OGDEN — All eyes are on the University of Utah as the Utes make a historic move to the Pac-12 Conference, but the man who is as responsible as anyone for that move was sitting in a dim office Tuesday morning 30 miles to the north, watching film.
Ron McBride is a forgotten man in Utah's graduation to the football big-time, but he played a big role in making it happen.
"I'm extremely happy for Utah," he says. "This is a huge, huge deal, going to the Pac-12."
McBride, the head coach at Weber State and just a few weeks away from his 72nd birthday, set the stage for that move. Without him, there is no Urban Meyer, no Kyle Whittingham, no Sugar Bowls, no Fiesta Bowls, no unbeaten seasons, no Top-5 rankings.
There is no Pac-12.
Mac solved the riddle that was the University of Utah football program.
Before Mac took the head coaching job in 1990, the Utes were mediocre, at best, and nobody could figure them out. They were based in a major metropolitan area, with a large student body, a beautiful mountain setting, strong financial resources and a good academic reputation, all of which seemed ideal for attracting recruits and winning football games.
They seemed to be a sleeping giant no one could awaken. Before McBride, they were 233-244-8 the previous 45 years, an average of five wins per season. They had won one championship in the Western Athletic Conference — in 1964. In 97 years of playing football, they had played in just three bowl games, the last during that same '64 season. They had beaten BYU just twice in 18 years. They were going through coaches like office temps — eight in three decades. Jim Fassel couldn't win with the Utes, and all he did was go on to become NFL Coach of the Year and take the New York Giants to the Super Bowl — after being fired by Utah.
"This place is jinxed!" former Ute head coach Wayne Howard once told friends. "It's impossible to win here. I don't know what it is."
When Mac interviewed for the job in 1990, he was stunned to find that the Utes were content with their station in the football world. As he recalls, "The guys who were doing the hiring told me, 'We just want to be competitive and we don't want to be embarrassed by BYU. If we just finish in the middle of the conference and we're respectable, you can stay as long as you want.' Expectations were not very high. Basketball was carrying things, and football just needed to be respectable."
Mac's response was typical of the intensity and optimism he would bring to the Utes: "That's not the way it's going to be," he replied. "We're going to beat BYU and win championships and go to bowl games."
McBride, a native Californian and beach devotee, had fallen in love with the U. during two previous coaching stints there, first as offensive coordinator for Howard and Chuck Stobart and later as offensive line coach for Fassel. In 1990, there were three head coaching positions open, at UNLV, Wisconsin and Utah. He wanted the Utah job.
"I knew it definitely could be done here," he said. "I knew what the problems were and how other people before me had no plan in place. I knew how they looked at things. Utah was never a destination for a coach. It was a place to get another job. I wanted to establish something here."
While working as an assistant at Utah, he formed a head-coaching plan, which he implemented when the Utes hired him. A non-Mormon, he embraced the LDS missionary program — unlike his predecessors — encouraging them to go on missions and holding their scholarships while they were gone.
"I wanted to be a positive influence in the LDS community," he says. "I wanted to support the kids going on missions." He also recruited the Polynesian community heavily, as well as in-state athletes.42 comments on this story
During his 13 years as head coach, Mac compiled a record of 86-63, most of the losses coming during the early years. He produced 10 winning seasons, including a 10-2 record in 1994. He beat BYU six times, after losing the first three games to Utah's arch-rival. He took the Utes to six bowls — double their previous total — and won three of them. He reversed decades of mediocrity and pushed them over the hump. He made it possible for Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham to take the Utes to the next level.
Mac's impact on the program can still be seen today. The roster is filled with returned LDS missionaries and Polynesians. Offensive line coach Tim Davis played for Mac and later served as a graduate assistant coach under Mac at Wisconsin and as a line coach at Utah. Mac hired Whittingham and Chad Kauha'aha'a as assistant coaches. Morgan Scalley and Jay Hill played for Mac.
In the end, Mac created a monster. He raised the level of expectations so much, just as he had vowed to do, that ultimately it cost him his job. By the time Mac was finished, the Utes were no longer satisfied with merely being competitive and beating BYU. Mac was fired in 2002 after a 5-6 season, which came on the heels of an 8-4 season. By then he had done what he said he would do. He showed the Utes what they could be.