This game can make a difference in young people’s lives in the discipline it gives them and the passion and the drive to be successful. – Utah receivers coach Guy Holliday
SALT LAKE CITY — Football is not just a game to Utah receivers coach Guy Holliday.
Growing up in Baltimore, the 6-foot-3 fatherless, biracial teen could have easily become just another crime statistic.
Instead, he became a standout football player who eventually transitioned into a veteran coach offering the same lifeline that was thrown to him as a young man.
“I could have gone a lot of different directions,” said Holliday who was hired by Utah in January to coach receivers after three years in the same job at BYU. “It was athletics that gave me the opportunity to be the person that I am. I’m just endeared to this game. It means a lot more to me than just Saturdays.”
Holliday grew up just a few blocks from the CVS Pharmacy in Baltimore that was burned during riots that occurred in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody. Raised by a single, African-American mother after his Samoan father was killed in Vietnam, Holliday said football gave him discipline, structure and an outlet for his anger.
“This game can make a difference in young people’s lives in the discipline it gives them and the passion and the drive to be successful,” Holliday, who graduated from Cheyney University in Pennsylvania and has since coached 20 players who went on to the NFL, said. “For me, as a coach, if I’m not impacting a young person’s life, then I’m failing him. Because that’s who did it for me, the coaches who had me in high school and then on through college. They impacted my life, so that’s what I want to try to do for young people.”
Holliday said he believes football is able to help so many young men trying to escape tough or troubled situations because it allows them to learn discipline while still expressing their frustration and anger at situations beyond their control.
“One thing it does is that it allows you to express your anger legally,” he said. “I always said, no matter what kind of day I was having, when I crossed over the white lines, I was going to take all of my frustration and anger and bad feelings on the football field. But it also teaches you about control. You have to control your anger in a legal manner or you get penalties. It was my form of expression.”
It also taught him to have respect for the rules, for one’s opponents and for authority, which came in the form of coaches.
Accepting the job at BYU three years ago allowed him to reconnect with his father’s family and his Samoan heritage.
“There aren’t very many Samoans in Baltimore, especially when I was a kid,” he said. “I was a 6-foot-3 kid with long straight hair and it didn’t go over well. …They couldn’t figure out what I was.”
While he is not LDS, he loves living in predominantly Mormon Utah.
“I love the cleanliness,” he said. “I love the structure. There is a value system in place, right, wrong or indifferent, and I think people care about families. So you admire that.”
Holliday said the decision to leave BYU for Utah was simply a matter of doing what was best for his family.
“The opportunity presented itself, and for me and my family, it was the best opportunity available,” he said, noting that he and his wife, Michelle, had just purchased a house in South Jordan in September and he has the youngest of his seven children preparing to attend high school. “You have to make the best decisions for your family, and that may not be popular with everybody else. In the normal business world, people make the best decisions for their families every day, and nobody takes it personal.”
He even had one fan tell him “You’re dead to me” over twitter.
“I said, ‘I guess I’ll see you in the next life,'" he laughed.
Holliday has already won over the young men he’s been asked to teach. It is no secret that the receiving game was one of the weakest aspects of the program.
When he met with the receivers in early January, he was, as he always is, direct and honest.
“I wanted them to really understand my competitive nature,” he said with a smile. “”I wanted them to get a real understanding of what I expect from them on a day to day basis, not so much impose my will on them, but let them understand that we were considered underachievers last year, and we were going to set out to change that.”
He admits he is “a demanding person” who is both direct and passionate.
His players said his background and his style resonated with them in a way they believe will translate into on-field success.
“Last year, I did play with confidence, but I would worry too much if I did anything wrong,” said sophomore Tyrone Smith. “Any little thing, if I messed up, I would worry about it. Now I just move onto the next play; I just keep moving forward.”
So why is that?
“I feel like (Holliday) tries to bring the dog out in us,” Smith said with a grin. “All winter long, he was telling us to compete. Now it’s coming out of us on the field. It’s just his personality. When he comes in the room, you just feel comfortable. You want to laugh, and you want to go on the field and work hard for him.”
Junior Kyle Fulks and senior Cory Butler-Byrd called him “an old-school coach” whose style better suits the players on the roster. They said in their first meeting, Holliday warned them that he was “going to be hard on us.”
“His coaching style takes me back to high school,” said Fulks. “He brings a lot of passion to the game. The whole practice, you’ll hear him the entire time. He’s going to say everything that happens — good or bad. I love that. He’s a fun guy to play for.”
Holliday smiles at being described by his players as “old school.” But he admits, his feelings for the game he now teaches are rooted in how football transformed his life.
“I am very passionate about the game,” said Holliday. “When people ask me about the game, I always tell them, ‘The game saved my life.’ So I am never going to let you cheat the game. If you’re cheating the game, then I’m going to have a hard time with you. As long as you’re out here trying and giving it everything you have, I’m willing to work with you.”