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Courtesy SUU
New SUU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton works with the Thunderbirds during spring drills in Cedar City. Crowton was the head coach at BYU for four years.
I’m excited. I love the kids, I love the challenge, and this is what I enjoy doing. —Gary Crowton

CEDAR CITY — The Wizard is back.

Inside Thunderbird Stadium at Southern Utah, Thursday’s session of spring practice is about to begin. Players are warming up like ants at a picnic. In the center of it all, new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Gary Crowton is decked out in a black cap, black T-shirt and black shorts. Ditto for black shoes and black socks. He glides around, barking out instructions with a plastic armband on his right forearm that displays practice goals.

Music blares over the stadium speakers throughout practice as head coach Ed Lamb surveys the setting, thrilled to have Crowton and his caravan of experience in camp and on contract. Echoing across the field and ricocheting off the seats and scoreboard is Michael Jackson’s hit song “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”

Propelled by Jackson’s melodic falsetto, the lyrics spread across the artificial turf in a wave.

"I hear your voice now/ You are my choice now/ The love you bring/ Heaven's in my heart/ At your call/ I hear harps/ And angels sing/ You know how I feel/ This thing can’t go wrong/ I can’t live my life/ Without you."

Cedar City is the latest stop for perhaps the most-traveled native college coach in the history of Utah sports. In a business of nomadic coaches, SUU is ecstatic to welcome Crowton, the Bedouin whose career has been filled with legendary stops.

Crowton has coached football at every level, from his latest stint at Winnipeg in the CFL, to the ACC’s Maryland and Boston College and a national championship ring with LSU of the storied SEC. He’s been at Oregon, BYU, the NFL’s Chicago Bears, Louisiana Tech, Georgia Tech, New Hampshire, Western Illinois and Snow College in Ephraim.

That SUU found Crowton comfortably laid back in his new St. George home in Snow Canyon and convinced him to coach the Thunderbird offense in 2014 is a very big deal in this town.

“I’m excited. I love the kids, I love the challenge, and this is what I enjoy doing,” said Crowton, projecting a wide smile and squinting steel blue eyes.

“It’s really cool for us,” said Lamb. “It’s great for our staff because we get his stories and his perspective. He’s said a few times he wishes he’d never left Louisiana Tech. There are better facilities and things seem bigger at other places and sometimes our guys get caught up in that too.”

As far as Lamb can tell, Crowton is having the time of his life. “From moment one, if anybody had any questions about if Gary was coming out of retirement or was serious about coaching here, they learned he is deadly serious about winning here.”

SUU quarterback Ammon Olsen, who transferred from BYU after the 2013 season, said even though it’s only been a few weeks, it seems like Crowton has been with the Thunderbirds forever.

Nicknamed “The Wizard” by LSU players, Crowton’s impact has been immediate in Cedar City.

“He’s a genius,” said Olsen. “His mind goes so fast, but I love how it works and his offense will do extremely well for us down here. It’s fast-paced, but it enables us to read the defense. It utilizes all our talent and skill with the running backs and receivers.”

Olsen’s first week at SUU, former BYU quarterback John Beck called him and explained how Crowton’s mind worked and how the veteran coach would really be good for him. “I got really excited. Watching film with Coach Crowton, you learn something new every day. He really helps with progressions and how somebody is open on every play.”

Crowton left the CFL midseason 2013 and returned to St. George. That’s when SUU athletic director Ken Beazer told Lamb that Crowton was just hanging around 45 minutes south and he ought to check it out. Beazer played for Crowton at Snow College. A few phone calls later, they had an agreement but held off on an announcement in case Crowton got a call for an NFL job.

“He could have done a lot of other things for more money, but he really wanted to coach here,” said Lamb. “He’s still getting paid under contract from Winnipeg.”

Crowton feels the SUU love. Lamb was his graduate assistant when he was BYU’s head coach. Beazer and SUU provost Brad Cook played for him at Snow.

Football is tattooed on Crowton’s DNA and always will be. He’s had chances to do other things in life, even make more money outside football. But like a magnet, the game always draws him in. In all his years, he says the biggest takeaway has been the players — it’s always about the players. “It’s about your relationships, trying to help them become better players and people and you cultivate those relationships.”

Lamb challenged his team to be the strongest squad around and implemented a six-day conditioning program, promising his players he’d do it all alongside them. Crowton didn’t blink an eye at the challenge and with Lamb does all the lifts in the weight room the players do, six times a week.

Crowton said his goals for SUU include implementing his fast-paced spread passing attack. He may throw in a little option and let his quarterback run.

The veteran coach has run many offenses. He brought the read-option to Oregon, bringing in a friend at New Hampshire, Chip Kelly. “I don’t take all the credit for what they’ve done, but I helped install that offense,” he said.

During four years at LSU, the Tigers played conservative, big-boy, power football. They limited offensive plays but pounded the ball, keeping the defense fresh, wearing down opponents, and winning in the fourth quarter.

At BYU, with the use of Brandon Doman and Luke Staley, Crowton got the Cougars to an undefeated 12-0 record in 2001 before losing at Hawaii. With the right personnel in Provo his first season, Crowton triggered an explosive offense, similar to the one he had at LA Tech, albeit with less of the zone read-option.

Crowton likes to run things wide open — because, as he puts it, “it’s more fun.”

At Baton Rouge, things weren’t always wide open. Even so, Crowton said he loved his time at LSU and claimed he’d still be there if he hadn’t gotten sick.

He was jogging one day and developed pleurisy in his lungs. “Doctors thought I had some tumors, but it was pleurisy. Then after that I had a hernia that required surgery. One day I got hit in practice and knocked two teeth out and broke my wrist. That required 11 screws in my wrist. I just got worn down from those injuries and traveling. I developed two blood clots, one in my leg. My lung collapsed and I developed pneumonia, so they put me in the hospital. I knew I was really sick.

“It was the the physical grind at LSU that led me to leave.”

At Maryland in 2011, Crowton quickly had a disagreement with the head coach over treatment of players and just didn’t feel healthy. Those two things led Crowton to hold back on signing a contract. The athletic director learned of the delay and let Crowton go. The contract was worth a million dollars for two years.

“We parted ways and that’s when I went to the CFL in 2012. I didn’t have to recruit and had six months to get well, rest and get back in shape.”

Crowton carpools with another coach from St. George to Cedar City and Lamb says he hasn’t missed a weight room workout session yet. He and his wife Maren have four daughters and three sons. He currently has a son on an LDS mission. His son recently graduated cum laude at USU.

Crowton says he keeps in contact with his coaching friends, including BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, whom he hired to coach the Cougar defense. “We trade texts about every week during the season.”

When at BYU, he also brought in current inside linebackers coach Paul Tidwell, defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi and former offensive line coach Jeff Grimes, whom Crowton helped get a job at LSU after he was the O-line coach at Auburn and Virginia Tech. Crowton hired current BYU quarterback coach Jason Beck to help at LSU, where the Crowton offense set LSU school records for yardage, points and plays run in a BCS championship-winning season.

Crowton said he and Lamb are on the same page as to what he wants to do with the offensive style and sets.

Any mad scientist stuff?

“Well, at times. It works in practice,” he laughed.

Gary Crowton's coaching career

1982 Brigham Young (GA)

1983 Snow College (DB)

1984-1986 Snow College (OC)

1987 Western Illinois (OC)

1988-1990 New Hampshire (OC)

1991-1993 Boston College (QB)

1994 Georgia Tech (co-OC)

1995 Louisiana Tech (OC)

1996-1998 Louisiana Tech (HC)

1999-2000 Chicago Bears (OC)

2001-2004 Brigham Young (HC)

2005-2006 Oregon (OC)

2007-2010 LSU (OC)

2011 Maryland (OC)

2012-2013 Winnipeg Blue Bombers (OC

2014-present Southern Utah (OC, QB)

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.