I'm used to seeing Doug Bills in red and blue. It was strange seeing him on the sidelines last week at Rice-Eccles Stadium dressed like a bumble bee. But there are a whole lot of folks in eastern Utah who think the freckled guy from Mapleton looks mighty fine in black and gold (black and yellow to me) the colors of the Union Cougars.
A year ago Union had a 3-6 mark and was winless in Region 10. This season, under Bills, the Cougars were 9-3, won a share of their league crown and advanced to the 3A semifinals for the first time in 16 years. The season is over now for Union, but up through last week's game with Judge, the town of Roosevelt was boiling with Cougar football fever.
"I think the town shut down today while we had the game here," Bills said after Union's disappointing loss. "The people have just been nuts. They've been awesome all year long."
Bills decided to leave his post as Springville's head coach last spring after 17 seasons. Originally, he was planning to spend a few years teaching and coaching in Las Vegas to help supplement the early buyout of his Nebo School District retirement. He had an assistant job lined up and was one day away from closing on a home in Vegas when folks in Roosevelt asked him to consider the Union job instead. The promise of a well-paying job for an energy company to subsidize his coaching stipend helped persuade the veteran coach to remain in Utah.
"It's been refreshing to be somewhere new and to get out and work with new people and new kids and accomplish different things," Bills said.
Almost every coach who stays with the same job for a long time begins to have detractors and become a little under-appreciated. Some speculate that that's why Bills took Sheryl Crow's advice and decided "a change would do you good."
At Union, however, Bills is anything but under-appreciated. I've had some Roosevelt people tell me that Bills could run for mayor and probably win. Even after the Cougars had their worst showing of the year against Judge, Union's fans were not abandoning ship but were still appreciative and celebrating a remarkable season.
"We love Duuug. We love Duuug," I heard some Union students chanting as the final seconds ticked away.
Several coaches from around the state have been complimentary of Bills' much-deserved success at Union. Bingham coach Dave Peck was among the first to offer congratulations at Rice-Eccles last week. When Bills walked out of the locker room following his final post-game talk of the season, there waiting for him were a dozen or so coaches and friends from Springville.
"I don't feel like I coach any different (at Union) than I have any other year," Bills said.
From what I could see, he's right. When a receiver ran a wrong route, Bills let him know it. When the official missed an obvious defensive holding call in the end zone on a critical fourth down, Bills gave the man in stripes an ear full. But just as he's always done, moments after unleashing his short almost-childlike verbal tirade, Bills was calmly instructing, encouraging and complimenting his players.
Every Union player left the field that day disappointed in losing, but not one had his head down. One by one, they walked past Bills and received a pat on the shoulder pads. Each one ended the season knowing they had made their coach and community proud. Even though he's been in the business for a long time, Bills said it was extra rewarding this season so see Union's players get that taste of success.
"All I really did was give them confidence and show them that they could win. But they are the ones who went to work and got the job done," he said.
Union people are hoping this year's confidence and success carries over for a few more seasons. They're also hoping that it will be a while before they again have to go off in search of another football coach. From what I was told, they have nothing to worry about. Bills is pretty happy with his new double-duty gig. And from what I can see, he and the town make a pretty good fit.
"I don't know what opportunities are out there, but I plan on being back at Union next year," he said.Sometimes all it takes to keep a good coach is to just show a little more appreciation. Just ask the people in Roosevelt.