Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY —
I have written fire-the-coach columns over the years, though for varying reasons I don't do it all the time. Ron McBride (Utah football), Gary Crowton (BYU football) and Brent Guy (USU football) were coaches I felt obligated to address in some form, and eventually each was fired.
Now the elephant in the room is Ute basketball coach Jim Boylen.
With the Utes winless in three conference games, and BYU dominating them for the last several years — including a 25-point win in Salt Lake City on Tuesday — this is probably where I should call for Boylen's job. His team has lost seven straight games. His only chance for an NCAA Tournament bid is to win the conference tournament.
Boylen's career record is 63-52 (thank you, Grand Canyon, Morgan State and Green Bay). His conference record is an unacceptable 26-25. Attendance is at its lowest level in the Huntsman Center's 42-year history. More than half the crowd on Tuesday was BYU fans. How bad is it? Losing to Air Force — much less BYU — is no longer shocking.
In a Deseret News online poll Sunday, 73 percent of respondents said Boylen is not the coach to take the Utes into the Pac-12.
So it's a no-brainer. He should be gone. Don't assume mid-season firings never happen. BYU jettisoned Roger Reid seven games into the 1997-98 season, a few days before Christmas.
But for now, I'm not going to condone firing Boylen. Not that I am a close personal friend, or because I can defend his record, or even because I think there will be better days. Mainly, I'm saying it because he deserves some space. When a fanatic such as Boylen misses a game against Air Force due to "family illness," I'm not going to pile on. I don't know all the details, except that it sounds scary and gut-wrenching. More gut-wrenching, even, than losing to BYU or losing his job.
Business is business, but real life is real life, and if his family's health struggle is as serious as it sounds ("We're not out of the woods, but we've got a good diagnosis, and we're getting the right treatment, and we're thankful for that"), that's enough to convince me not to add to his worries.
That's for another day and another column.
There are a lot of reasons to fire coaches. They make huge money — Boylen's salary, with incentives, can reach $1 million a year — so expectations are justifiably high. Some coaches don't connect with their players, which is a possibility with Boylen, considering five players from last year's team have left his program. A coach might not inspire support from his fan base (the Huntsman Center is less than half full almost every game). He may have problems with the administration, though that doesn't seem to be the case with Boylen.
Mostly, though, it's about attendance and wins, and in Boylen's case, those areas are failing. His team seems fairly talented, which makes it all the more damning.
This has been Utah basketball in the Boylen era: Beat Weber and Montana but lose to San Diego and Portland; beat Mississippi and Oregon, lose to Southwest Baptist and Idaho State. Meanwhile, the Utes are being dominated by BYU, which has won eight of the last nine against Utah (Boylen is 1-6 against BYU). The Cougars are definitely good. At 17-1, they're ranked 10th in the coaches' poll.
Even on a good year for Utah, the Cougars would present problems. But when it comes to Utah-BYU these days, it's not even a contest, which is odd, considering the all-time series has BYU leading by just one game, 126-125. At issue now is that the Utes are melting and Boylen is suffering, not merely due to the losing, but also the bigger stuff: an undisclosed health crisis in his family.
Hard as it is to wait and watch, if I were athletic director Chris Hill, or a booster, I'd tell Boylen that for now he can put the basketball losses on the back burner and work on the stuff that matters. They can talk in the spring. Losing basketball games hurts. The potential of losing loved ones? It's not even a contest.
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