OGDEN — Thanksgiving came a couple of weeks later than usual for the Weber State football program.
And then Christmas nearly came a couple of weeks early for the Wildcats.
When it comes to giving thanks, WSU fans should be mighty darned grateful that their dynamic head football coach, Jay Hill, signed a new contract extension with the school a few days ago.
Hill's new deal, which could keep him in charge of the Wildcats' football fortunes through 2023, comes as a relief to stressed-out Weber State fans who were worried their guy might soon be leaving for greener pastures.
Because, let's face it, when it comes to coaches' salaries, it definitely is NOT a level playing field.
So WSU fans had every right to be concerned that, on the heels of such a memorable season, coach Hill might leave. After all, at the Football Championship Subdivision level, Weber State simply can't afford to pay its coaches the kind of money they'd make down the road at Utah and BYU, or up the road at Utah State, or for that matter at any other Football Bowl Subdivision school.
Heck, in 2014, after Hill's first season at Weber State, he lost his offensive and defensive coordinators for less-prestigious yet much higher-paying jobs at BYU and Utah, respectively.
And after putting together arguably the greatest season in Weber State football history this year, it stood to reason that some other, bigger college football programs with much deeper pockets would likely come calling for Hill's services.
And hey, who could blame them? In 2017, the Wildcats wound up with a school-record 11 wins, a share of the Big Sky Conference championship, and a pair of wins in the FCS national playoffs.
And that's where that early Christmas present was almost delivered. On Friday night, the ’Cats had undefeated, defending FCS champion James Madison University on the ropes in a quarterfinal playoff clash. Weber State led 28-20 with less than three minutes remaining, and after JMU tied things up at 28-all with 2:08 to go, it looked like the two teams might very well be headed for overtime to decide it.
But the Dukes, benefiting from the home-field advantage and a critical officiating call that cost the ’Cats a touchdown at the end of the first half, pulled out a 31-28 victory (their 25th in a row) on a last-gasp field goal, denying Weber State a chance to reach the championship semifinals for the first time in school history.
Despite that disappointing defeat, Weber State still finished 11-3 overall and put together what might be the most impressive seven-week stretch in the program's history. It started with a 41-27 home-field victory over perennial Big Sky power Montana, followed by a huge 28-20 road win over a strong Eastern Washington squad. Then came an overpowering 63-17 victory at Portland State, followed by a 35-7 win at home against Idaho State and then a gritty 21-19 home-field playoff win over a solid Western Illinois opponent.
The Wildcats then avenged one of their two regular-season losses by going to Southern Utah and, after trailing 10-0 early, coming away with a 30-13 victory over the Thunderbirds, who had shared this year's Big Sky title with WSU.
Friday's near-upset over James Madison capped a tremendous seven-game run by the ’Cats, and it'd be awfully difficult to find a better Weber State stretch than that — ever.
Coach Hill and his staff have done a terrific job of turning this program in the right direction and keeping it on that course. Keep in mind that, in Hill's first season at the helm, the Wildcats went 2-10 — their third straight two-win season.
Since then, though, they've produced three consecutive winning seasons with records of 6-5, 7-5 and now 11-3, and they've posted an impressive 18-6 Big Sky slate over that span.
Indeed, Hill has a high level of energy, enthusiasm and no-nonsense expertise that has changed the culture of WSU football.
And somehow, he's been able to do so even in the face of extremely challenging adversity as the love of his life, his wife Sara, has courageously battled cancer in the form of Hodgkin's lymphoma over the past year and a half.
When Hill came to Weber State in 2014, his goal was to build a program that was a consistent winner every year, a program that could contend for the conference championship and make a deep postseason playoff run. In just four years time, he, his assistant coaches and the WSU players have certainly done that.
Now, the 42-year-old Hill has more FCS playoff wins (two) than any coach in Weber State history, a list that includes highly successful and well-respected guys like Ron McBride, Dave Arslanian and Mike Price.
Chances are coach Hill won't stay at Weber State forever. Even though his new contract calls for him to keep coaching the ’Cats through 2023, if he continues the program's current trajectory — and I have every reason to believe he will — there's a strong possibility that, sometime over the next few years, some big-time program will come along that wants his services and is willing to pay the penalty and buy out his contract.
Most coaches, faced with that decision, would quickly take the money and run.
That doesn't necessarily have to happen, though.
WSU head basketball coach Randy Rahe has also been extremely successful for more than a decade and has certainly had opportunities to leave for a higher-paying job elsewhere.
But fortunately for Wildcat fans, Rahe has chosen to stay because he's decided that "Weber State, Weber State, great, great, great!" is much more than just one of the school's favorite cheers.
Hopefully, coach Hill will come to that same realization. But even if he doesn't, he has this program in a place where it's always wanted to be, but a place it has often struggled to sustain — as a consistent winner and title contender.
After Friday night's disheartening playoff loss, Hill told reporters: "I am so proud of what this season was."
Weber State's players, coaching staff, athletic officials, students, fans, alumni and the entire Ogden community have every right to feel exactly the same way.