SALT LAKE CITY — Ron McBride could recruit the stripes off a zebra, it’s as simple as that. He would introduce himself as Coach Mac and the kid would be all ears. Then McBride would talk about the player, rather than the University of Utah, its coaching staff or even team members.
He would visit with the parents about their son's successes, both on and off the field. They would also discuss things that might concern the player. Even big-shot athletes have worries. Often at that point the deal was done.
Everyone felt safe in Mac’s affable protection.
“His ability to connect with parents in recruiting was uncanny,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
McBride didn’t talk much about himself, though now he might have to. He joins Jim McMahon, Michelle Fellows-Lewis, Billy Casper and Marv Fleming as an inductee into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame on Tuesday. After being hired as Utah’s head coach in 1990, he became the school’s first winner since Wayne Howard abruptly left in 1980. Also, he was the first coach since Bill Meek (1968-73) to beat BYU more than once. He took Utah to six bowl games in 13 years, including its first in 28 seasons.
“I’m honored,” McBride said via telephone this week.
You could almost hear him scuffing his feet in modesty.
“This is really great.”
McBride is in the hall largely because he knew how to beat BYU. His three consecutive wins in 1993-95 marked the first such streak since a four-game run in 1968-71. Although he was Utah’s head coach for 13 seasons, going 88-63, he was a Ute assistant before that. So he knew the mandate: beat BYU and go from there.
“I knew that (much) as an assistant; I knew if I couldn’t beat BYU, I wasn’t going to last very long,” he said.
McBride went 6-7 against BYU, which was energizing for Utah fans. But that improvement also may have been his downfall. Once he started beating the Cougars, administrators wanted more. A 5-6 mark in 2002 cost him his job, even though his swan song was a win over BYU.
Still, he had put the program on solid ground. Coaching smash-mouth football was a trademark of McBride’s; recruiting was another. Whittingham says when Utah went to its first BCS bowl in 2004, “80 percent were Mac’s recruits.”
That included current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. Utah visited Helix High near San Diego to see NFL-bound tailback Reggie Bush, along with several others. Then-assistant Craig Versteeg called McBride and told him the team didn’t pass much, because of Bush’s talent, but he liked Smith’s skill and understanding.
All it took was a McBride visit to seal the deal.
But McBride’s most noted recruiting success was in the Polynesian community. His style was as open as the South Pacific. He bonded with players by sometimes wearing a lava-lava and flip-flops during training camp.
Occasionally recruits chose other schools, yet liked McBride so well they pointed high school teammates to Utah.
McBride’s Polynesian connection began in the late ‘60s when he was at Gavilan Junior College, then UC-Riverside. Among his recruits was Louie Fiatoa, who went on to play in the World Football League.
“His parents, I don’t know if they knew the difference between UCLA and UC-Riverside,” McBride said. But they did know the difference between a phony recruiter and the genuine Mac.
That carried over to Utah, where McBride set a long-term plan.
“I knew Utah was a sleeping giant. Too many coaches came in with the idea they’re not going to be there very long,” McBride said.
After Utah he joined the staff at Kentucky, then became head coach at Weber State for seven years, leading the Wildcats to the Big Sky title in 2008. He reluctantly stepped down in 2011, saying, “I never really saw myself retiring. I saw myself dying on the field, basically I pictured my heart blowing up and somebody hauling me off."
Instead, they’re putting him on a podium in a suit and tie, next week. He’ll stand there looking uncomfortable, wishing he were wearing sweats. He’ll say some self-deprecating things and tell a few stories. Then everyone will go home, many wishing they could have played for Mac.
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