, and it wasn't that way for Meyer at Bowling Green. They had to make do.

"But it gave you a chance" to prove your coaching chops, Meyer said. "First of all, the MAC is pretty much, every team that jogs out of the tunnel is even, because they recruit (similarly) -- you look at them, they are all the same body types, the same size. Some guys have a quarterback, and that's usually the team that wins, and a good defense."

The rosters are loaded with one-, two- and some three-star prospects who probably were just a little too short or a little too light to attract the interest of, say, Notre Dame and Ohio State.

"In the Mid-American Conference, you've got a boatload of those guys, and those are the guys you've got to bring up," Kelly said. "You've got to fill them with confidence, you've got to fill them with belief that at times they are better than they really are. And then you've got to do a great job of developing them.

"That's what I learned at Grand Valley State, and that's what I learned at Central Michigan."

Again, Kelly said, it was about "getting your middle-of-the-pack guy to play above his mean, because those (elite) guys cancel out."

For an example that Notre Dame and Ohio State fans can understand, "maybe Ronnie Stanley and Joey Bosa play to a tie" in the Fiesta Bowl, Kelly said, referring to his current star offensive tackle and OSU's star defensive end, both of whom are projected to go high in the 2016 NFL draft if they opt to leave. "Maybe they don't, but you hope maybe that's the case from our perspective. Then those other guys have got to step up across the board."

At Central and at Bowling Green, it was about making do with the resources on hand, and as Meyer pointed out, that wasn't just in terms of the players. He recalled helping to push up the platform for his videographer to stand on to record practice sessions. But that was only after he found a videographer.

"We had no video coordinator," he said. "The video coordinator was a student who would come by from campus, and I'm not kidding you, he would stand like this and video practice."

Meyer posed as if he were holding a small camera up to his right eye without even the steadying influence of a tripod, in stark contrast to the army of videographers who record present-day OSU practices.

"So we obviously got some things changed there," Meyer said.

MORE: Urban Meyer always wanted to fight for Irish

Another major challenge was not only the indoctrination of young assistant coaches but holding on to them, Kelly said.

"I think probably consistency in messaging, and staff development -- picking the right staff, surrounding yourself with the right (assistants) that shared a similar vision for what you wanted to accomplish," Kelly said. "In the Mid-American Conference, where you're dealing with such a transient -- you're turning over coaches all the time, you have to bring in guys who share a similar philosophy.

"And then you have to make sure they're in it for why you're in it, developing players. So that shared philosophy was probably the thing I learned in the Mid-American Conference that I carry with me here. Now we're in a better position where we can retain (assistants), but the shared philosophy still has to be at the center of what we do as a staff."

Kelly went on to Cincinnati, replacing Michigan State-bound Mark Dantonio, in 2007, and he left for the Notre Dame job in December 2009 after leading the Bearcats to a 12-0 regular season. Otherwise he and Meyer, then at Florida, would have clashed in the Sugar Bowl that season. Meyer ended his six-year, two-national-championships run at Florida in 2010, took a hiatus for health reasons and then returned to his home state to coach the Buckeyes, who have won 49 games, including the 2014 national title, in his first four years.

But it was that brisk two-year swim in the MAC that launched his head-coaching career, and he still recommends such a move.

"I think everybody -- almost everybody -- should go coach in that conference," Meyer said.

This article was written by Tim May from The Columbus Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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