Paul “Bear” Bryant and Wayne Woodrow “Woody” Hayes.
The first time the Ohio State Buckeyes and Alabama Crimson Tide took the field against each other, the two legendary coaches squared off in a battle for the — wait for it — Sugar Bowl championship in New Orleans.
Now, almost 37 years to the date, two more legendary football coaches will roam the sidelines in the 2015 installment of the Sugar Bowl.
While they don’t have nicknames like “Woody” or “Bear,” OSU’s Urban Meyer and Alabama’s Nick Saban know each other all too well. They’ve squared off three times as members of the Southeastern Conference when Meyer was at the University of Florida and are set to meet again in a College Football Playoff semi-final game in the first season of the new system.
Saban said during a Sunday conference call that returning to the Sugar Bowl for a second year in a row is a “great opportunity,” especially against the Buckeyes.
“(It’s) a real honor for our team to be able to come back to the Sugar Bowl, to be a part of the first-ever playoff system playing against an outstanding, very traditional, a great traditioned program like Ohio State, with a great coach like Urban Meyer,” Saban said.
Meyer, who is 1-2 against Saban head-to-head, said he can remember his lone win against Saban.
“The 2008 game was just one of the great games in college football history, in my opinion,” Meyer said Sunday. “Where evenly matched teams were going back and forth, back and forth. And obviously we got, scored right at the end to take a two-score lead.”
Meyer’s Florida Gators defeated Saban’s Crimson Tide, 31-20, in that game to earn a spot in the 2009 BCS National Championship, which they won over the Oklahoma Sooners.
Combined, the two coaches have recorded six national titles, a far cry from the combined 11 that Hayes and Bryant combined for in their coaching careers.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that both Saban and Meyer were not only OSU assistants in the 1980s, but also both played their college football in Ohio with Saban at Kent State and Meyer at Cincinnati.
Meyer, who was a graduate assistant at OSU from 1986-87, coached his first game against the Crimson Tide, a 16-10 loss.
Just six years prior, Saban was on the same Buckeye staff as a defensive backs coach under then-head coach and Meyer mentor Earle Bruce.
During a fundraiser in Mason, Ohio, back in April, Saban spoke about one particular coach who made an impact on him when he was an up-and-coming football coach.
In Saban’s second year at OSU, the unranked Buckeyes entered a game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., as significant underdogs with the Wolverines ranked No. 7 in the nation.
Saban said Hayes, less than three years removed from his final game at OSU, came back for the first time to address the team.
“He came to Senior Tackle and he talked to the team and he says, ‘You can have no great victories in life unless you can overcome adversity. The War in the Pacific was the greatest military victory of all time because of Pearl Harbor, and the adversity we had to overcome because of that,’” Saban told Cleveland.com. “We won the game, 14-9, you can look it up, and they didn’t score a touchdown.”
Now, all these years later, the Buckeyes are once again facing adversity.
During a 42-28 victory over Michigan, redshirt-freshman quarterback and then-Heisman hopeful J.T. Barrett fractured his ankle, forcing the Buckeyes to go to their third-string quarterback, redshirt-sophomore Cardale Jones.
A day later, OSU learned that missing teammate Kosta Karageorge had been found dead off-campus from what police said was a potentially self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Despite all of that, OSU was able to dismantle the Wisconsin Badgers in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game, 59-0, catapulting the Buckeyes into the first-ever College Football Playoff.
Through the crazy ride that has been the 2014 season, senior cornerback Doran Grant said Sunday that the strides the Buckeyes have made are because of this year’s challenges.
“Handling the adversity, just coming together as a group. I feel the same way because I think we improved a lot because of how close we became over every week,” Grant said. “Overcome the obstacles, adversity, and we just remained together. And I think that’s a big part of our improvement.”
Grant will now be faced with a challenge of his own, as he will likely be matched up with Heisman finalist and junior Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper.
Cooper ranks second in the nation in receiving yards with 1,656 to go along with 14 touchdowns. His 115 receptions equal exactly half of Alabama starting senior quarterback Blake Sims’ completions.
Grant said while he isn’t sure what the game plan is for the Crimson Tide just yet, he knows what to expect from Cooper.
“I know he’s a great receiver. A very polished receiver. He has big play ability. Looking forward to the matchup, honestly,” Grant said. “Not sure how we’re gonna handle everything, but looking forward to going against a great team period.”
While Grant isn’t looking at film on Cooper just yet, Meyer did say he might look at some film from some of his previous matchups against Saban.
“We’ll probably look at the last two. Or maybe we will. Because our offense has adapted and changed somewhat, but I think I always like to go back and see because a lot of times there’s some fundamentals or coverage concepts or front concepts that we’ll look at,” Meyer said. “That will be mostly on that side of the ball that I’ll check out a little bit what they did in the past. But that’s about it.”
While Meyer has beaten Saban before, the Buckeyes currently hold a 0-3 record against the Crimson Tide all time, something OSU will look to improve upon as it is set to take on Alabama on New Year’s Day in the Allstate Sugar Bowl for a chance to play for a national championship at 8:30 p.m.