Ron McBride was late leaving practice. He was late arriving at the mid-afternoon press conference. He was late getting back to his hotel room. He's been running late for a week now. He'd be running even later if he tried to return all his telephone messages.

Whoever said you couldn't go home again isn't riding shotgun with McBride at the Freedom Bowl. The University of Utah head coach is back where it all began, and then some. This is home all right. Maybe he has been true to his profession and coached just about everywhere - from Wisconsin to Arizona to Salt Lake City, his adopted home.But his roots are still here. This is where he grew up. This is where he had his paper route, delivering the Los Angeles Mirror. This is where he learned to play football and where the idea germinated that he would like to make his living at coaching. This is where he landed his first three jobs - high school, junior college and four-year college. This is where he hooked up with Wayne Howard, which is what got him to the Salt Lake Valley in the first place.

"It's been great being back," says McBride, smiling. "It's really been something."

In between Utah's bowl preparation, McBride has been on something of a nonstop reunion. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day it was team, family and Disneyland. Sunday night it was the old players and coaches from the Cal State-Long Beach and Cal-Riverside days. Monday night it was the old players and coaches from the South Gate High days.

"I've seen people I haven't seen in 30 years," said McBride. "My high school coach, Joe Semanario, he's 78 now, he came to practice Tuesday. He's some man. More than anyone else, he's what got me into coaching."

As a center/linebacker for the South Gate High Rams, McBride and Semanario once hooked up for 21 straight wins. Not that they talk about that much these days at South Gate. The area has changed a lot in 30 years. McBride grew up on Illinois Ave. in South Gate, on the border of Watts. Back then he delivered the Mirror on his bike all around the area that would come to be known as South Central.

Now, he can't envision delivering papers on his bike in that part of town. "I don't think so," he smiled. "It's a different time."

He parents, Donald, a purchasing agent for State Steel, and Emeline, a housewife, have both passed on and his brother, Don, has relocated in Detroit. All that's really left are some cousins. And the memories of course. Good memories. Great memories.

McBride can't disguise it. He likes his roots and he's glad to be back among them. Last year's bowl game in Tucson was a homecoming of sorts, since he coached at the University of Arizona for three years. But this, this is a REAL homecoming, with a game against the University of Southern California thrown in for good measure.

"Jeeminy Christmas, USC!" he says, not hiding his enthusiasm. "When I was growing up, USC and UCLA, they were like unapproachable."

He's happy to play the Trojans. He's glad they're the opponent, even if they are 17-point favorites. "Everywhere we go is somewhere Utah hasn't gone before," he says. "We'll take whatever we get."

The 200 tickets he has handed out like free passes to Disneyland are testament enough to that. He could have used a lot more, but 200 at least made a dent in his family and friends. There will be a Ron McBride section in Anaheim Stadium all right. When the Utes do something right, you'll know where they are.

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In the meantime, McBride will soak it all in while he can. He'll return as many calls as possible. He'll size up as many ex-players, ex-coaches, and ex-supporters as he can possibly remember. He has always been a people person, and this is the result.

After his Tuesday press conference at the Anaheim Hilton, McBride was stopped by a man who stuck out his hand and said, "I'm Jimmy Woods."

"Jimmy Woods!" shouted McBride as he hugged his high school fullback. "I haven't seen you in 30 years."

Wherever the Ute coach was headed next, you can be sure he was late.

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