SALT LAKE CITY — Amid the "I-love-my-guys" and "we're-getting-betters," Utah basketball coach Jim Boylen fights on. He leaps once, twice, three times along the sidelines, arguing in favor of a jump ball. He sweeps his arms and screams instructions until he is hoarse, later entering the interview room with sweat beading his forehead, his collar damp.
Is this the end days for Utah's 14th basketball coach?
How can he avoid it? His arena is less than half-empty. The Huntsman Center looks like an abandoned spaceship. Thousands of fans have stopped following a team once rated the 11th-best program in college basketball history. Utah has lost nine of the last 10 games to its rival, BYU, and is being outrecruited in-state.
The fourth-year coach could yet salvage the season if he miraculously won the Mountain West tournament. But don't bet your retirement on it. The Utes are 3-8 in the conference (seventh place) and 10-15 overall. They have five regular-season games remaining, beginning tonight against Wyoming, which means a successful finish would still only give them a .500 season. In an optimistic scenario, they'll beat TCU and Wyoming — the only two teams below Utah in the standings — and lose to New Mexico, UNLV and Colorado State. A first-round loss in the conference tournament would end their season at 12-19.
With a Pac-12 schedule looming, it's unlikely athletic director Chris Hill wants to carry that sort of baggage forward.
There are a lot of reasons why Boylen's case is dire. For starters, the attendance. You can hear crickets chirping in the Huntsman Center. When Hill fired Ray Giacoletti after three years, he cited poor attendance as one reason. Ditto when he fired Ron McBride. Yet both drew better than Boylen.
It isn't just attendance revenue, but image that counts. When fans stop coming, boosters stop contributing, media reduces coverage and the program diminishes.
Realistically, everyone goes through it. BYU had a 9-21 season in 2004-2005, before Dave Rose became head coach. In the late 1990s the Cougars went 1-25, 9-21 and 12-16. Slumps happen. But when they do, coaches seldom survive. Giacoletti was fired after going 54-40 (.574) overall and 25-21 (.543) in conference. Boylen is 66-57 (.536) and 29-30 (.491).
He is 1-7 against BYU; Giacoletti was 3-3.
If his record doesn't say everything, the stats do. Utah is ninth (last) in the conference in steals, turnover margin, free throw percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. It is eighth in rebound defense and assists, and seventh in scoring defense, scoring margin, field goal percentage and 3-point field goal defense.
The Utes essentially started over this year. Five players from last year's team have left the program. The new players include some decent athletes, and the roster has two 7-footers, but that is part of the problem. The team should be better.
Even if losing to BYU, New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State over the years could be excused, losing to San Diego, Oral Roberts, Southwest Baptist and Idaho State can't. Colorado State and Air Force have improved, but since when did Utah have to worry about those lightweights?
Boylen's contract, which extends through 2014, is an issue but not a blockade. It would cost serious money to fire him after this season, but how many millions might the program lose if it continues its current course? Utah has lost five games in a row and 12 of 15.
Getting fired would be more of an ego hit for Boylen than a financial one. He would receive $2 million in severance. He has been making $850,000 in salary, with free use of a car and $100,000 a year for his summer camps. Stay or go, he'll be fine.
Boylen's sideline theatrics have been criticized even though they're based on enthusiasm, not abuse. He has worked hard at connecting to the fan base by fulfilling speaking engagements, rallying supporters at football games and accommodating the MUSS. Still, he never has fully connected with the community.
It's not just the games he has lost, it's the confidence in his team.
Few but Boylen — and possibly his team — believe in his system anymore.
He says his team is improving, but selling that to fans who are facing a hike in ticket prices next year is unlikely. Can Boylen survive? Go to a game. Look at the crowd. Check Hill's record with losing coaches.
It's all you need to know.