SALT LAKE CITY — I think I can safely say I've seen more Utah basketball games in person over the last 15 years than anyone alive. And since Jim Boylen became coach four years ago, only members of the coaching staff have been to more Ute games.
I've sat through the head-scratching home losses to Southwest Baptist, Seattle and Idaho. I've witnessed amazing comeback wins over Illinois, LSU and California on the road. I've watched the offense at its most anemic and seen Lawrence Borha transformed into an all-league player. I've seen insufferable ineptness along with glimpses of greatness.
Through all that, I'm in the camp that says Boylen should get at least one more year to coach the Utes.
In case you haven't heard talk around town, listened to sports talk radio, read other newspaper columns or looked at internet message boards, Boylen is on the hot seat.
Barring a pair of victories this week and a first-round win at next week's Mountain West Conference Tournament, the fourth-year coach will finish with his second consecutive losing season. The Utes stand 13-15 with games against Colorado State on the road Wednesday and home against UNLV Saturday.
I understand the reasons many Ute fans want a change. They like to win. They're used to winning. And Boylen hasn't won enough the past two seasons.
They've already forgotten he took an 11-win team with academic and other problems to consecutive postseason tournaments, winning 18 games his first year, followed by 24 wins the next year, including a regular-season and conference championship and a No. 5 NCAA seed.
His third year was almost like a first year, starting over with his own recruits and a new five-year contract worth nearly $4 million after being courted by some prominent basketball programs.
Boylen is the first to tell you that the chemistry on his 2009-10 team was awful with several players playing only for themselves. After the season, Utah's two top scorers transferred by mutual agreement of the coach and player.
With that year behind him, Boylen brought in four junior college players, three of whom have played significant roles this year, along with a talented freshman, to blend with players already in the program.
However, that talented freshman, J.J. O'Brien, broke his foot in the first game, missed nine games and wasn't 100 percent for another half dozen games. The team's only senior, starting forward Jay Watkins, was hampered by a back injury the first 15 games before being shut down for the season after the first MWC game. The Utes' two best power forwards missed a combined 24 games this season.
No doubt the Utes have been inconsistent, but they finally seem to be hitting their stride since playing BYU dead-even in Provo for 31 minutes and winning their last three games, including that last-second thriller at The Pit.
However, ad hoc committees have apparently already been meeting to explore the possibility of getting a new coach with feelers being sent out. Also the question has been raised, can the U. and its boosters raise a couple of million to pay off Boylen, right after they've finished paying off hundreds of thousands to his predecessor, Ray Giacoletti, over the past four years.
In some ways Boylen has been the victim of a perfect storm. His two in-state rivals are having their best seasons ever with BYU about to move into the top five in the nation with a 27-2 record, while Utah State is 26-3. The Mountain West Conference is enjoying its best overall season ever with a national No. 4 RPI ranking. On top of that, the Utes are about to enter the Pac-12 Conference, where expectations will be higher.
All of that magnifies a sub-.500 record and things like a squeaky-clean program with strong academics are ignored.
Academics have improved dramatically under Boylen. In the last year of Rick Majerus (who used to thump his chest all the time about his team's academics), the Utes had an APR of just 833 well under the NCAA required minimum of 925.
The number improved into the 900s under Giacoletti, and under Boylen, Utah's APR number was 980 his first year and a perfect 1,000 the past two years. Utah's multi-year APR has gone from 930 in Giacoletti's last year to 990. The team GPA has improved significantly under Boylen to an average of 3.082 during his four years and all 11 seniors will have graduated, including Watkins this year.
Boylen has done his best to promote the program, probably more than any coach in Utah history. He has spoken at civic functions all over town. He visited fraternities and student groups. I constantly hear stories from people who have had positive encounters with Boylen at the grocery store or the yogurt shop or wherever. He's a great ambassador for Utah basketball.
Still, attendance has gone down and some people believe it can be fixed with winning basketball.
Uh, sorry, but recent history doesn't bear that out.
The Utes' all-time peak attendance season was in 1995-96, two years BEFORE the team went to the national championship. Home attendance has been on a steady decline ever since. Even during the Majerus years, the attendance fell from 14,281 in '95-96 to 10,901 in 2003-04.
Despite a 29-6 record and Sweet 16 appearance, attendance fell again in 2004-05, Giacoletti's first year, and except for a slight bump in Boylen's first year, it has gone down every year, even the Utes' championship year in '08-09. Attendance is an issue, but there is no guarantee a new coach will bring more fans to the Huntsman Center even if he wins.
Boylen believes he's building the program with young players like O'Brien and sophomores Shawn Glover, Jason Washburn and Chris Hines. Dominique Lee, a talented guard from the Bay Area, sat out as a redshirt this year and a top recruit, George Matthews, is coming in next year. Josh Sharp re-joins the program next year off an LDS mission and Jeremy Olsen, a 6-foot-10 inside player returns from a mission the following year when the Utes can bring in four new players.
The whole issue may come down to whether big Ute boosters are willing to pay off Boylen for the remaining three years of his contract and then pony up enough cash to bring in an experienced big-name coach. If they're not willing or able to do that, Boylen should be their guy for at least another year.