SALT LAKE CITY —
For those who fear the BYU and Utah football programs have stalled, and that both schools are content where they are, it should be noted that nobody has yet posted any going out of business signs.
In fact, they’re in semi-expansion mode this offseason.
If there were any doubt the Cougar and Ute football coaches are serious about winning, look at the last few weeks. Bronco Mendenhall jettisoned offensive coordinator Brandon Doman in favor of the more experienced Robert Anae. In addition, he released running backs coach Joe DuPaix and line coach Mark Weber, while longtime fixture Lance Reynolds retired. The Cougars have hired five offensive coaches since December.
Mendenhall said the split with Doman was by mutual consent, but Doman told KSL.com he’d have been content to remain as the quarterbacks’ coach. That didn’t happen, either.
Meanwhile, Ute coach Kyle Whittingham hired former national coach of the year Dennis Erickson as co-offensive coordinator. Erickson will be working with 26-year-old Brian Johnson.
So both schools have replaced or augmented their top offensive coaches this month.
Coordinating: It’s not just for pizza pals anymore.
The competition keeps getting tougher and the Utes and Cougars are responding. Utah has Oregon and Stanford on its schedule in 2013 — teams it hasn’t yet played in the Pac-12 — plus the usual South Division grinders such as USC and UCLA. BYU plays five teams from power conference, as well as Notre Dame, Utah State and Boise State.
Still, the aforementioned coaching adjustments had to be difficult. Johnson and Doman are as likable as it gets. Beyond that, they were fine college quarterbacks. Doman led BYU to a 12-2 record his senior season — including a 12-0 start — and was drafted into the NFL. Johnson led Utah to an undefeated season and was named Sugar Bowl MVP.
Now the harsh realities of coaching are in play and it’s what-have-you-done-for-us lately. Neither team consistently moved the ball last year. That was partially due to injured quarterbacks and offensive linemen. But other parts involved inexperience or indecision.
You can imagine Anae and Erickson saying to their predecessors, “Son, give me the car keys.”
Coaches seldom say who calls which plays in an offense, but there wouldn’t have been changes if Whittingham and Mendenhall were satisfied. BYU ranked 60th in total offense and 64th in scoring last year. The Utes rated 105th in total offense and 73rd in scoring.
Utah’s starting quarterback, Jordan Wynn, went down early in the season. That’s a major disadvantage. But in 2011 Utah also lost its starter, yet 65-year-old Norm Chow coaxed enough out of reserve quarterback Jon Hays to win a bowl game.
Clearly Whittingham and Mendenhall felt the need to get more experience in key spots. Anae has been coaching 27 seasons, since the year before Johnson was born. Erickson began his coaching career in 1969, three years after Mendenhall was born.
BYU’s Riley Nelson played much of last year with an injured back. But someone had to take the heat along with the QBs, so Doman and Johnson absorbed the shock. Short of changing head coaches, what else is an offensively challenged team supposed to do, dial Rent-a-Coach?
They were moves that needed to be made.
Anae was BYU’s coordinator from 2005-10. Sometimes the Cougars finished in the top 10 in offensive stats, other times not. Staff unity was reportedly a problem. He left for Arizona after 2010 and Doman moved up. But in two seasons, Doman’s offense was spotty.
Whittingham initiated his move by contacting Erickson several weeks ago. The Ute coach wasn’t about to replace Johnson, but was all in favor of accelerating his education. Last week, Erickson called Johnson “a superstar in our business.”
Rising star, maybe. But superstar? Not yet.
The changes at Utah and BYU were notable because both Whittingham and Mendenhall are renowned for their loyalty. Whittingham’s hires have mostly come from a short list of former players and locally based coaches. Mendenahall tends to hire as though picking counselors for an LDS ward, which makes sense since BYU tends to be, well, LDS.
Yet both head coaches made those uncomfortable changes by putting business above friendship, and taking the fight to the enemy. Mendenhall says top-25 rankings are a minimum goal for the Cougars. Whittingham just worries about getting past Oregon, USC and Stanford. (Beat them and rankings are sure to follow.)
Nothing says winning and friendship must be mutually exclusive. But winning comes first for Mendenhall and Whittingham. Thereafter, whoever is running the offense can be their new BFF.
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