On the east wall of Jim Boylen's office in the Huntsman Center is a framed poster from 1994 NBA Finals that he calls "my favorite picture."
Taken from floor level looking up, the picture shows five Houston Rocket players Otis Thorpe, Robert Horry, Hakeem Olajuwon, Vernon Maxwell and Kenny Smith with their hands together in a huddle.
"That picture right there is the reason I got into coaching," says Boylen. "That, to me, is what it's all about putting your hand in the huddle, taking ownership of each other's success and being a part of a group of guys trying to get something done together."
The energetic Boylen is certainly getting it done in his first year as the University of Utah basketball coach. With the halfway point of his initial season approaching this week in San Diego, Boylen has already made tremendous strides in turning around a traditionally strong Utah basketball program that hit rock bottom a year ago.
His Utes stand 10-4 on the season and, except for an early-season home loss to Santa Clara, have been in every game until the final minutes, including games at Oregon and Gonzaga.
"It's been a blast, it's really been fun," says Boylen. "It's been tough at times, and it's been a learning experience. But the reason I wanted to go back to college is that I want to have a chance to put my handprint on something."
Boylen is passionate, he's sincere, he's genuine, he's honest. He's the kind of coach that can bawl a player out with a killer look that makes him want to crawl into a hole one minute and then give the same player a big bear hug the next minute and tell him how much he loves him.
"He is the most hard-working, intense, caring person," says Ute junior forward Shaun Green. "He's a great coach, a great person to play for. He's going to ride you when you're not playing well, but he's going to praise you when you're doing things correctly. He's the first one to yell at you but also the first one to pick you up after a bad play."
Boylen is straightforward with his players, and for that matter, everyone he comes in contact with.
"People call it an in-your-face approach," Boylen says. "It's a reality, honest approach. I'm very upfront. That's how a family is. If you're upset with someone, you talk to them about it. But you still love them."
The 42-year-old Boylen arrived in Utah last March with plenty of experience, including 13 years in the NBA with two championship rings, and two stints covering seven years at Michigan State, one of the premier programs in college basketball. But he had never been a head coach.
"It always came back to the same thing, 'You haven't been a head coach,"' says Boylen of his attempts to become one.
Finally, someone took a chance on Boylen when Utah athletic director Chris Hill hired him last spring. That decision is already bearing fruit. Besides five more victories than the Utes had at this time last season, Boylen has brought discipline, team unity and enthusiasm to the Ute program.
"I feel like this was meant to be," says Boylen. "I want to build something we can be proud of and is lasting."
Interviewing Boylen is a lot like watching him coach a ballgame, where he is all over the place, pacing the sideline, crouching in a defensive stance, haranguing the officials or leaping in the air with a fist pump after a Johnnie Bryant 3-pointer.
He gets so excited he's almost shouting at times and then, in an instant, is speaking in such a soft whisper, you'd think his office is bugged and he doesn't want anyone else to hear.
While talking about his experience in the pros, he leaves the office briefly to find an article from the Houston Chronicle about a former player he coached. When the subject of golf comes up, he suddenly jumps out of his chair and goes behind his desk to show off his "best Christmas present ever" and starts demonstrating how his new "David Leadbetter Swing-setter" device helps teach a proper grip and swing tempo. Talking about a coaching interview he once had, he leaves the office again to ask assistant coach Marty Wilson the name of a certain restaurant in Los Angeles.
Unlike some past Ute coaches, Boylen is more than happy to talk about his past, even things that might make him uncomfortable.
He grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in East Grand Rapids, Mich., as the youngest of three sons of Fred and Helen Boylen.
His father had been a linebacker at Michigan State, and athletics were the dominant theme in a household where Jim and his older brothers, Freddy and Bobby, played sports year-round.
The boys were each two years apart with Freddy being the oldest, then Bobby, then "Jimmy" as his brothers still call him. "It was a very competitive house," said Freddy.
Each made his own mark in athletics Freddy played Division III football, while Bobby was an All-American diver. Jim excelled at football and basketball, eventually starring in basketball at the University of Maine.
Jim has always been close to his two brothers, who showed their support by flying out from the Midwest for his first game in November.
"My brothers had a big impact on my life," Jim says. "They were very competitive, very tough guys. They let me hang around and learn from them."
The boys used to play countless games of 21 on the driveway at their Michigan home. After shoveling off the snow, they would start knocking each other into the garage door, one of those four-section, spring-loaded types that roll up.
"With us it was Fight-21," says Bobby. "The rule was no blood, no foul."
"Jimmy and I didn't finish a game of one-on-one from the time he was 15 years old until he was in college," says Freddy. "There's a little intensity there, I guess you could say."
Being the youngest, Jim had to fight all the harder to compete with his older brothers.
"You'd be going in for a layup and they'd knock you in the air and you'd bounce off the garage door," remembers Jim. "It was like playing hockey. We broke the door a bunch of times. We'd break the door, get it fixed and break it again and my mom would say 'What are you guys doing?"'
Their mother is a woman of deep faith who had to raise her three sons by herself after her husband left the family when Jim was 9 years old. She says she put her life in God's hands and that God always came through for her family.
Still, the family endured some tough times after the divorce.
"We lived in a good neighborhood, but we had no money," Jim recalls. "There were times we couldn't afford a Christmas tree."
Helen said neighbors used to drop off turkeys on the doorstep to help and that they literally had no food in the house sometimes.
She tells about the time there was no food in the house, but one of the boys won a basketball shooting contest in town sponsored by a taco company. "They came home with taco certificates and that was our dinner that night."
The boys all worked jobs and had to pay rent to their mom once they turned 18. Jim found factory and construction jobs and though it wasn't always fun, he said he learned valuable life lessons about "earning your keep."
Like any mother, Helen is proud of her sons, calling them "awesome" and says she had little trouble raising them.
She watched a lot of ballgames and used to hate seeing basketball players with their socks down around their ankles. So she bought her sons "Wigwam" socks that had elastic in them.
"They never had the latest toys, but they always had new socks that didn't fall down," she says, proudly.
Boylen played all the different sports growing up, although he gave up baseball soon after little league.
In high school, he played quarterback and safety at East Grand Rapids High. He says he wasn't a very good quarterback but was a pretty good safety, earning all-state honors as a senior after getting 13 interceptions.
"Speed was not one of my strengths, but I was pretty quick," he says. "I had really good hands and a good nose for the ball."
His father wanted him to walk on at Michigan State, where he had been a captain under Duffy Daugherty in the early 1960s. However, Jim had no interest.
"I didn't want to play football," he says. "I liked hitting people and playing games, but I hated practicing. Football practice stinks it's hot ... bees are buzzing through your helmet ... it drove me nuts."
But he loved basketball.
"Basketball was attractive to me because I could do it by myself," he says. "You could play by yourself or play 1-on-1 or 2-on-2. That always appealed to me."
In high school he wasn't the best player on his team and played in the shadow of Garde Thompson, who went to play at Michigan. Boylen's only Division I offer came from the University of Maine, and he grabbed it.
He was a "late bloomer," leaving for college at 6 feet, 175 pounds and coming home four years later at 6-3, 205. He also blossomed on the court, averaging 21 points as a senior and ranking in the top 25 in the nation in scoring after hardly playing as a freshman.
Boylen wasn't a flashy player and compares his style to one of his own players. "I was a lot like Chris Grant as far as size, kind of an in-between guy. I could bring it up and handle it and could also play off the ball."
Soon after he graduated in 1987, Boylen got his first opportunity to coach when Jud Heathcote, who had advised him to go to Maine rather than walk on at Michigan State, hired him as a graduate assistant. Current Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was an assistant at the time and helped Boylen get the job.
Boylen and Izzo lived together for a time and Boylen recalls earning $4,000 his first year, moving up to $4,200 the second, before getting $16,000 when he became an assistant. Now he makes close to $600,000 as Utah's head man.
He got his foot in the NBA door in 1992 after volunteering to coach a summer league team in Los Angeles and parlayed it into a 13-year career with stops at Houston, Golden State and Milwaukee. While at Houston assisting coach Rudy Tomjanovich, he was part of two NBA championships teams.
Before going after the Utah job, Boylen said he only interviewed for two head coaching positions the Texas A&M job in 2004 and the Orlando Magic job in 2005. He figured the Texas A&M job was a natural, because it was close to Houston where he had worked for more than a decade. When the A&M athletic director hugged his wife and said, "We'll see you soon," Boylen assumed the job was his.
However, the lack of head coaching experience hurt him and Texas A&M hired Billy Gillispie from UTEP instead.
The next year, Boylen was one of three finalists for the Magic job, but Orlando went with veteran Brian Hill.
A couple of months later, Izzo convinced Boylen to return to college basketball, where he could be his right-hand man and learn the ins and outs of college coaching from one of the best coaches in the college game.
"I took a big pay cut, but it was close to my hometown, 50 miles from where I grew up," Boylen says. "It was a great experience. I learned a ton."
Boylen still desperately wanted to be a head coach but felt with his 20 years of experience at some of the highest levels, he didn't want to start out at a junior college or a lower-division university.
"I don't want to sound arrogant, but I wasn't going to take any job," Boylen said. "Tom was not going to let me leave for any job either. I was making good money at Michigan State and I was either going to get the job I really wanted or I was going to go back to the pros."
Just before he was about to complete the second year of his second stint at Michigan State, Boylen got a call from a contact in Utah the same day Ray Giacoletti was fired.
"Obviously I had an interest right away," Boylen says. "I said to Tom (Izzo), 'I think this is a good one. I know the city, I know what it's like there. I think I could build something there. My wife will like living there. I think it's the perfect fit.' He said, 'I agree, let's go after it."'
The next day, the Spartans lost a heartbreaker to Wisconsin in the final seconds, but later that evening, Izzo put in a call to Dr. Hill to promote his protege for the job.
"It was incredible," Hill recalls. "They played an afternoon game and had lost by two points, but (Izzo) couldn't have been more gracious and interested in talking about Jim. It was not a perfunctory call, he talked about everything about Jim."
A few days later, Hill put in a call to Tomjanovich, expecting to perhaps hear back in a day or two. Instead, "He called back 20 minutes later, and I couldn't get him off the phone."
Hill was looking seriously at a half dozen candidates for the Utah job, and after talking to Boylen on the phone a few times, they arranged to meet for an interview in a San Antonio hotel room during the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament.
Boylen came to the interview extremely prepared, with knowledge of the Utah basketball tradition and the current players in the program. He also brought a 20-page laminated booklet with a detailed written plan of his goals, complete with a doctored picture of him wearing a Utah basketball shirt.
"When I met him I could see he would be a great guy to work with and had the kind of vision you'd want for this program," Hill says. "We met for two hours, but he thought it wasn't long enough. When he walked out of the room at the hotel, I thought, 'This is the guy. He's prepared and not afraid to be out there saying he wants to be great.' I talked to a lot of good people, but he was one who stood way out."
Three days later, Hill called Boylen and asked, "Do you want to be our coach?"
Boylen met his wife, Christine, while he was an assistant with the Rockets.
They married in 1995 but had a difficult time having children, suffering several miscarriages.
Christine became pregnant again in 2004, and they were devastated to lose another child six weeks into that pregnancy. But they got the joyful news that there was another heartbeat and that Christine had actually been pregnant with twins. Daughter Ashlen was born in March 2005 and then, 18 months later, the Boylens were blessed with another daughter, Layla.
"We had a hard time getting pregnant and all of a sudden the dam broke," Boylen says.
Perhaps because of his experience of feeling neglected by his absentee father, Boylen goes out of his way to spend extra time with his two daughters. Owning a house in the Harvard-Yale area, literally five minutes from his office, makes it easy for the coach to be home a lot.
"He likes to get up early with the girls and make bacon and eggs and let me sleep in," says Christine. Sometimes her husband will go to an early-morning practice and come home at 8:30 just to be with his daughters when they get up.
"That's the great thing about living so close. He comes home for a half hour and then he's right back out there. He comes home, they all make a big mess and then I clean it up," Christine says with a laugh.
"That I'm able to go home and have lunch with my kids is such a beautiful perk, I can't even tell you," says Boylen.
The Boylens are also happy to be able to attend church every Sunday at a nearby nondenominational church where Christine volunteers and the kids go to Sunday School.
Boylen says aside from coaching, spending time with his family and going to church, he doesn't do too much. He calls himself "kind of a boring guy" with few hobbies.
Well, there is golf and cooking.
"I love to golf," says the man with an 8-handicap. "I could probably golf every day if I had time. It's a great escape for me, and it's something I can be competitive at."
He also loves to cook, for which he takes ribbing from his friends and fellow coaches.
"I'm not gourmet at all, I don't want to give that impression," he says. "There's just something about pattying up the burgers or making the chicken or doing the potatoes. It's kind of a relaxing thing for me."
Looking at Boylen's life, you can see how he became the person he is today.
Those cutthroat games of "Fight-21" on the driveway against his brothers toughened him up. So did the experience of coping without a father in his formative years.
Not being the best player on his high school team and not getting the chance to walk on at the nearby university gave him a chip on his shoulder and drove him to become better.
Working for some of the best coaches in the business gave him a foundation to be a knowledgeable coach. Not getting a head coaching opportunity for 20 years helped him deal with disappointment and appreciate what he has now even more.
Growing up not always knowing where his next meal was coming from helped him to learn to appreciate the little things more. Enduring the miscarriages with his wife taught him to deal with heartbreak.
"I have had to handle some adversity," he says. "But all of those experiences shape who you are."22 comments on this story
One thing you'll quickly notice if you're around Boylen very long is how often he uses the word "thankful."
"I'm thankful for the win ... I'm thankful for my players ... I'm thankful to be at Utah and part of this community."
He said he gets that from his mother who always used to say, "Change your attitude to gratitude.""Every day is a privilege to me," Boylen says. "I see the mountains right outside my window. My wife is very happy, and our children are healthy. I can take my daughter to pre-school. I have a great job in a great place. It couldn't be better."