The University of Utah couldn't have picked a more fitting opponent for its 2008 homecoming game.
The Utes will welcome former Utah coach Ron McBride and his Weber State Wildcats for their homecoming game on Saturday at 6 p.m. It will be McBride's own personal homecoming and his first official appearance at Rice-Eccles Stadium since he was fired as Utah's head coach at the end of the 2002 season.
McBride is looking forward to being back at Rice-Eccles, although it may be awkward for him to run out of the visitors locker room, pace the opposite sideline he's accustomed to, and wear Weber State purple.
McBride will have a tough time generating any ill feelings toward the team he's facing. The 26 years he spent at Utah, 13 as the head coach during the 1990-2002 seasons, aren't tainted, in his mind, by how his tenure at the school ended.
"I got good feelings toward Utah," McBride said. "All my kids graduated from there, my wife graduated from there, my daughter-in-law graduated from there. They gave all of my former players an education and the players that we brought in there developed the program to where it is today. We built an outstanding life there, and an outstanding football program that's carried itself to where it is right now."
The Utah football program is in outstanding shape. The Utes beat a traditional national powerhouse in their season opener in Michigan, are ranked No. 17 in the nation, and are 4-0 for the first time since their BCS-busting season in 2004.
The roots of the Utes' success can be traced to McBride's 13-year tenure as head coach.
"I have a great deal of admiration and respect for Coach Mac," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "The bottom line is he really resurrected the Utah football program. He took it from obscurity and put it back on the map."
People seem to forget, and younger fans may not realize just how perennially mediocre the Utes were before McBride took over as head coach prior to the 1990 season. When Utah played against Washington State in the Copper Bowl in 1992, it was the Utes' first bowl bid in 28 years.
Utah went to three bowl games in 97 years before McBride was its head coach. It went 31 years between 1964 and 1995 without a share of a league championship.
"Utah was a soft program, an underachieving program and a program that was
going nowhere," McBride said. "Their expectations weren't that high. When they hired me they said, 'Well, if you cannot embarrass us against BYU and be in about the middle of the league, and be respectable you can stay here as long as you want.' The bar was low. The expectations were they just didn't want to get embarrassed on Saturday."
Setting the bar low, or in the middle of the conference pack, wasn't going to work for McBride.
"I kind of laughed to myself because I knew being an assistant coach before (at Utah) what it could be if it was done right," McBride said. "You have to have a plan and stay long enough to implement the plan. Don't be in any hurry, take it one step at a time. We had our ups and downs, but we worked through the ups and downs and could play against anybody."
McBride's first priorities as Utah's head coach were to develop a tougher football team and recruit players who loved football. He took the Utes to two-a-days at Camp Carbon so that his players would train near the hard-working class of people in Carbon County to help develop some toughness.
In his first recruiting period, McBride told his assistant coaches to get him seven or eight players who considered playing football to be the top priority in their lives.
At Weber State, McBride has had to confront a similar rebuilding project. He's now leaving his imprint on another program that's always struggled to be respectable. The Wildcats haven't won a share of the Big Sky championship in 21 years.
"He's done a good job," said Jerry Graybeal, Weber State's athletic director and former football coach. "You got to put your own touches on things. He's gone about the last three years in his way ingraining his philosophy and approach to football. It doesn't just happen with a magic wand."
The Wildcats look to be in the early stages of a massive resurrection project, just as the Utes were. Weber State won its conference opener against a tough team in Sacramento State, and truly have a realistic shot at winning the Big Sky championship this season.
"He's been here long enough now to where you're starting to see the fruits of his labor," Graybeal said. "This team, I think, is more talented than any team they've had here in quite some time."
Still a Utah man
It's human nature to want to see something fail after you leave it. But McBride wasn't that way about Utah. He closely followed the Utes after he was let go following the 2002 season. He was Kentucky's linebackers coach during the two years Urban Meyer took the Utes to unprecedented heights.
From SEC country, McBride said he rooted for Utah to get there.
"I owe a lot to the University of Utah for a lot of personal reasons," McBride said. "A lot of times when coaches leave a school they don't want the school to do well because it makes them look bad. When I left there I was hoping they would fulfill everything I wanted to fulfill as a coach. I was really pleased with everything that happened."
"I felt really good because I left it in good shape," McBride continued. "I left it with a positive slant with good players and guys who were tough, so whoever came in there had a chance to succeed and whoever followed him would have a chance to succeed."
Of course, McBride would have liked to have been a part of the BCS-busting season in 2004.
"Who knows if I would have had the same success or not." McBride said. "Would they have been as good or would we have taken it to the same heights they took it to? You don't know. At least you would have liked to have the opportunity. That's business. You learn that it's a business. You can be in love with them, but they're not necessarily going to be in love with you because you're expendable. It's a business, it's not a love affair. Just because if you're passionate about it, bust your (butt) 16 hours a day every day and build something special it's still a business."
McBride wasn't shocked when he was fired by the Utes. He knew he was on the hot seat during the 2002 season. He said before he was let go he was given the chance to resign. He just couldn't do it.
"It would have been a good deal because I could have kept my car, kept my country club membership, kept this, kept that, and did something for the university, and I think that they would have probably made it a more positive spin," McBride said.
"But I just didn't feel that was something I could do. If it was on my own doing and I felt that it was the right thing then I would have felt about better about it. Financially, it would have been better, and just for your legacy and all that stuff it would have been better, but I couldn't do that. I basically knew what was going to happen and I tried to make it as tough as I could for them."
If there's anything McBride is hurt by regarding Utah, it's that he's never been invited back to the school. He attended a Utah-BYU game at the school once after his firing, but it was just as a fan.
"Maybe I feel bad I was never invited back," McBride said. "No one ever called and said, 'Hey, would you like to come to this game?' Once they fired you, you didn't belong there. It's like you just dropped off the face of the earth. I'm sure if I had gone out the other way then I would have always had ties to the university and been portrayed in a different fashion. Still, I got no animosity at all good feelings really. It was a big part of my life. Everybody thinks I got some axe to grind and I don't. I just got to compartmentalize it and go from there."
McBride, 68, is in the final year of a four-year contract at Weber State. He said he hasn't given much thought to whether he'll come back when this season ends.
It would be hard not to because the program appears to be in great shape. Weber State's best player, quarterback Cameron Higgins, is only a sophomore and holds a lot of promise for the future. But McBride isn't sure, at his age, if he's the right guy to continue the rebuilding project.
"This is a hard job," McBride said. "You got to kind of tear it all the way down and build it back up. The thing is I'm not 40 years old anymore or 45 or late in my 50s. I'm on a whole different segment of my life. That's what's hard. Time's running and so you don't always feel good every day. You don't always have the same energy you need to have every day."
McBride says he doesn't look ahead, and it's believable when he says it. He said he's only looking to Saturday's game, and seeing a bunch of old friends in a stadium he loves.
Whittingham said he hopes McBride gets a "very positive" reaction from fans on Saturday."He's responsible for the resurgence of this program," Whittingham said. "I've said it 100 times. In '04, when we did so well the vast majority of the guys we played with were his recruits, and so he deserves a great deal of credit for that."
Mac's top Utah moments
Dec. 29, 1992: The Utes played in a bowl for the first time in 28 years when they faced Washington State in the Copper Bowl. Utah lost, 31-28, but it was an important step for the program to take.
Nov. 20, 1993: McBride's Utes beat BYU in Provo for the first time. Chris Yergensen kicked a 55-yard field goal as time expired to give Utah a 34-31 win.
I've been in that stadium too many times as an assistant coach where you get your (butt) beat and everybody kind of makes fun of you, McBride said. To beat them like that was a huge statement. It was OK, we can beat them on their home turf in a tough game. After that the series became basically even.
Dec. 18, 1999: McBride got a particularly sweet 17-16 win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl. It came against his friend and Bulldogs coach Pat Hill, and was due to a dominant performance by his offensive line and running back Mike Anderson, who rushed for 254 yards on 34 carries.
Dec. 25, 2001: Just as USC's current college football dynasty was returning to its powerhouse state, the Utes downed the Trojans in the Las Vegas Bowl. It was a physical, hard-hitting contest and Utah won 13-6 in McBride's final bowl game with the Utes.
They (Utah's administration) wanted us to play some chumps, North Texas State or something, McBride said. I said no, no, no. We want SC, and we want them on Christmas Day. It was a slugfest, and we won the battle of the trenches and won the battle of toughness with them. They had great players, but on that day we were the better players.
Dec. 27, 1994: The Utes stunned Arizona, 16-13, in the Freedom Bowl despite getting just five first downs and gaining 75 total yards of offense. Quarterback Mike McCoy completed a desperation 5-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Dyson for the winning score.