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Gisela met Bud two years later, at the five-star restaurant where she worked in Cincinnati, and in one way the two weren't all that different. She, too, had no use for self-pity. Erika first sensed that at 12, when Gisela dismissed any adolescent insecurity about her appearance as self-indulgent. But Erika saw it most clearly in her mid-20s when, after mustering out of the Air Force as an officer, she wondered if she'd just wasted prime years seeking Bud's approval. "He wanted me to join the military," she says. "Then I woke up one day in Okinawa and thought, Is this who I'm supposed to be?"
Gisela didn't want to hear it. "Your father loves you very much," she said. "Whatever problems you have are your own. Don't ever try to put them on us or anybody but you." The words stung, but the message was received: You take what life gives, and you make something of it. Anything else is just whining.
"I never said anything about that again," Erika says.
When baseball died for him, Meyer enrolled at Cincinnati, planning to salvage his football dreams by walking on. He made the squad as a defensive back, lifted and ran to exhaustion—but failed again. The Bearcats were terrible, and Meyer still wasn't good enough to start. He kept switching majors, but by his junior year he'd met his future wife, Shelley Mather, at a fraternity bash, and found his true course of study, when tradition-laden St. Xavier High called in search of a coaching intern.
After graduating from Cincinnati, Meyer spent 1986 and '87 as a graduate assistant at Ohio State, where he weathered his first blast of Earle Bruce. Another two-year stint as an assistant, making about $6,000 at Illinois State, nearly forced the newly wed Meyer into selling insurance, but then he got his break: In 1990 Bruce, by then at Colorado State, had an opening for a receivers coach; he remembered Meyer and gave him the job.
It didn't take long for Bruce, whose coaching progeny includes Tressel and USC's Pete Carroll, to see that Meyer had a "brilliant football mind," he says. "I've never seen a coach so deep into [the game]. Some coaches bitch about the hours you put in, but the guys who like football don't; they only bitch about wasting hours. When it came time to recruit? He brought in more good players than anybody we had there."
But Meyer joined a staff headed for a cliff. Within two years Bruce would be fired, accused by the Colorado State administration of creating "a climate of intimidation and fear" and of having hit at least nine players "with a closed fist in unprotected areas of their bodies." Bruce admitted to the physical contact and to having broken NCAA rules against off-season coaching, but he made no apology for the "climate" he created: coats and ties at dinner, no earrings, ironfisted rule by the coach. Meyer fit right in.
The young assistant wasn't known for hitting his receivers, but he prepared them less like wideouts than like offensive linemen; there might be 45 minutes of blocking drills, which players called Vietnam, before a single ball was caught. "He wanted us to tear each other apart, and it would just go on forever," says former Rams wide receiver Matt Phillips. "He'd make you go and go and go."
In meetings, says Gators assistant and former CSU wideout Billy Gonzales, any mistake could make Meyer flip a table or throw a playbook. Bruce's ignominious exit did nothing to curb Meyer's admiration for him; in his estimation only one man ranks higher. "My dad is first, Earle is second," he says. "He's the ultimate man's man, the ultimate person of integrity and character, doing what's right, teaching you how to be faithful to your wife, being a good father."
The Rams cut Meyer loose, too, but Bruce's gentler replacement, Sonny Lubick, brought him back. Grateful as he was, within days Meyer wondered if they would win a game. Curfews were loosened, and players were allowed to wear flip-flops to dinner, hair at any length; Lubick insisted that his staff treat the players as adults. The team jelled nonetheless, worked hard and behaved. When one receiver quit because of Meyer's verbal abuse, Lubick sat his assistant down and—softly—made it clear that he'd have to change. "Hit me right between the eyes," Meyer says.