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Is Crowton BYU’s Air-apparent?

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CHICAGO -- Gary Crowton couldn't help but cheer as he watched BYU defeat Washington Thursday night on ESPN.

Crowton, the new offensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, enjoyed watching Cougar freshman receiver Chris Hale (like the coach an Orem High graduate) catch the winning touchdown pass -- almost as much as he enjoyed watching the jubilant reaction of Chris' dad, Val."It was neat to see Val as a proud father," Crowton says. "I'm just thrilled for him."

Crowton and Val go a ways back. In high school, Crowton was the star quarterback and Hale was one of his favorite receivers. "Chris is a lot faster than his dad," Crowton said.

Maybe one day Crowton will coach Chris Hale at BYU. When LaVell Edwards retires, Val Hale, BYU's athletic director, will lead the search for a replacement. Right now, Hale says, Crowton is considered one of the leading candidates. If, that is, he wants to be a candidate.

And if Crowton becomes the next head coach at BYU, it would mark the return to his roots. He's taken quite an improbable journey already.

It's a humid August night, and Gary Crowton is ensconced in his spacious, air-conditioned office at Halas Hall, headquarters of the Chicago Bears. Crowton, the team's new offensive coordinator, is explaining to a visitor how he, a Utah native, wound up working for one of the most storied franchises not only in the National Football League but in all of professional sports. Sometimes it sounds like he can't believe it himself.

"Think about it," he says. "The Chicago Bears. Dick Butkus. Mike Ditka. I gave out the Brian Piccolo Award this year. This is one of the original NFL franchises."

The previous night, his Bears had won a preseason game over the St. Louis Rams at Soldier Field and put up 38 points in the process -- a very good sign. At age 42, Crowton is living a dream. Until he was hired by head coach Dick Jauron in January, he did not have any previous NFL experience. He is excited by this new challenge, which officially begins today when the the Bears host the Kansas City Chiefs.

Over the past 15 years, Crowton's been a coaching nomad, with stepping-stone stops in far-flung locales like Ephraim, Macomb, Ill.; Durham, N.H.; Boston; Atlanta; and Ruston, La. At each stop, he has basically hung out a shingle that read, "Have explosive offensive play book, will travel."

Of course, there were difficult times. He remembers well how he started on the bottom rung of the collegiate coaching ladder at Snow College. He taught institute classes, served as a resident assistant, coached for free for three months and cleaned the local post office at lunch time and in the evenings to make ends meet.

At Western Illinois, he contracted a rare illness caused by working himself too hard. Doctors told the fatigued Crowton to look for another profession, and he nearly did. He remembers the scant salaries, the days laboring in obscurity, his car without air conditioning.

But those days are over. He is in football nirvana with Da Bears.

Much of Gary Crowton's story can best be explained as much by what did not happen to him as what did.

Crowton grew up in the shadows of BYU. He was an eyewitness to the inception of what would soon become an institution -- LaVell Edwards' passing game. Crowton wanted to become a Cougar quarterback.

Didn't happen.

Years later, he served as a student assistant on BYU's football team and longed to be a graduate assistant.

Didn't happen.

He has applied a couple of times to become an assistant coach at BYU.

Didn't happen.

Of course, it doesn't help that turnover on Edwards' staff usually coincides with Haley's Comet. In 1995, when it appeared BYU offensive coordinator Norm Chow might be hired as Hawaii's head coach, Edwards contacted Crowton. "I would have gone to BYU if Norm had left," he says. Chow stayed put and Crowton went elsewhere.

It's now ironic that Crowton is the leading candidate to replace Edwards and that BYU would have to woo him to get him back in Utah.

Despite being rebuffed by BYU in the past, Crowton harbors no ill feelings toward the school. Quite the contrary. "I love BYU," he says. "I was a young coach. Just because someone tells you no a few times, you can't stop knocking. None of that has ever bothered me. Throughout my career when there was a job I wanted, I couldn't get it. Then when I could have it, I had outgrown it."

Perhaps a year or two from now he'll be saying the same thing about the BYU job if he's able to transform Chicago's woeful offense into an NFL juggernaut.

Will it happen?

Crowton is widely considered one of today's hottest coaches and one of the brightest offensive minds in football. He's also not shy about airing it out.

"Not many people love the passing game as much as I do," he confesses. Except at the base of Mount Timpanogos, where the Crowton watch is up to simmer.

It could be a perfect fit. Crowton is a devout member of the LDS Church, his grandfather coached at BYU, and his extended family lives in Utah. He's got that connection with Val Hale. Plus, those who know him well compare him to none other than Edwards.

Not that Candidate Crowton is concerned about the future. "I never worry about that," he says. "There's timing involved. I am concentrating on what I'm doing now. If I don't, I won't be here very long. When it happens, we'll see."

Oh yeah, and he sounds a lot like Edwards, too.

To many Cougar fans, Edwards' would-be successor is a mystery man -- an Air Apparent who materialized out of nowhere. In reality, he's one of those overnight sensations who've been years in the making.

"He's been around," says Crowton's father, Dave. "He's been under some good coaches. He learned considerably more being out of state than he would have staying in Utah. He's never been afraid of anything. He's willing to take chances."

Airborne recruit

Crowton was born in Provo and was converted to the passing game at an early age. His grandfather coached at BYU with Chick Atkinson, back in the Dark Ages of BYU football history. "I listened to my dad and grandfather talk about how BYU couldn't win because of the standards and missionary program," he says.

Then came Edwards. Crowton particularly remembers a 1973 game at Cougar Stadium that he attended, when quarterback Gary Sheide's first pass was a bomb that went for a touchdown. Crowton was officially hooked. "When they went to the pass," he says, "they started winning."

"It was exciting to see the air-it-out philosophy. It got in his blood," Hale says.

Crowton aimed to be a Cougar quarterback before BYU was known as QB U.

When he was a senior at Orem High, coaches at the school switched from the wishbone to a passing attack to capitalize on Crowton's talent. "We threw the ball a lot and opened it up that year," says Hale. Crowton ended up leading the state in passing.

He had a blast calling his own plays. As it turned out, he was one of several promising quarterbacks being recruited by BYU. The Cougars seemed interested, but on letter-of-intent day BYU signed two quarterbacks, Marc Wilson and Danny Hartwig.

"I went and saw LaVell, and he wanted me to come to BYU and change to defensive back or receiver," he says. "But I wanted to be a quarterback. So I told LaVell no."

Hartwig ended up transferring. All Wilson did was break numerous NCAA records and guide BYU to its first top-10 ranking in history.

Crowton went to Snow College, where he became a junior college All-America. In his senior season, the Badgers were ranked No. 1 in the nation in passing and among the top five in total offense. After his two years were up in Ephraim, he fielded offers to play at Kansas and Washington. No offers came from BYU. No, the Cougars had Wilson and some other kid named McMahon.

One of the assistants at Snow was Dave Arslanian, now the head coach at Utah State. At the time, Arslanian's father, Sark, was coaching at Colorado State, and that's where Crowton transferred.

In 1977, BYU was playing CSU in Fort Collins. Wilson, a sophomore, was making his first start, and he threw for seven touchdown passes as the Cougars won, 63-17.

A BYU legend was born, and Crowton had a front-row seat. Crowton played the third and fourth quarters as a quarterback. With the game out of reach, he was instructed to hand the ball off. But he wanted to beat BYU so badly he started calling his own plays and was finally yanked by the coaches. "I got in trouble," he says.

When his collegiate football career ended, Crowton lasted three days in the Denver Broncos' training camp. Later, he served a mission to Korea. After that, still not a college grad, he traveled to Idaho State, where he obtained a partial scholarship there to run track. Then he enrolled at BYU to finish up classes and work as a P.E. instructor at the Missionary Training Center.

Paying his dues

But he couldn't stay away from football. "I always wanted to be a player first," he says, "but I wasn't good enough." So he earned a degree at BYU and set his sights on coaching.

"I begged LaVell for a student assistant job," Crowton says. "Finally, he let me come out for spring ball. I listened to Chow, (offensive line coach Roger) French and I kept notes. I studied. I tried to find ways to win."

Edwards, who was good friends with Crowton's grandfather, Dave, remembers Gary as being "very eager to learn." A graduate-assistant position Crowton was vying for was awarded instead to Pete VanValkenburg, a former Cougar running back who led the nation in rushing in 1972. Crowton was disappointed, but Edwards recommended him to Snow coach Walt Criner, who took him on as his quarterbacks coach. During his second tour of duty at Snow, Crowton met his wife, Maren.

Maren, a Bountiful native, didn't know exactly what she was in for at first. "In the stands I always thought, if you want a cake life, be a football coach," she says. "I've eaten my words."

An adventurous person herself, Maren stood by her husband. "He knew where he wanted to go," she says. "He said Snow was a stepping stone for where he wanted to go. I believed he could do it. He knew what he wanted." But it took a while. "At first, it was hard for him to get looks from other schools," she says.

In 1987, Crowton left Snow for Division I-AA Western Illinois, where he stayed just one year (coaching future NFL receiver Don Beebe) before becoming the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, another Div. I-AA school. The Wildcats led the Yankee Conference in passing all three years he was there.

Crowton's first big break came when he was hired by Tom Coughlin at Boston College as a quarterbacks coach. After three years at B.C., he interviewed for the head coaching job at Duke. Fred Goldsmith was offered the position but declined, and Crowton felt he would be hired. Then Goldsmith reconsidered and took the job with the Blue Devils.

Next stop? Georgia Tech, where Crowton worked as a co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for one year. Though the Yellow Jackets finished the campaign No. 21 in the country in passing, the entire offensive staff was fired.

Eventually Crowton was asked to become offensive coordinator at Division I upstart Louisiana Tech, which was better known as Karl Malone's alma mater than as a football powerhouse. He got the job partly through a recommendation from Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, whom Crowton has never met. Meanwhile, Duke called again, offering him $35,000 more to be its offensive coordinator. But he had already said yes to Tech.

In Crowton's first season, the Bulldogs upped their per-game scoring average from 15 to 29 points and finished 14th in the country in total offense with basically the same personnel they had the previous season. The following year, he was elevated to his first head-coaching job and gave the school president a short-term commitment, telling him that if BYU asked him to be its head coach, he would take it.

A Mormon coaching in the Bible Belt stronghold of Ruston turned heads, but more for his team's play than his personal beliefs. In three seasons, he compiled a 21-13 mark, including a sparkling 9-2 record in 1997 that featured the school's first win over an SEC team (at Alabama) since 1968. With President Bill Clinton in attendance, the Bulldogs almost knocked off Arkansas on the road, too. Razorback officials were so impressed they later invited Crowton to interview for their head coaching vacancy. In 1998, his squad passed for 590 yards at Nebraska, a game that saw receiver Troy Edwards -- a first-round NFL draft pick last spring -- set an NCAA single-game receiving record. Behind the arm of quarterback Tim Rattay, the Bulldogs averaged 542 yards a game.

His success at Louisiana Tech sparked speculation that he would one day replace Edwards at BYU.

Going pro

At the end of the 1998 season , Crowton attended the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where he met Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. Both had coached under Coughlin, Crowton at B.C. and Jauron with the Jaguars. When Jauron was offered the Bears' head coaching job, he contacted Crowton.

"He's a tremendous human being and a bright football coach. He's got a lot going for him," Jauron says. "I liked Gary. I liked talking football with Gary and the way he approached the game."

The feeling was mutual for Crowton. He says he wouldn't have jumped at just any NFL offer. He liked Jauron's style.

Still, "he struggled with the decision because he wanted to be loyal to his assistants and make sure they had jobs if he left," Maren says. In the end, Crowton brought Mike Borich, a Bingham High product, with him to Chicago to be the Bears' receivers coach, and the rest of his assistants remained at Tech.

Borich is almost evangelical in his belief in Crowton.

"He's a guy you want to give everything you've got for him," Borich says. "I'm willing to drive across the country for free for Gary Crowton. I would go with Gary to the ends of the earth," he says of his mentor.

With the Bears, Crowton's salary ballooned from $100,000 to a reported $300,000. At the press conference in Ruston, where he announced his decision, Crowton said, "I believe the best thing for me and my family is to move forward at this time in my coaching career. This is a dream I had as a youngster, to make it one day to the NFL. It's the highest level of football, and it's where I always wanted to be."

Crowton has his work cut out for him in Chicago. He inherited one of NFL's worst offenses, ranking 23rd in the NFL in passing and 21st in total offense in 1998. He's also trying to break in rookie quarterback Cade McNown. But Bears players have taken a liking to Crowton and his style.

"It's a totally different offense. It's a lot more wide open," says Bears veteran receiver Bobby Engram. "We're using different sets and using more people in the passing game. (Crowton) is passionate about the game. He's a guy who takes chances. He's like a little kid drawing up plays on the chalkboard. You've got to like that."

The Crowtons reside in Gurnee, Ill., a small town north of Chicago. Gary and Maren are raising five children, ranging in age from three to 13. Despite his status, Crowton is not even the biggest celebrity in his own LDS ward. That distinction belongs to Glen Kozlowski, who serves in the bishopric. Kozlowski has a unique perspective on Crowton's situation, having been a star receiver at BYU on the Cougars' national-championship team before playing for the Bears.

Koz says Crowton has been well-received by Chicago fans, media and players.

"Chicago loves anybody who scores a lot of points. His offense will score a lot of points. He'll be running his offense with the best athletes in the world," says Kozlowski. "The players like his honesty. They say there's something different about him. Gary has the same qualities LaVell has -- he's honest and a father figure.

As much as he enjoys being an offensive coordinator, make no mistake about it -- Crowton wants to be a head coach again someday.

But will that be in Provo?

Edwards' influence

Everywhere he's been, especially when he tried building up the program at Tech as a first-time head coach, "I've tried to emulate what LaVell did," Crowton says. "You have to win with style that is representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. LaVell's done that."

He recalls Edwards talking about how he was going to change BYU's fortunes at the time he was hired in 1972. "He said he was going to concentrate on the positives, not the negatives. He was going to throw the ball, play fewer games at night and defer the kickoff to the second half. I've tried to do all those things as a coach."

Crowton has sought advice from Edwards, and the two talk a few times a year. He has consciously patterned himself after Edwards, and it shows in the way he deals with players, the media and other coaches. "He reminds me a lot of LaVell in terms of loyalty, to staff and others," Hale says. "I have never heard him say anything negative about anyone he's worked with."

"He's a very people-oriented person," Maren says. "He's so diplomatic. He words things so well and he knows how to motivate people. He never loses control when he's coaching."

Edwards knows all about Crowton, of course. "He has prepared himself well," he says. "Success in coaching is all about being in the right place and doing a good job. He has taken advantage of his opportunities."

Diplomat Crowton says it's flattering that he's mentioned as a possible replacement for Edwards but believes those currently on Edward's staff, whom he knows well, should be given first consideration. "I hope LaVell keeps coaching for a long time," he says. "When he leaves, he'll leave the program in good hands."

Still, Crowton's roots are in Utah. He and his family spend one month every summer in Utah in a condominium they own near the mouth of Provo Canyon. Crowton likes golfing with his good buddy Hale.

"I think Gary would very much like to be the head coach at BYU," Hale says. "The question is whether the timing is right."

Could happen.