Maybe the one thing that gave Doug Berry an edge as a successful high school football coach is that his own playing career didn’t come easily — it just looked that way. For one thing, his father, Rex, was an All-Pro defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers, so the assumption was that there was a certain amount of DNA in his success as a player.
In reality, Berry, who will be inducted into the Distinguished Coaches Hall of Honor later this month by the Utah Sports Hall of Fame, was an undistinguished high school player. Through hard work, persistence and attention to details, he became a small-college All-American, all of which would serve him well many years later as a coach.
Exactly nobody offered Berry a scholarship following a quiet prep career as a skinny 6-foot-1, 150-pound receiver, All-Pro dad or not. At Jordan High, he split playing time and won no postseason honors. That wasn’t enough to dissuade him from calling coaches at Southern Utah State College (now SUU) and asking for a tryout.
He convinced his buddy, Lee Benson, who would go on to become the finest sports columnist of his generation at the Deseret News, to join him at SUU. They drove to Cedar City in the fall of 1966 and signed up for school. Berry was too late to try out for the football team that season, so he spent the next few months preparing for spring practice. He recruited Benson to throw passes to him, or convinced his father, Rex, to drive to Cedar and throw passes to him while Benson defended Berry.
“Let’s just say I gave him a ton of confidence,” says Benson.
Berry, a late-bloomer who started college at the age of 17, tried out the following season, weighing nearly 170 pounds (195 by his senior year). He not only made the team but he became a star. He was the leading receiver in the nation among small colleges and broke every school receiving record in the books — records that stood until the passing era arrived more than three decades later. His marks still rank high on the school’s all-time receiving lists. Berry wasn’t especially quick or fast — “My best 40 was 4.7 — the old possession receiver,” he says. He succeeded because he ran textbook routes and caught everything in his reach.
“I think because of that, Doug could identify with kids who weren’t yet ready to play but he could see their potential and develop their skills,” says Benson.
Berry was offered free-agent tryouts with the 49ers and Chiefs and chose to try out with his father’s old team. He was among the last to be cut, and then he left football behind, or so he thought. He worked in public relations for the city of Anaheim, California, for a year before he was offered a teaching/assistant coaching position at Brighton High.
As Berry recalls, “I thought, I went to school to do this, so I better give it a go.”
A year later he was offered the head-coaching job at his alma mater, just a few weeks before the 1973 season started. “I didn’t know if I was ready to be a head coach, but I couldn’t turn it down,” says Berry. Despite his doubts, he took Jordan to the state semifinals in 1976. Two years later, a new school opened its doors and Berry was hired as its first head football coach. He guided Alta to state titles in 1983 and 1988.
After 20 years as a head coach, Berry resigned in 1992. That might have been the end of it, but in 2006 an intense, energetic new coach named Les Hamilton arrived at Alta. Berry watched an Alta game one Friday night and, as he tells it, “There was so much energy. The whole atmosphere was different. I thought, This is kind of cool.” When Hamilton got wind of it, he invited Berry to coach receivers and special teams. The Hawks won two more state titles, in 2007 and 2008. As Hamilton liked to tell his players, “Doug Berry is Alta football. He’s been a part of every state championship the school has won.”
Berry, who retired again in 2014, nearly left the prep ranks earlier in his career. In 1984, BYU offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who had seen many of Berry’s players star for the Cougars (Troy Long, Darren Handley, David Mills), urged him to interview for a job on the BYU staff. Berry lost out to Chris Pella, who had just been fired by Utah State — Berry had a job, Chris didn’t, was the way Edwards explained it.
It was for the best, Berry says now. “I’m not a football fanatic,” he says. “I don’t think I could do what college coaches do, staying at work forever. I like to do other things. That’s the serious-business stage.”
Berry — genial, calm, easygoing but capable of being firm — was always a popular coach with players. As Alta athletic director Morgan Brown says, “The kids loved him. He was just always positive and had a smile on his face and was always an advocate of the kids. One of our coaches recently told me that if a kid came in angry about something — a grade or something on the field — Doug always had a way of talking to those kids so that they’d walk away feeling good. And it was not even always in their favor — most of the time it wasn’t — but they felt good anyway.”
Berry is one of six coaches who will be honored at the Hall of Fame’s annual spring awards banquet, which will be held at 6 p.m. March 26 at the Little America Hotel. The other coaches are Ray Jenson (another former Alta coach), Bruce Bitner (Brighton), Hal Hale (Jordan), Randy Rasmussen (Bingham) and Stan Young (Duchesne).
As for Berry, he continues to scratch his competitive itch by golfing, which usually includes a friendly wager (which he usually wins — at his best he was a 7 handicap). Looking back at his career, Berry says, “The best part was just being around the kids and the other coaches.”