SALT LAKE CITY — While reflecting on the 2004 season at Utah, former head coach Urban Meyer was looking at a picture of Alex Smith in the Fiesta Bowl.
“It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago,” Meyer said.
As the Utes prepare for their 10th season since breaking into the now-defunct Bowl Championship Series, memories of that historic campaign and the 35-7 Fiesta Bowl victory over Pittsburgh remain vivid.
The original BCS busters look back on their accomplishments with great fondness. They went 11-0 in 2004 and capped things off with a Jan. 1, 2005, win before an exuberant, mostly red-clad crowd at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
“It’s gone quick,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “In a way it seems like it was just yesterday.”
Whittingham, who was the Utes’ defensive coordinator that season, served as co-head coach in the finale — sharing duties with the Florida-bound Meyer.
“It was a special thing to see our players be able to accomplish what they accomplished. College football is all about the players,” Whittingham said. “That will never change, and to see our players work as hard as they did with the focus and just the tenacity of how they approached that game was great to be a part of.”
All-America safety Morgan Scalley noted that distractions were never an issue. He explained that the team had great leadership and "dang good coaches that understood the deal."
“That year was just special for a lot of different reasons,” said Scalley, who is now Utah’s recruiting coordinator and safeties coach. “We had a great core group of guys on our team and obviously a good amount of talent, a lot of them ended up playing in the NFL. But the biggest part about that team was just how special the guys were.”
Meyer, who went on to win two national championships at Florida and is now at Ohio State, wholeheartedly agrees.
“It was every coach’s dream. Every coach in America, right now, is talking about a brotherhood — creating a family atmosphere — and that was a very unique, incredible family atmosphere,” Meyer said. “It was a dream. It was not hard to coach that team. That was the easiest year I’ve ever had coaching a team because the players ran the show.”
Meyer recalls how the Utes went from being a team that was still kind of splintered in 2003 to a squad that had 100 guys pretty much on the same page the next season, a feat that he acknowledged is practically impossible and happens very rarely.
Defensive lineman Sione Pouha, who went on to play for the New York Jets from 2005-12, said the coaching change from Ron McBride to Meyer involved a transition that some players adapted to quickly and others needed time in order to do so.
"We were going from something that we were used to, to something different," Pouha said.
Meyer considers Utah’s program the “melting pot of America” because of the different cultures and backgrounds — Polynesians, African-Americans, Mormons, non-Mormons, Hispanics, married players, etc.
“You have a taste of everything there and to see all of them put that completely aside and become brothers,” he said, was pivotal.
Steve Fifita, defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl, noted that it was rare to be on a team like that. They would gather for barbecues every weekend and at least 90 percent of the guys would show up and hang out.
“That was a special team,” said Fifita, who is now an assistant coach at Idaho State. “You don’t run across teams that are that close, and we all still keep in touch.”
Meyer recalled two moments that helped bring it all together. Both involved Fifita. Meyer explained that he and Fifita didn’t get along initially. They had issues. Meyer was constantly on him because he didn’t think Fifita was a good teammate and added that there were also classroom issues.
Things changed, however, following an emotional team meeting known as “the bleeding,” where players told their stories. Meyer remembers walking down the aisle afterwards and Fifita extending his hand. He looked at the coach and thanked him.
“That was a game-changer,” Meyer said before telling another story that he shares with his teams every year.
It took place in late June 2004 when Meyer was talking to Scalley while walking to his car. Scalley said he had to run to a team cookout that he had organized with Fifita. It was something they had been doing every week.
“That’s when I got in my car all choked up,” said Meyer, who then made a prediction to his wife, Shelley. “If we don’t screw this thing up, we’re going to win every game we play.”
And they did.
Beginning with a 41-21 win over Texas A&M, Utah rolled to victories over Arizona (23-6), Utah State (48-6), Air Force (49-35), New Mexico (28-7), North Carolina (46-16), UNLV (63-28), San Diego State (51-28). Wyoming (45-28) and BYU (52-21) to crack the BCS and earn a trip to the Fiesta Bowl.
The Utes trailed only once — 14-0 to Air Force — en route to perfection.
Because there are so many variables involved in going undefeated — such as injuries and other issues that must be dealt with along the way — Meyer said he never felt comfortable until the final few seconds after the memorable hook-and-ladder play in the Fiesta Bowl win over Pitt.
As for the journey, Meyer’s favorite time came when the Utes locked up their BCS bid with a lopsided victory against BYU in the regular-season finale at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“Seeing people rush the field after we beat the Team Down South,” Meyer said. “That was the best moment.”
Smith sported a sombrero after the victory as the Utes and their fans celebrated in front of Fiesta Bowl officials. Smith went on to become the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft and now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Every guy in that locker room played for each other and we played for the singular focus,” said Smith, who was the featured speaker at Utah’s commencement in May. “We wanted to be the school to break up the BCS. We wanted to be the school that proved we could play with anybody.”
The Utes, he continued, were determined to show that the BCS setup was not only unfair but kind of wrong.
“I think we all felt that way and that was our focus — that we could run the table and be the first school to do that,” Smith said at the press conference prior to his graduation address.
Because of that selflessness and everybody playing for each other and having one goal, he added, they were able to accomplish it.
A perfect finish
Smith noted that the Fiesta Bowl was like the perfect finish.
“I can still remember standing on that field down there in Arizona and looking around,” he said. “That stadium was 80 percent red and just how special it was, the support we had.”
Scalley remembers that the pregame festivities seemed to last forever. When the team returned to the field after ita initial warm-up, it saw a sea of red in the stands.
“It was like ‘this is awesome,’ ” Scalley said. “That was a pretty good deal.”
For Scalley, it was extra special. While his older brother was working on a master’s degree at Arizona State, he attended the 2002 Fiesta Bowl between Colorado and Oregon.
“I remember sitting in those stands watching that game telling my brother, ‘How cool would it be to play in this game?’ ” Scalley said. “Sure enough, years later I’m there as a participant.”
Getting there was a benchmark for the program and awesome for a hometown kid, added the former Highland High standout.
“I don’t think any one of us could have imagined how it ended,” said Scalley, who acknowledged the team could tell something special was going on as the season progressed.
Pouha, an East High graduate, said things started falling into place after a narrow loss at Texas A&M (28-26) early in 2003. Hanging in there with the Aggies gave the Utes confidence. They went on to win nine of their last 10 games, including a 17-0 win over Southern Miss in the Liberty Bowl.
Pouha said the team knew things would get even better in 2004.
"We didn't really talk about it much," he said. "But we worked like it."
The sky was the limit, Pouha continued, and the Utes were kind of on auto-pilot that season — just trying to execute better than the week before as the season progressed.
The conclusion, he acknowledged, was "something special."
Fifita remembers everyone walking out of Sun Devil Stadium after the Fiesta Bowl like they were “kings of the world.” But, then again, that’s how they felt after every game.
“We felt like every game we went into we were going to win and that’s what happened,” said Fifita, who noted that being BCS busters was on their minds. “We thought it was a possibility and it was actually one of our goals that was out there.”
Then they just took care of what they had to do, Fifita explained.
"That guy, he definitely was the heart and soul of our team," Pouha said. "He was the heart and soul. He was the guy who kind of kept everything cool, kind of kept everything chill."
Utah’s confidence grew quickly. Smith said the Utes had a pretty good idea of where they were headed early.
“I think it was the first week of the season,” he noted. “We ended the season before, obviously, on a great note with a (four-game) winning streak. Then had a great offseason.”
Even so, Smith admitted there were still some unknowns despite successful work in the winter, spring, summer and in training camp.
“You’re putting in that time hoping you’re preparing yourself the right way and doing things the right way but you never know,” he said before noting that the season-opening win over Texas A&M put any concerns to rest. “It was the last bit of confidence we needed that we could really make a run at this thing.”
Smith, who wound up being a Heisman Trophy finalist and a co-offensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl with wide receiver Paris Warren, led the way.
“That was Alex Smith’s team. No doubt,” Whittingham said. “We had great leaders, but that was Alex Smith’s team that year.”
Smith, though, was part of a tight-knit group.
Pouha, a team captain along with Smith, Scalley, Warren and Bo Nagahi, said that the team was "surrounded by great men." He added that anybody on the squad could have been a captain that year.
While Smith garnered much of the accolades, he wasn’t alone. Meyer won national coach of the year awards. Smith, Scalley, offensive lineman Chris Kemoeatu and wide receiver Steve Savoy earned All-America recognition. A few months later, Smith, Kemoeatu, Warren, Pouha and Jonathan Fanene were taken in the NFL draft.
In later years, ’04 teammates like Eric Weddle, Quinton Ganther and Spencer Toone would also get drafted. A handful of others would also play professionally. Cornerback Ryan Smith would transfer to Florida (reuniting with Meyer) and lead the nation in interceptions.
Then, there are the coaches. Meyer (Ohio State), Whittingham (Utah), Gary Andersen (Wisconsin), Dan Mullen (Mississippi State) and Mike Sanford (Indiana State) are now all head coaches. Billy Gonzales (Mississippi State), John Hevesy (Mississippi State) and Chuck Heater (Marshall) are coordinators, while Keith Uperesa is Hawaii’s director of player personnel.
“We had great leadership. We had great athletes,” Whittingham said. “The coaching staff was very talented.”
The Fiesta Bowl was Utah’s 18th consecutive triumph.
“You look back and those were special times and special moments. But 10 years ago? I didn’t put two and two together on that but it was a fun time wasn’t it?” said Andersen, who is now the head coach at Wisconsin. “We had a good time there and I look back and you’ve got the Sugar Bowl (2009) after that. Those were good days.”
Speaking of good, Meyer is often asked how the 2004 Utes would have fared against teams from the SEC or Pac-10.
“On any given day that team could have beat anybody,” he said.
Although Utah never got the chance to take on college football’s elite that season, the Utes did finish the campaign as one of just three undefeated teams in the nation — joining USC and Auburn.
“It certainly put us on the map,” Whittingham said. “The Fiesta Bowl gave us national recognition and I guess you could say credibility nationwide essentially.”
It was a great culmination to a great season, he added.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great moments in my coaching career, and that was certainly one of them,” Whittingham said.
Brian Johnson, who was Smith's backup at quarterback that season, was only 17 years old during the historic run. He went on to lead Utah to a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in January of 2009, earning Most Outstanding Player honors.
"We've all grown and experienced new things in life throughout that 10-year period. But it was a ton of fun," said Johnson, who went on to become the Utes' offensive coordinator and is now the quarterbacks coach at Mississippi State. "The staff that we had, the players that we had and the excitement that was around the program was exceptional. There were a ton of good things going on."
Even so, Pouha admits that it didn't really sink in at the time.
"It never hit us that day in Arizona. We were kind of like 'OK, that's cool and awesome,’ ” he said. "You never really realized the impact of it."
That changed, though, as the years passed and teams like Boise State, Hawaii and TCU and Northern Illinois made BCS bowls. Utah's historic run was always mentioned and clips shown on television broadcasts.
"To understand the impact, we never really knew what it would be back then," Pouha said. "But we kind of know what it feels like now."