Utah Blaze a contender in AFL under Ron James a few years after going 2-14
James, an offensive wizard, implemented a high-tempo scheme that dazzled fans. Known for his strict, hard-working mentality derived from his military upbringing, James is anything but conservative with the playbook.
"We're going out on a ledge, so to speak, (to) test the limits of what the other team can do and put them on the defensive," James said.
As he paces the sidelines, donning his trademark visor and headset, it's hard not to notice the comparisons to Oregon's Chip Kelly, both physically and mentally.
"I keep more of a flat top and he keeps a little more of a buzz," James joked. "The irony of that is Kelly's last coaching stop before Oregon was at New Hampshire. That's where my wife went to school."
The modifications James made when talking the Blaze reins, however, weren't limited to player personnel and team philosophies. James began sculpting a coaching staff he could trust.
"One of the things that I learned early on in coaching is try not to be the smartest guy in the room," said James from behind his desk at EnergySolutions Arena. "It sounds a little self-serving but it's true.
"As the head coach you're a facilitator and you're only as good as the people that support you."
James resourcefully sought out complementary minds. He ultimately brought in Matthew Sauk as offensive coordinator. In 2011, James lured former University of Utah and Weber State coach Ron McBride out of retirement to control the trenches and hired Rob Keefe to oversee the defense.
"First of all, he's a really good guy to work for," McBride said. "He expects you to coach your position and he expects you to do a job. He doesn't micromanage. He's one of the better guys I've been with. I've been with a lot of different guys but he's one of the reasons I took the job."
The success prompted Blaze ownership to promote James to team president at the end of the 2010 campaign. Despite a limited business background, sponsorship levels have seen a 60 percent boost and ticket sales have increased.
James revolutionized a stagnant franchise, but the challenge of bringing a championship to Salt Lake City is the next step.
In year two, Utah has already secured its first winning season, surpassing the previous record with 10 wins, and currently owns the third spot in the National Conference playoff race with three games remaining.
The Blaze square off against division-leading Arizona at the U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix at 8 p.m. tonight. The game presents an opportunity to win five consecutive games for the first time and to announce to the rest of the AFL that Utah has a brand new bag.
"I think that we've got a great opportunity to make that quantum leap (as championship contenders) this season," James said.
In the grand scheme, it's just another challenge in James' mind. And don't expect any "Goosebumps," R.L. Stine, 'cause James isn't scared.
Blaze on the air
Utah Blaze (10-5)
at Arizona Rattlers (12-3)
Today, 8 p.m.
US Airways Center
TV: KMYU (9 p.m. delay)
Radio: 97.5 FM
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