PROVO — Gary Crowton is finally returning to where he started from, back to his roots. After traveling an improbable, circuitous route, he's coming home.

Crowton, 43, is succeeding LaVell Edwards as head coach of the BYU football program — an official announcement is expected to come tonight. It's been Crowton's dream job. But when the Orem native enlisted in the precarious coaching profession nearly two decades ago, ascending to these heights was only a dream.

Now, it's reality.

He appears to be the perfect fit. He's a devoted husband and father to six children, a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a firm believer in throwing the football.

Yet his rise to this high-profile position only seems meteoric. In truth, it's been a long journey to the top. For years, he's been a coaching nomad, with stepping-stone stops in far-flung locales like Ephraim; Macomb, Ill.; Durham, N.H.; Boston; Atlanta; Ruston, La.; and Chicago. Basically, he has hung out a shingle that reads: "Have explosive play book, will travel."

Crowton remembers the tough times on the bottom of the coaching food chain. He's paid his dues. He remembers the sacrifices when he began: the scant salaries, the days of laboring in relative obscurity.

But he never lost sight of his career goal. He always wanted to be at BYU — in some capacity. At various times in his life, Crowton tried to become a BYU quarterback, a BYU graduate assistant and a BYU assistant coach. But things never worked out.

Ironically, it was BYU that had to woo Crowton to take its head coaching job. After all, coaching in the NFL, as he has been doing the past two seasons as offensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears, also was a dream job.

While growing up in Orem, Crowton, whose grandfather was a golf coach and assistant football coach at BYU, watched with great interest the development of Edwards' high-flying passing game. In 1973, at the age of 16, Crowton remembers attending a BYU game during which quarterback Gary Sheide's first pass was a bomb that went for a touchdown. From that moment on, Crowton was officially hooked on throwing the football.

Naturally, he wanted to become a Cougar quarterback. Before his senior year at Orem High, he helped convince his coaches to switch from the wishbone offense to a passing attack. He and BYU athletic director Val Hale are former teammates at Orem High. Crowton was a quarterback, Hale his receiver. Crowton led the state in passing that season.

BYU was interested in him, to a certain extent. Unfortunately, the Cougars also were recruiting two other quarterbacks, Marc Wilson and Danny Hartwig. When both players signed with BYU, Crowton had a talk with Edwards. "He said he wanted me to change to defensive back or receiver," Crowton said in a 1999 interview with the Deseret News. "But I wanted to be a quarterback. So I told LaVell no."

Hartwig ended up transferring. Wilson ended up breaking a slew of NCAA passing records. Meanwhile, Crowton enrolled at Snow College, where he quietly became a JC All-America. During his senior season, the Badgers led the nation in passing and were among the top five in total offense. When his time was up in Ephraim, he was recruited again. But not by BYU. The Cougars had Wilson and another guy named Jim McMahon.

So Crowton transferred to Colorado State, where he played both quarterback and defensive back. He'll never forget the day in 1977 when the Cougars played the Rams in Fort Collins. Wilson, a sophomore, made his first start and threw seven touchdown passes. BYU won, 63-17.

When his playing career ended, Crowton harbored hopes of going to the NFL. He lasted three days in the Denver Broncos' training camp.

That was followed by a two-year LDS Church mission to Korea. After returning, he enrolled at Idaho State (where he received a partial track scholarship) because he still didn't have a college degree. He finished classes at BYU, where he earned his bachelor's degree in physical education in 1983.

It was at BYU that Crowton received his modest start in coaching. "I begged LaVell for a student assistant job," he remembered. "Finally, he let me come out for spring ball." As a volunteer, he absorbed everything he could, keeping copious notes while learning from Norm Chow, Roger French and Mike Holmgren.

But Crowton was disappointed when he learned that a graduate assistant job he had applied for was awarded to someone else. Edwards, though, was looking out for Crowton and recommended him to Snow coach Walt Criner. Crowton returned to his alma mater and eventually became the quarterbacks coach.

For the first few months at Snow, he coached for free. To make ends meet, he taught LDS Institute classes, served as a resident assistant and cleaned the local post office at lunch time.

Also while there, he met his wife, Maren. "He knew where he wanted to go," Maren has said. "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 at first, it was hard for him to get looks from other schools."

Crowton left Snow in 1987 for Division I-AA Western Illinois, where he lasted one season. It was a tough year. He contracted a rare illness caused by working himself too hard. Doctors told him to find a new profession, and he nearly did.

But he stuck with football and became 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.

His break into Div. I-A football came in 1991, when Boston College coach Tom Coughlin hired him as the Eagles' quarterbacks coach. His three seasons there were impressive enough to get him an interview for the head coaching job at Duke. Originally, Fred Goldsmith was offered the position but turned it down. Crowton believed he was going to be hired. But Goldsmith reconsidered and became the Blue Devils' coach.

Meanwhile, Crowton moved on to Georgia Tech as a co-offensive coordinator and QB coach. Though the Yellow Jackets finished the 1994 season No. 21 in the nation in passing, the entire offensive coaching staff was fired.

As usual, Crowton bounced back. He joined the staff at Div. I-A upstart Louisiana Tech as its offensive coordinator. In his first season in Ruston, La., in 1995, the Bulldogs improved their scoring average from 15 to 29 points per game and finished 14th in the country in total offense — all with basically the same personnel they had the previous season. By 1996, Crowton was promoted to head coach. But there was one stipulation in his contract: if BYU offered him its head coaching job, he would be allowed to accept it.

In his three seasons at the helm at Tech, the Bulldogs compiled a 21-13 record, including a 9-2 mark in 1997. That year, Louisiana Tech recorded its first-ever win over a Southeastern Conference school — at Alabama — since 1968.

In 1998, Louisiana Tech rolled up 598 yards at Nebraska. Behind the arm of quarterback Tim Rattay, the Bulldogs averaged 542 yards per game.

Crowton's resounding success at Louisiana Tech sparked speculation that he would one day replace Edwards at BYU.

By late 1998, another opportunity came around. The Chicago Bears' newly hired head coach, Dick Jauron, contacted Crowton about joining his staff. Crowton wouldn't have jumped at just any NFL offer, but he liked Jauron's style. Though going to the NFL was a childhood dream, it wasn't easy to leave Louisiana Tech.

"He struggled with the decision because he wanted to be loyal to his assistants and make sure they had jobs if he left," Maren said. Crowton took Mike Borich, a Bingham High product, to the Bears as the receivers coach. His other assistants remained at Tech.

In his rookie year as an NFL offensive coordinator, Crowton inherited an offense that ranked 23rd in passing and 21st in total offense in 1998. He introduced his trademark brand of football: an innovative passing scheme that relied on quick execution out of multiple formations. Crowton was crowned as an offensive genius as the Bears finished eighth in the league in offense and third in passing.

By winter 2000, Crowton's stock had grown. He interviewed for the New England Patriots head coaching job. At the same time, rumors circulated that he might be coming to BYU as the offensive coordinator, to replace Chow, after Hale made some comments stating there would be changes in the program following a disappointing finish to the 1999 season.

When contacted by the Deseret News in January, Crowton put the rumors about being the offensive coordinator to rest. When asked if he would be interested in the BYU head coaching job someday, he replied, "Until something is placed in front of you and offered to you, you don't need to worry about it."

In the meantime, Crowton turned down a contract extension by the Bears, fueling speculation, once again, that he was leaving the door open to return to BYU. In August, when Edwards announced his retirement plans after the 2000 season, Crowton was widely regarded as the leading candidate to replace him.

But Crowton's 2000 campaign has been a disappointment. The Bears are 3-10, with three games remaining. Their offense has struggled, ranked 20th overall in the NFL. It's been 18 quarters since the Bears have scored an offensive touchdown. Chicago has been ravaged by injuries to key players, including quarterbacks and receivers.

Still, according to sources close to Crowton, one of the main reasons why his hiring at BYU has taken this long is his desire to be loyal to the Bears.

Once the season is over, he'll immerse himself in the task of being BYU's head coach. He'll be following in the enormous shadow cast by Edwards, the man after whom Crowton has patterned his entire coaching philosophy. People who know Crowton well say he reminds them of Edwards. It's no accident.

"I've tried to emulate what LaVell did," Crowton has said. "You have to win with style that is representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. LaVell's done that.

"I remember when LaVell was hired in 1972. He talked about how he was going to change BYU football. 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."

After a long and winding journey, he has come back home. Finally, it's Gary Crowton's turn at BYU.


E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com