Cookin' With Coach

by John Youngren

Perhaps it should come as no great surprise to learn that the University of Utah football team's approach to recruiting is about as informal as Coach Ron McBride.

That's not to say the Utes aren't organized or their efforts aren't coordinated. In fact, McBride as much as admits that recruiting is an ongoing process, in many cases beginning with a youngster's first visits to the U as part of a junior football camp featuring McBride and his coaches.

"We don't ever take anything for granted," says McBride, entering his tenth year as Utah's head coach this fall with a deserved reputation as one of the top recruiters in the school's history. "Recruiting at Utah is not a simple item."

While the U has experienced more success than ever in recruiting for football since achieving improved success on the field-four '90s bowl appearances and a host of former Utes playing professional football certainly don't hurt-there are still some tricks to bringing kids to Utah that are inherently linked to, well, Utah.

One is the LDS Church influence on the program, at least from the standpoint that many of the Utah-based athletes McBride is trying to attract are also thinking about going on Mormon Church missions at some point in their Ute careers.

"You basically always have to be looking three or four years down the road [in terms of needs]," McBride says. "You've got to make sure you have a [scholarship] available for when the kid comes back from his mission. You can't over-recruit for any given position."

In other words, the athletic program has to be versatile enough to absorb the comings and goings of Mormon missionaries over a several-year span-all the while handling the unexpected injuries, mercurial phenoms, unavoidable burnouts, and unfortunate washouts that any major collegiate athletic program will surely endure.

"We really have to think about it differently than other schools," McBride says. "The mission thing simply throws another wrench in the system."

It's a system that McBride and his staff have honed during the past decade-and one that exhibits the imprint of McBride's previous experiences on coaching staffs at other schools, including Arizona, Wisconsin, and in two prior assistant coaching stints at Utah.

"You get ideas of recruiting from all the different people you work for," McBride says. "You can see what works, what doesn't work."

What works for McBride is a personal commitment to recruiting—both in his involvement from a staff perspective (in aligning the "big picture") and in his folksy, regular-guy charm, of which he makes full use (as much as he legally can, under restrictive NCAA regulations) in face-to-face visits with parents and teenagers considering Utah.

Utah's success in other arenas helps, too. For example, attention from the national media to Rick Majerus' NCAA-bound basketball team keeps the Utes in the headlines, and every time former Ute Jamal Anderson BS'95 rumbles into the end zone for the Atlanta Falcons, he makes a big impression on future recruits.

With all that in mind, the current Utah coaching staff generally looks for in-state players with an interest in attending the U first, then tries to build a team around them. Every coach on McBride's staff is generally involved in recruiting-and there is no such thing as randomness or luck. McBride and his staff continually assess where a potential recruit is in his decision-making process, then promote aspects of the football program that may play into his personal priorities. They try to match up coaches and recruits, taking into consideration personalities, attitudes, and backgrounds.

"You look at the key guys and say, 'What buttons do we push?'" McBride says. The Utes mix and match the coaching batch in an attempt to keep fresh faces before their possible recruits. A prospective linebacker, for instance, may meet linebacker coach Fred Whittingham one week and spend time with Fred's son, defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham, the next. If a student-athlete wants to talk about academics, the Utes will unleash longtime Utah assistant Sean McNabb on him and his parents. If the student-athlete wants to talk about details of the U's football program, assistant head coach Fred Graves will handle it. Each of the coaches brings his own personality and expertise to the recruiting process, and each tries to address the very different needs and concerns of individuals the U hopes to attract.

In Utah, recruiting actually begins informally a number of years before any letter of intent is drafted. That's one reason McBride and his staff run youth football programs each summer. Nearly 2,000 kids between the ages of 10 and 17 will drift through the Utes' training program at one point or another, and that opportunity to see the U's football facilities and coaching staff in action is another way of not-so-subliminally selling the program years before the deal must be closed.

"I look at everything at Utah as a plus," says McBride, who eschews talk about a lack of minorities in the greater Salt Lake City area and the supposed dominance of the LDS Church, two factors that sometimes serve as turnoffs to potential out-of-state recruits.

"You want to get all that stuff out there and address it right away," McBride says. "Parents want an environment where their kids will be safe, where they'll get a quality education, and where they'll have a future. We can provide all those things."

McBride's success and reputation with high school coaches, parents of older children, and others connected with the Utes over time comes into play, too. That's why, for example, the Utes have become known for their large number of recruits from Hawaii and portions of California and Arizona.

Like anyone, McBride goes with what he knows. He was an assistant coach for more than 20 years before being tapped to head the Utes, and he has worked the backroads and dirt roads of college coaching.

When it comes to the "Hawaiian connection," for example, McBride and his team have grown to know a host of prep coaches throughout the state, and the present Utes have benefited from previous Utah athletes with connections to the Islands, like Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Donny Utu, and Kautai Olevao.

Salt Lake City's large Polynesian community has also served as something of a lure to the Hawaiian athletes, another reason McBride and his staff have continued to find success recruiting there over the years.

"Sometimes, you've got to go on history," McBride says, explaining that ties with coaches and families with whom he's had past success will frequently lead to future recruits. "If you know the coaches, that certainly helps."

So does having ties in different areas of the country that may not be regarded as hotbeds of football activity but nevertheless have proven to be fertile ground for collegiate recruiting. McBride counts portions of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, and Montana on such lists in his personal recruiting file, but also points out that he and his current staff of Ute coaches have connections in less obvious portions of the country, like Sarasota, Fla., and Mississippi.

"We work really hard at it," McBride says of his staff's recruiting efforts, which target Utah-based youngsters first and foremost, despite the long list of cities and places above. "Recruiting is a personality game. If you can make it an emotional choice [for a potential recruit], then you've got a chance."

So McBride and his staff like to keep things personal, informal, and emotional when dealing with a potential recruit, especially during a campus visit and other key recruiting periods.

During a typical Utah recruiting trip, for example, a large part of the time will be devoted to individual academic planning-including devising a plan for freshman through senior years. Recruits have dinner with current players, then ski or snowboard on Saturdays, because McBride wants to show off what makes living in Utah unique.

Saturday nights typically feature a recruiting dinner at the coach's house, where McBride spends individual time with each athlete and tries to keep things as honest and laid-back as possible. "We try to make them feel like they're at home," McBride says of these visits.

Those Saturday-night McBride dinners are quite typically family affairs, given that the coach's wife, Vicky BS'82, and some of the McBride children are also involved.

"My wife is a really good recruiter," Ron says of Vicky, who has been with him through the trenches for his 40 years of football. "She understands the game, she understands the people, and she understands the players. She's also the best at recruiting parents."

All that said, there are still times when one gets away. Enrolling at a university, when it comes down to it, is an extremely personal, emotional decision, one that no amount of planning, plotting, and playing can quite anticipate. For most youngsters, choosing where to attend college is the first major lifetime decision—the first of many choices about relationships, families, careers, and futures. So it's no surprise that sometimes an 18-year-old will blink, no matter how highly recruited or well meaning he is.

"We've had surprises both ways," McBride says, remembering the teenager who signed two letters of intent to enroll—and ended up living up to the one that didn't say Utah. Or other recruits he thought were in the bag, who would suddenly call and say they'd decided to attend somewhere else. Many times, religious, family, and academic considerations only mean so much. When it comes down to it, the youngster simply may have had something else in mind, hadn't taken the recruiting too seriously, or had a lifelong ambition to play for another school that was interested in him. All are things that are out of McBride's control.

"As I get older, I get a little more philosophical about it," McBride says. "But you can never relax. Especially once you've got them committed. That's when you have to make sure you follow through."

John Youngren BA'88 has written a number of previous articles for Continuum.

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