OGDEN — Weber State coach Jay Hill is looking forward to the Aug. 30 season opener against Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“I’m excited about it. It will be fun,” he said. “That’s such a special place to me and has been since I was a player a long time ago, and then I coached in a lot of games in that stadium.”
Hill, who played for the Utes from 1998-99, was on the staff at his alma mater from 2001-13. He served in various capacities before moving up the road to take the helm of the Wildcats.
In four seasons at Weber State, Hill has posted a 26-23 record. The Wildcats are 18-8 over the past two years while making back-to-back postseason appearances. In 2017, they went 11-4, won a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and reached the FCS quarterfinals.
“I’m proud of the players and what they’ve bought into and the hard work and dedication that’s gone into it,” Hill said. “The assistant coaches have done a phenomenal job of just getting the right players in here and instilling a culture of toughness and winning. That’s something I’ll always be proud of, just what the players and coaches have accomplished.”
Hill noted the success is a vision that athletic director Jerry Bovee and university vice president Norm Tarbox had of what Weber State football could be.
“They’ve supported us through this whole thing,” Hill said. “It’s been fun to watch it grow.”
The process has a distinct Utah influence. Hill’s current staff at Weber State includes seven men with ties to the Utes as players and/or coaches — associate head coach Brent Myers, offensive coordinator Dave Schramm, defensive tackles coach Kite Afeaki, outside linebackers coach Grant Duff, running backs coach Quinton Ganther, safeties coach Joe Dale and tight ends coach Al Pupunu.
“We all come from a similar background,” Hill said. “Coach (Gary) Andersen and coach (Kyle) Whittingham down there at Utah mentored a lot of us.”
As such, Hill runs a “super similar” program at Weber State. After all, he explained, why change what brought so much success to them at the University of Utah? Hill noted that the Utes have won a lot of football games over the last 20 years.
“Now we try to put our own flavor and flair and make improvements on what we think we can get better at,” Hill said. "But yes, Gary and Kyle are probably the two biggest mentors/influences on my career that there are. There’s others, but those two are huge.”
Hill still keeps in touch with Whittingham and Andersen, speaking with both “dang near” on a weekly basis.
“I’m proud of Jay and what he’s done and what he’s doing,” Whittingham said. “They do have a lot of our former guys — players and coaches — and so they’re all good guys and very good coaches.”
The impending reunion, of sorts, adds intrigue to the season-opener for both teams.
Dale, a Utah safety from 2006-09, acknowledged it will be unique. He still has good relationships with a lot of people in the program and coaches at the U.
“So it’s definitely going to be a different experience but an exciting one for sure,” he said. “I think we’ve been looking forward to just getting back on the field, you know, in general, but it is a little more exciting going against my alma mater and with a lot of the Utah ties we have here. It adds a little bit to it.”
Ganther, a running back for the Utes from 2004-05, is also looking forward to the game.
“It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be weird,” he said. “It’s going to be different, but believe (me) we’re going in there to win. We’re not going there to lay down. That’s for sure.”
While downplaying the reunion aspect, Ganther insists he’s more eager to learn what the Wildcats need to improve on after the first game of the season.
“I want to see where we are because this is a new team,” he said. “So I want to see where we stand.”
Weber State is coming off the most successful season in program history. The Wildcats are nationally ranked and are picked to finish second in the Big Sky.
Under Hill’s direction, Weber State has posted four straight winning seasons. The success doesn’t come as a surprise to Schramm, who worked with Hill at Utah from 2005-11.
“No, not at all. He’s very focused, very driven, smart — really smart,” Schramm said. “He’s got in his mind what he wants and how he’s going to operate. He means what he says and he says what he means. He’s got a plan and he’s got steps to get the plan taken care of.”
Schramm added that Hill is highly organized and a great recruiter.
“He checks off all of the boxes,” Schramm said.
The coaches are working together for the first time since serving on Whittingham’s staff. Schramm said there’s a lot of similarities to how Hill has organized his program. Things have come from colleagues like Urban Meyer, Whittingham and Andersen.
“You always lean on your mentors. So that’s made the transition for me a lot easier. I get it. I get the playing to win. All the things that are core values,” Schramm said. “Jay’s got his own tweaks in there that are important to him. Obviously you can see what he’s done with this program in four years.”
The move has led to a colorful transformation in terms of what to wear.
“This is a place that’s become home to us,” Hill said. “So purple is something that we take great pride in.”
And that’s not the only thing. There’s plenty of determination and a mindset as well.
“We’re never going to go into a game approaching it like ‘We’re just going to go in and get our butts kicked.’ That’s not us. We’re going in there trying to win,” Hill said. “We know what the atmosphere is going to be like (in Salt Lake). We know that we’re going to have to play great. We understand that.
“But we’re not going in there just to hope we don’t get our butts kicked. That’s not our personalities. We’re going down there to give it everything we’ve got. We’re going to prepare that way and we’re going to give them everything we’ve got,” he continued.
Despite all the homecomings and such, Weber State is approaching the Utah game with a business-like approach — albeit with a twist.
“It’s a fun game for us because, like I say, that’s a special stadium to a lot of us and a special place to a lot of us still,” Hill said. “But so is this, and we have a job to do and I’ve got to get every one of these players the most prepared they can be. So it’s fun. That’s what college football is all about to me is having these kind of opportunities.”
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Weber State coaches with ties to Utah
Head coach Jay Hill
— Utah cornerback (1998-99), graduate/administrative assistant (2001-04), full-time assistant coach (2005-13)1 comment on this story
Associate head coach Brent Myers
— Utah assistant coach (2003)
Offensive coordinator Dave Schramm
— Utah assistant coach (2005-11)
Defensive tackles coach Kite Afeaki
— Utah defensive lineman (2004-05)
Outside linebackers coach Grant Duff
— Utah administrative/graduate assistant (2008-12)
Running backs coach Quinton Ganther
— Utah running back (2004-05), student assistant (2012)
Safeties coach Joe Dale
— Utah safety (2006-09), graduate assistant (2014-15)
Tight ends coach Al Pupunu
— Utah volunteer assistant (2005-07)