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