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COCOON PART III? BELNAP RETURNS AT 63

EVER SINCE DUTCH BELNAP was named athletic director at Weber State two weeks ago, people have been asking him why he took the job. Why, at age 63, he would want to reacquaint himself with the nuances of a four-alarm migraine. Why he'd prefer counting ulcers to counting days until retirement. Why he'd take a job that can, well, age a person.

"Somebody asked me about my age. I'm 21 years younger than (LDS Church) President (Gordon B.) Hinckley and he has a bigger job than I do," says Belnap. "I'm about eight years younger than Bob Dole and he thinks he wants to be the President of the United States."Certainly there are tougher jobs and older men to be found. But being athletic director at any school isn't easy. You have to formulate schedules that provide good competition and retain fan interest, yet don't result in large numbers of losses. You have to deal with the increasingly difficult job of balancing the budget. There are ever-present concerns over compliance with Title IX, making sure everyone gets an equal opportunity. Then there's the ongoing problem of hiring coaches.

Just the kind of job stress most people wouldn't want - at any age.

But after 15 years away from athletics, Belnap wanted back in. He needed the adrenalin rush. He wanted to feel his pulse quicken again as the ball went up. In effect, he wanted to be back to watching the clock and sweating out the final outcome. "I never thought I'd get back into athletics," says Belnap. "When I was thinking about this - my third career change - I thought that if it doesn't kill me, I want to go out on top."

Though being athletic director at just any school didn't appeal to Belnap, being the boss at Weber did. Their history together goes back 63 years. Born in Ogden, he played basketball and baseball at Weber junior college. He began his coaching career at Weber High.

Through the years, Belnap has always kept an interest in Weber and its athletic future. He applied for the A.D. post three years ago when it went to Tom Stewart. He recommended several times that Weber hire current basketball coach Ron Abegglen to get the Wildcat basketball program rolling again.

The presence of Abegglen and other Weber coaches was a major factor in Belnap's decision to take the job. With the football program off the endangered species list, and the strong showing in men's basketball, he figures Weber has a solid foundation.

If Belnap's name doesn't sound familiar, you're either too new to Utah or too young to remember his coaching days. After working as an assistant at USU, Belnap became the head coach in 1973, going on to produce the best winning percentage in Aggie basketball history (106-58, .646).

Belnap was as colorful as he was successful. Pacing the sidelines during games, he was notorious for grasping his neck with his hands after a non-call - signifying the officials were choking on their whistles. He also loved to swing his necktie around behind his head and pull it up like a noose as the officials ran past.

"He was one of the most naturally funny guys I ever met," says Weber sports information director Brad Larsen, who was a student at Utah State when Belnap was head coach.

Comical as Belnap could be, coaching major college basketball took its toll. He resigned after the 1978-79 season, in part due to the stress of the job.

Which begs the question of why he would take the Weber post. Only a year ago, the Wildcats were in a desperate struggle to save a football program that was losing some $800,000 a year. Football was saved, but the struggle isn't over. Weber's athletic programs still lost an estimated $130,000 last year.

"Sometimes at my age, and at this stage your tendency is to say you don't need this," says Belnap.

Whatever the challenges, it's hard to argue with the choice of Belnap. Besides his ties to the school, he spent most of the last 15 years working as a vice president at First Security Bank. His job included marketing a wide range of financial services.

Not surprisingly, Belnap is back in the business of marketing. It's just a different product. He intends to spend the bulk of his time raising money and fan support. There is also the pressing matter of Weber and the Big Sky Conference. With Idaho and Boise State moving to the Big West, and Nevada already there, speculation has arisen over whether the Big Sky will remain a viable conference or break into fragments.

Belnap may even consider moving Weber up to I-A football status and joining another conference, if necessary. "We're not satisfied with the status quo," he says.

So as he begins his first official day on the job Monday, Belnap is sounding more like a guy ready to bolt from the gates than someone waiting for retirement. "I'm not ready to eat soft mush and walk in the mall every morning," he says.

A guy who maybe doesn't need that kind of stress but is willing to risk it for the chance to go out on top. That is if it doesn't kill him.