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Looking Back: Urban Meyer’s first dance in the Cotton Bowl

The year is 1987, and for the first time in Cotton Bowl history, a Big Ten team took the field. It also marked the culmination of the first season in the collegiate coaching ranks for a young graduate assistant named Urban Meyer.

NCAA Football: Army at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

He showed up on Ohio State’s campus with a mustache and a mission. The goal? To land his first collegiate coaching job as a graduate assistant coaching defensive backs. First, he’d need to impress Ohio State head coach Earle Bruce.

As Urban Meyer sat waiting to interview for the job, something unexpected happened. Recalling the moment years later, Meyer was approached by then graduate assistant Tim Hinton who told him to forget about the defensive side of the ball. Hinton's advice: go over to the offense and coach the tight ends. Rather than pouring coffee as the defensive backs coach, the role with the tight ends would actually get a shot at some real coaching.

Minutes later in Bruce’s office — Earle asked the aspiring graduate assistant what role he wanted to coach. Taking Hinton’s advice, Meyer rolled the dice and answered 'tight ends,' even though he had no real experience with that unit.

As Bruce readied to press Meyer on the X’s and O’s of his coaching philosophy with the tight ends, Meyer could feel the sweat begin to bead up in his brow. Then an intervention came. Bruce’s secretary interrupted the interview with news — a major recruit was swinging through campus unexpectedly. All of a sudden Bruce had bigger fish to fry — and coach looked at Meyer and said, “You’ll be fine.”

Bruce was right. And the 1986 season was a fine one for the Buckeyes, too. They would finish the regular season as co-Big Ten champs and a 9-3 record, and ranked No. 11 in the country. Their prize, for the first time in school history — for the first time in Big Ten history — was a trip to the Cotton Bowl.

The Cotton Bowl at that time pitted the champion of the Southwest conference against the SEC or another major foe. This time, the Cotton came calling for Bruce, Meyer, and the Buckeyes — to take on the No. 8 ranked Texas A&M Aggies, the back-to-back Southwest Conference champions. The Aggies were also looking for back-to-back Cotton Bowl wins after dominating Auburn 36-16 in the 1986 game. A repeat in the Cotton would be a rare feat. The 1987 contest would mark the 51st Cotton Bowl, and only Texas (in 1969 and 1970) had ever won two consecutive Cotton Bowl Classics.

On game day, wide receiver Chris Carter and running back Vince Workman powered the OSU offense. But it would ultimately be Chris Spielman and Michael Kee’s pick-sixes of Aggie quarterback Sonny Gordon that would open up the game, and eventually put it out of reach. Ohio State would win by a final score of 28-12, powered by five defensive interceptions.

The Buckeyes finished the season ranked No. 6 in the country. But after a 6-4-1 record the following season in 1987, OSU would fire coach Earle Bruce. Meyer would leave to become a linebacker coach at Illinois State.

When the Buckeyes clash with the Trojans, they will return to the bowl game that marked Meyer’s biggest win in his young coaching career. For the Big Ten, they’ve become used to sending teams to Arlington; the last three Cotton Bowls have featured Big Ten programs.

Now, Meyer and the Buckeyes are back—and aim to claim another Cotton Bowl Classic for the trophy case.