Utah Blaze a contender in AFL under Ron James a few years after going 2-14

Published: Thursday, July 5 2012 8:55 p.m. MDT

Ron James shares some insights at Monday's practice.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — There aren't many things that frighten Utah Blaze coach Ron James.

Bees? Probably not. Zombies? Please. Running out of toilet paper? Perhaps, although he'd likely be calm and collected even through that.

What about on the football field? Not an ounce of trepidation.

James has a demeanor that allows him to walk into any circumstance completely confident. He's exorbitantly competitive. He'd fight you to the end in Go Fish or marbles — he wants to win that severely. But, above all else, the 28-year coaching veteran has a passion; a willingness to tackle any challenge presented.

For instance, in learning a technique for self-defense encouraged by his late father, James became a Golden Glove boxer as a youngster. "My own claim to fame is I never got knocked out," James quipped.

And there was the time, after an All-American career as an offensive lineman at Siena College, he trained as a bodybuilder, taking fifth in the Northeast USA Show in 1989.

James' passion, combined with his ability to "wear many hats," is why, in large part, he has been able to transform the Blaze from the worst team in the AFL to a legitimate contender in less than two years at the helm.

When James was approached in 2010 to become the third coach in Blaze history, he was justifiably skeptical.

"It was a very tough situation to walk into," James explained. "We had a team that was one of the worst teams that I've ever been around. Not a knock against some of the individuals, I just didn't think the pieces fit very well."

But in the end, it was just another challenge.

James accepted the position midway through the season only to lose seven straight games before finishing with an AFL-worst 2-14 record.

"You have to understand something," James said. "The first game that I showed up to coach the Blaze we were traveling to Cleveland. I put my staff together in two days. There was nothing in the coaches' office. There was literally an empty shopping cart — not a film, not a notebook, not a playbook. Nothing in the coaches' office.

"So we went in blind and I didn't even know the players' names and we're going to play on the road two days later. So it was a tough situation (and) we had to weed our way through. By the end of the year I felt that we were onto something."

James started with concrete slabs the ensuing offseason, building the foundation from scrap. "I had to put my own stamp on it," he said.

It was a total remodeling process.

It involved keeping the players that worked and molding other players around them. One of those happened to be Aaron Lesue, the Blaze's record-breaking receiver.

"He's actually the one in this organization to thank that I'm even here," Lesue said. "When I first came to the Blaze in 2010, (the previous coach) Ernesto Purnsley actually cut me. When coach James came in that's all he knew of me. He gave me a chance and didn't write me off and that meant everything to me."

In what was perceived as a long, tedious expedition, James guided the Bad News Blaze to a seven-game improvement for a franchise best 9-9 record in 2011. Given such improvement, the players began buying in.

"He knows what he's doing," Lesue said. "He's a guy that you want to play for just because of his passion. It really rubs off on the other guys. He really makes (you) want to play for him because he believes in you.

"Other coaches make you feel like they don't care; that you're a chess piece that can be replaceable," Lesue continued. "You're almost willing to fight through anything for a coach like coach James."

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