Utah football coach Ron McBride realizes that whenever he dines with Rick Majerus, the experience could take all night.
“After an appetizer, another appetizer, a huge meal and then us talking for a while, we’re usually there for three-to-four hours,” McBride joked.
The two coaches – and good friends – share jokes, beers and similar war stories in the land of the Mormons. After all, they have a lot in common.
Both coaches came to Utah in 1990 to transform the Utes’ basketball and football programs from Mountain West Conference obscurity to national prominence. And their records speak for themselves.
Majerus has never had a losing season, leading the Utes’ basketball team to nine appearances in the NCAA tournament and the 1998 Final Four.
And while McBride may not have the medical history of heart bypasses or the reputation of crafty one-liners to the press that Majerus does, he’s quietly put Utah football on the map.
Since he took over, McBride has won 83 games – second most in school history – and led the Utes to six bowl appearances in the past eight years.
And how’d he do it?
“He’s the ultimate motivator,” said Michigan assistant coach Fred Jackson, who was an assistant coach with McBride at Wisconsin in the early ’80s. “He always had the knack to find out how players tick and push their buttons the right way to get the most out of them.”
Jackson revealed how McBride, an offensive line coach at the time, helped four Badgers’ lineman make it into the NFL while still finding time to tutor the last guy on the bench in technique.
“I bet if you ask any one of his players ever, they’d all say they love playing for him,” said Jackson, who’s still great friends with McBride. “He’s fair with you, and you always know where you stand.”
His player-friendly coaching approach is partly why Jackson thinks McBride snagged top prospects like former NFL tailback Jamal Anderson and Detroit Lions’ defensive tackle Luther Elliss to Utah, when he had to compete with the likes of UCLA, Southern Cal and Oregon.
McBride will “do anything for his players,” said Utah quarterback Lance Rice. “You see former players coming around all the time. I grew up coming to these games. That’s what excited me about coming here.”
But a humble McBride shifted the focus, as per his reputation.
“Our players also do a great job recruiting kids while they’re on campus, but the school’s reputation and graduation rate speaks for itself,” McBride said.
Hold it: McBride said he likes to establish the run, but Utah can’t do that fumbling the ball. That’s why one of McBride’s key motivational drills deals with ball security. Every day the Utes go through three strenuous drills right after warm-ups to work on holding the football. And even after that, he said some players need extra drills.
“We have two guys who carry the football everywhere they go on campus,” said McBride, who would not release the identity of the two players with butterfingers. “And there’s a very stiff penalty if they don’t bring it back to practice.”
The strategy worked for the Utes last season, as they fumbled just once while finishing 12th in the nation in rushing offense (218 ypg). But this year, McBride’s team has already fumbled twice in three games, and he said they will feel the wrath in practice if the fumble-itis isn’t cured soon.
“They’ll be running up-downs for quite a long time, let me say that,” McBride said.
Opportunity knocks: McBride’s teams have won bowl games, finished in the top 25 several times – including No. 8 in 1994 – but big wins over major programs like Michigan are what can legitimize lesser-known programs fast.
And although McBride has never been to the Big House as Utah’s coach, he has his own opinion about its atmosphere – or lack thereof.
“It’s not a real raucous type of crowd” McBride told the Salt Lake Tribune this week. “It’s more like a going-to-the-symphony kind of crowd. They kind of get up and clap at the same time, and sit down at the same time.”
But if the Utes can shut up the crowd and sneak out a victory, it could mean wonders for McBride’s program.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to be on a huge stage and face a storied program like Michigan,” McBride said. “We will really find out where we’re at.”