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What would have been had Meyer got a mulligan and remained at Utah?

The former Utah football coach enjoyed great success after leaving the Utes, but at a price. Could things have been better — for everyone — had he stayed?

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FILE — Utah coach Urban Meyer conducts practice at the Utes’ practice facility in Salt Lake City, Utah Thursday Dec. 16, 2004.

FILE PHOTO — Utah coach Urban Meyer conducts practice at the Utes’ practice facility in Salt Lake City, Utah Thursday Dec. 16, 2004.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News

Urban Meyer’s once-glittering coaching career has resulted in a series of train wrecks. After leaving Utah, his stops at Florida, Ohio State and Jacksonville ended badly, the last two in embarrassing fashion. His reputation is in tatters.

Maybe it could have been different. What if he had never left Utah?

What if he were given a chance a la George Bailey to see what might have happened if not for one decision? “It would be better if I had never left Utah at all!” Meyer might tell Clarence the Angel, who would protest but then think better of it. “Wait a minute, that’s an idea; what do you think?” he would say, casting his eyes heavenward. Then, turning to Meyer, he would say, “All right, you’ve got your wish. You never left Utah.”

And so it is. Urban Meyer rebuffs Florida’s offer and settles in Salt Lake City. He makes the Utes into a perennial top-10 team. He becomes the West’s version of Nick Saban, without the sour face. Blue-chip players fall in his lap, and on the side he shills for insurance companies with ducks and Deion.

The Utes join the Pac-12 under Meyer, and they immediately dominate the league. They win the Rose Bowl. They become only the fourth team from the West in the last 40 years to win a national championship (the NCAA stripped USC of its 2004 title for breaking NCAA rules, which of course no longer exist in today’s world).

Kyle Whittingham never becomes head coach of the Utes. He never wins Coach of the Year in 2008 for leading the Utes to an unbeaten season and a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Meyer does those things instead. Whittingham sticks around a few years as defensive coordinator and fields annual offers from out-of-state schools, but no one can lure him from his home state.

Eventually, Whittingham replaces Bronco Mendenhall as head coach at BYU, his alma mater. He hires Kalani Sitake as his defensive coordinator and turns the Cougars into a national powerhouse. The Pac-12, setting aside its politics and political correctness and its hoity-toity academic claims, invites BYU to join its ranks, but the Cougars say no thanks, and instead accept an invitation from the Big Ten, which becomes the Big Eleven. The Cougars avoid a dozen years of wandering in football outer darkness, also called independence.

Meyer and Whittingham turn the BYU-Utah game into a real rivalry, with wins on both sides, making it worthy of a national TV audience every fall. It rivals Ohio State-Michigan; it’s bigger than Florida-Florida State, Notre Dame-USC, Oklahoma-Texas and the rest of them. No rivalry can put two higher ranked teams on the field at the same time every year. And all that talk about Utah not playing BYU? Never happens.

Zach Wilson, ignored by Whittingham until it’s too late, is signed by Meyer at Utah and becomes the school’s first All-American quarterback since Alex Smith.

Sitake becomes the head coach at Oregon.

Gary Andersen, a defensive assistant at Utah, takes the head coaching job at Utah State and never leaves for Wisconsin or Oregon State because he’s seen how Meyer has established himself in one place. The Aggies become the third in-state school to become a top-25 regular, making Utah the “Texas of the Mountains.”

Other schools pursue Meyer every year, offering fame and riches, but he says he will stay in Utah (and this time means it). He’s content. He’s wildly successful. He’s healthy. He’s 57. Next season will mark his 20th at Utah, and he plans to do what LaVell Edwards did at BYU and stay right where he is. The school names the stadium after him — Rice-Eccles-Meyer Stadium. The Rice and Eccles families are glad to accommodate him. Their donations enable Utah to pay Meyer millions.

It’s a ‘Wonderful Life.’

Meyer never reneges on his statement that he isn’t leaving Utah; he never lures Aaron Hernandez to Florida; never has 31 players arrested under his watch at Florida; never has those health problems that prompted leaves of absence and medical scares; never has that sordid business in the bar; never goes to Jacksonville; never kicks a kicker when he’s down; never belittles or blames his coaching staff; never says there’s “zero chance” he will leave the NFL prematurely like other former college coaches before him.

How different life is now for the coach and all those around him. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he,” Clarence tells Meyer.

Of course, Meyer occasionally wonders what might have been, a la George Bailey. He wonders what he might have done if he had coached at places like Florida, Ohio State or maybe even the NFL. But he stays put in Bedford Falls.

Thank goodness Urban Meyer made that last-second decision to remain at Utah.