Former Utah football coach Urban Meyer took inspiration from the military and ran his preseason workouts in his two years in Salt Lake City like basic training.

He took a term from the Marine Corps — the crucible — a 54-hour strength and endurance test that all recruits have to complete to officially become a Marine.

It pushes recruits to their limits, hence the name “crucible,” which is the term for a vessel in which precious metals are subjected to extremely high temperatures to remove impurities.

The result: a perfect gold bar.

When Meyer arrived in Salt Lake City from Bowling Green, he set the tone immediately in an early 2003 conditioning workout, chaining the doors to the practice facility shut and covering the windows, the players training until they wanted to quit, then pushing through it and training some more.

That, Meyer said, was the edge.

“That’s when stuff starts happening to your body,” Meyer said. “You get in better shape. Put yourself in an 18 year old’s mind. OK, my body’s busting down. I can’t lift that weight anymore. I can’t go any harder. Guess where are you? You’re at the edge. Find a way to push through that. That’s how you become great.”

Meyer implemented his military-like training into Utah’s culture, and it worked out for him and his team. In 2003, his first year at Utah, the Utes won their first outright conference championship since 1957, going 10-2 overall.

They followed that up with the school’s first undefeated season in the modern era, capping off their 12-0 campaign in 2004 with a win over Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl to become the first team from a non-automatic qualifying conference to play in a Bowl Championship Series game.

“I’m going to make this so hot, so hard that what we have left is this precious stone called the 2004, 2003 Utah Utes,” Meyer said.

Back in Salt Lake City last week to give a talk at Utah’s clinic for high school football coaches, the former Utah coach spent a couple of days around his old defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham’s program and marveled at the toughness on display.

“You want to watch toughness, go out and watch Utah football practice. They’re unlike others. It’s a tough (expletive) program. You know why? They got a tough (expletive) head coach. Man, I get chills thinking about what I saw the last two days. It’s a tough man’s game,” Meyer said.

One word comes up the most when college football coaches, players and analysts talk about Utah’s program — toughness.

“This is one of those programs that I personally like just because I like Kyle Whittingham. I like his style. I’m an old school type of dude. He’s an old school type of coach, so I respect the physicality that they bring to the gridiron,” “College GameDay” analyst Desmond Howard said about Utah last year.

In 2021, an anonymous Pac-12 coach told Athlon Sports about Utah and Whittingham, “His team is a brand. It’s a toughness and defense. They’re the most physical team in the conference every single year now, and they’re one of the meanest in the game. This is all Whit (Kyle Whittingham); it’s his mindset, it’s his attitude. ‘Mental toughness’ is a cliche but Whit has those guys ready. They’re even, never too high or low.”

Former Arizona State center Cohl Cabral told KSLSports.com in 2019 that it’s “night and day how much more physical they are,” and that “you hope you have a bye the week before or after” playing the Utes.

How did Whittingham build Utah’s culture of toughness?

It started with the lessons imparted on Kyle from his father, Fred, the larger than life linebacker and coach who exemplified being tough.

Former USC and Los Angeles Rams head coach John Robinson pointed out the elder Whittingham — nicknamed “Mad Dog” — to now-San Jose State head coach Ken Niumatalolo and told him, “He’s the toughest human being I’ve ever been around,” Deseret News writer Doug Robinson recounted in 2009.

“The coach that was the most influential in my life without a doubt was my father. He passed away five years ago. … He is without a doubt the best coach I’ve been around. I wish he were here. But I think he knows what’s going on. I dedicate this to him,” Whittingham said after receiving the Bear Bryant National Coach of the Year award following Utah’s 2008-09 13-0 season, which cumulated in a 31-17 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

It’s really no surprise that Whittingham — who has worked out every day since July 2008, save for one rest day per week on Sundays — has molded the program is his image.

One big factor is longevity and consistency. Whittingham has been on staff at Utah since 1994 and the head man since 2005. The qualities of being mentally and physically tough are highly valued by Utah on the recruiting trail, and once committed, incoming high schoolers and transfers know the expectations the program lays out for them.

“I mean it starts from top down. Coach Whitt does a good job of setting the culture,” said Stanford transfer safety Alaka’i Gilman. “Coming in as a new guy three weeks ago, whatever it was, you can obviously tell when you walk in the building like, hey, this is the standard. You either are with us or you’re against us.”

Running back Jaylon Glover agrees.

“We just got a whole bunch of tough coaches out here. You’re the product of your environment, and when you got a whole bunch of tough, smart individuals around you, it is just going to rub off on all of us,” Glover said.

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That mentality permeates through the building, with everyone in the locker room bought in to meet the standard every day, starting in winter conditioning and spring practice.

“It was apparent. I felt it when I walked in the locker room. I felt it with everybody else, the coaching staff. The standard’s high, they want everybody to come in and reach that standard, which is what I really appreciate. And I appreciate being surrounded by those kind of people,” Gilman said.

Whittingham doesn’t chain the doors shut and cover the windows like his predecessor did, but the workouts are still tough. Football is a demanding game, and in order to be in peak physical shape by the time August rolls around, there’s going to be some days where you’re pushed to your limits.

“It was winter workouts, the first day I got there, they said this has been the hardest workout. … I was throwing up on the first day. That was a good ‘welcome to college’ moment,” freshman quarterback Isaac Wilson said.

While there is an NCAA-mandated acclimation period where players cannot be in pads, after that, Utah places a premium on physicality in practice.

“We’re full pads, we’re shoulder pads every week. It is rare that we’re ever in shells, that we’re ever in just helmets,” safety Tao Johnson said.

“Every week we’re being physical, every day we’re working on physicality, technique, technicians, all the little things. And every day we work on that. I think that’s what makes us great.”

The hope is, with all of the work put in during the offseason, once the season starts, everyone is in great shape, is strong mentally, can play at a high level for four quarters, and plays with a high level of physicality.

Building up to that point is a daily task.

“It’s a daily thing. You do it every day. Your demands, your expectations, how you handle yourself body language-wise in the weight room,” Whittingham said.

“I mean it’s a cumulative effect and everybody is on board and bought into the fact that that’s what we want to be as the mentally and physically toughest team in the country. That’s our goal now, whether we attain it or not, but that’s what we’re striving for.”

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham hoists the Pac-12 trophy after the Utes beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News