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Ricks football is still missed

In the two years since Ricks College football became extinct, Dixie State and Snow have taken advantage of the void by bolstering their respective rosters with athletes who, in the past, probably would have enrolled at Ricks.

"We used to battle Ricks for a lot of the same kids, along with Snow," says Dixie State coach Greg Croshaw. "On our team, we have six or eight kids Ricks would have gotten. Snow and Dixie are splitting those players Ricks used to get. They've made a big impact for us and for Snow."

Between now and this summer, Croshaw notes, as many as 10 players who were previously at Ricks before departing for LDS missions will be returning home. Needless to say, Dixie State and Snow, two highly successful junior college programs, will go head-to-head for the services of those players.

Then again, the sword cuts both ways. The Rebels and Badgers lost a huge rival in Ricks. All things considered, Croshaw wishes the Vikings were still around.

"It was very difficult to see them go," he says, wistfully. "I saw them for 20 years. It was a great rivalry. If I had to mark down the top 10 games in my coaching career, Ricks would have been involved in five of them."

For a couple of decades, Ricks College stood as one of the giants of junior college football. The Vikings, relying heavily on Utah high school products, won numerous conference championships and regularly sent players to Division I programs, including, of course, BYU. Some of those players went on to the National Football League.

The beginning of the end came during the summer of 2000, when the sponsoring institution of the Rexburg, Idaho, school, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced that Ricks would phase out its athletic department and change its name to BYU-Idaho. LDS Church leaders decided to replace intercollegiate athletics with an expanded student activities program. At the conclusion of the 2001 season, the Vikings' football program closed up shop.

Not that the Ricks program was on the decline. Quite the contrary. The Vikings won consistently and drew relatively large crowds to their games. In 20 years at the helm, coach Ron Haun posted a 178-40-2 record. Dating back to 1984, his teams were nationally ranked in the top 15 of the National Junior College Athletic Association's final polls 16 times.

The Vikings, in fact, thrived to the finish. In their last campaign in 2001, they turned in a 10-1 record, including a season-ending 49-21 victory over previously unbeaten Lackawanna College of Scranton, Pa., in the Real Dairy Bowl in Pocatello. It marked the swan song of Ricks football. Just like that, a JC dynasty disappeared.

The impact of Ricks' vanishing act has been widely felt throughout the state of Utah, with aftershocks touching many high school and college programs.

The Ricks pipeline

For Aaron Roderick, it's strange to think that the football program at his alma mater, Ricks College, does not exist anymore. Heck, even the name Ricks College doesn't even exist anymore. How does he explain that one to his kids?

What he laments most about the termination of Ricks' program, though, is that local high school players have fewer opportunities to play college football. "The biggest loser in all this are the kids in Utah and Idaho," Roderick said.

Especially those LDS athletes with untapped potential and those who are not heavily recruited out of high school. Roderick can relate. "A lot of schools don't want guys who go on missions," he says. "A lot of players who came out of Ricks didn't get much publicity in high school. Ricks was the ticket to get noticed."

Roderick knows all about that firsthand. He was a standout at Bountiful High, but not many Division I schools are interested in 5-foot-9 wide receivers. So he signed with Ricks.

Roderick was one of hundreds of Utah high school players to take the Rexburg route. Which made sense, considering the proximity of the LDS school and the predominantly LDS region. Besides, Haun had plenty of northern Utah connections. A Utah native, he landed at Ricks in 1979 following highly successful stints at Skyline and Murray high schools. He made Utah a recruiting priority. League rules restricted Ricks from having more than 20 Utahns on its roster in a given year, and Haun usually had the maximum number of Beehive State players.

After serving a two-year LDS mission, Roderick broke all of Ricks' kick and punt return single-season records, was named to the National Junior College All-America team and ended up transferring to BYU in 1996. Because both Ricks and BYU are LDS schools, with religion classes and honor codes, it wasn't hard to adjust. "School was an easy transition. I was prepared for that. When I first arrived, I felt totally prepared by my experience at Ricks," Roderick says.

Football was a smooth transition, too. "The offense Ricks was running was almost exactly the same offense as BYU's," Roderick explains. Meanwhile, BYU's defensive coordinator at the time, Ken Schmidt, had been the head coach at Ricks before Haun. The defense he ran with the Cougars was similar to what Ricks was running under Haun. "For players who transferred from Ricks to BYU, you walked in and knew what was going on from Day One. Ricks was unique," Roderick says.

Rexburg was a place where LDS players, particularly late-bloomers, could develop and prepare for football on the next level. While Ricks was a prominent feeder school to BYU, BYU wasn't the only four-year school that mined Ricks for solid athletes.

The Vikings churned out an impressive crop of players, such as defensive lineman Jason Buck, who won the 1986 Outland Trophy at BYU before enjoying a seven-year NFL career. Tight end Greg Clark, from Viewmont High, matriculated to Stanford and, later, played for the San Francisco 49ers.

From 1986 through 1999, 196 Ricks College football players transferred to 55 four-year schools, including Missouri, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Memphis, Hawaii, Utah, Utah State and Weber State. At least 30 players (or 16 percent) found a home at BYU.

Now, that Ricks pipeline has dried up.

Adjusting to the times

With the Cougars having suffered back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in more than 30 years, every possible reason for the slide has been scrutinized. Has the discontinuation of Ricks played a role?

"It's affected BYU a little," Roderick says. " It's a hard question. It's too early to tell. BYU has been struggling, but it's too early to say if that's a factor."

BYU recruiting coordinator Mike Empey, who served as the head coach at Snow in 1999, acknowledged Ricks' absence has made recruiting a little more difficult for the Cougar coaching staff.

"It's impacted us in terms of convenience — finding players who are great fits," Empey says. "Ricks had a good tradition. Ricks is similar to BYU and what is required, such as an honor code. It was nice to have a school we could partner with. We sent guys to them and they sent guys to us. We have to look harder now, at other places like Snow and Dixie. At BYU, we have the same kind of kids from Snow and Dixie."

Empey and Roderick stress that Utah and Idaho high school players have been affected most by the discontinuation of Ricks football.

"It means fewer chances for them to play," Roderick says. "It used to be a great option for them."

"It has to be devastating for families around the state," Croshaw said. "If I wasn't coaching at Dixie, being LDS, Ricks would have been the place I would have sent my own kids (two of his sons played for him at Dixie State). Now, kids and their families are looking for a place as close to that environment as possible."

If prompted, Haun would have no problem declaring that St. George fits that bill quite nicely — only with much better weather than Rexburg. Other local schools are employing a similar recruiting pitch.

After completing his eligibility as a player, Roderick embarked on his coaching career. He served as a graduate assistant at BYU and an assistant at Snow. Today, he is the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks/receivers coach at Southern Utah University, a four-year school that targets the type of in-state high school talent that Ricks traditionally signed. "We're trying to capitalize on that at SUU," Roderick says.

Four of the six coaches at SUU, including head coach Gary Andersen, who just completed his first season in Cedar City, either coached or played at Ricks. Some, like Roderick, did both. "When we started here last year, we decided to try to win with guys Ricks used to get," Roderick says. "We're recruiting the same kind of player. We make our living with in-state players, very similar to do what Ricks used to do. That's no secret."

Missing Ricks

Despite the influx of talent, because of Ricks' demise, into Croshaw's program, the Vikings would still be playing football, if he had his way.

"They were our biggest rivals, along with Snow," Croshaw says. "It used to be we'd have one great rivalry game at home every year, with either Ricks or Snow. Now, we only have that big rivalry game at home every other year. There were two games on the schedule everyone wanted to know about — Ricks and Snow."

Over the years, Dixie State might have won even more conference crowns without Ricks in the mix, but that doesn't matter to Croshaw. He misses his rivals from Rexburg. "I hated to see Ricks go away," he says. "That rivalry and excitement took a backseat to no one. Then it disappeared."

Now, colleges and high schools around Utah are learning to deal with the disappearance of Ricks football.


E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com