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Why BYU's Mike Empey came back to coaching after 12 successful years away from football

Offensive line coach MIke Empey answers questions during BYU Media Day at BYU Broadcasting in Provo on Thursday, June 30, 2016.
Offensive line coach MIke Empey answers questions during BYU Media Day at BYU Broadcasting in Provo on Thursday, June 30, 2016.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Mike Empey’s coaching redo is a passionate return down a familiar path.

He hits that road every day. But he does so with a different compass.

Empey is in his second spring football practice at BYU, working alongside Ty Detmer, a quarterback he once protected as a Cougar lineman. This comes after a decade-long hiatus from this highly competitive college coaching profession.

Empey left his post as recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach in 2004, the final season of head coach Gary Crowton at BYU. Although he dabbled in coaching at American Fork High School, the jobs that paid the bills were far removed from football.

He’d coached at BYU, got a head coaching job at Snow College, coached at UNLV, returned to BYU for half a decade, then found himself on the outside when BYU fired Crowton after a four-win season.

After leaving BYU, Empey got into sales. He worked for a large commercial industrial door company that manufactures giant portal doors in hotels, the ones that divide ballrooms. Very successful at this job, it frequently took him away from home and on the road.

Wanting work closer to his home in Utah County, former BYU quarterback Blaine Fowler hired Empey to be his operations manager for Stryker Mountain West. Stryker is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of medical equipment, specializing in hip and knee replacement devices, and trauma plates and screws for emergency room surgeries.

Fowler runs the northwest operations for Stryker, but BYU fans know him as a TV color analyst with Dave McCann on BYUtv, and as a veteran of Mountain West Conference and NBC sports broadcasting.

“We put Mike in charge of all our operations,” said Fowler. “He was in charge of all our employees that did billing, collections, our couriers, our warehouse workers, people who do our shipping and receiving, customer service people. He did that for about four years and then I had an opening for a trauma sales manager so I moved him over to that side of the business. I had him run our trauma division for the whole area, responsible for all the salesmen and reps who work with doctors all over the region.”

How good was Empey?

“He was amazing, actually, said Fowler.

“His experience as a head coach (Snow College) helped him. He’s a natural leader with tremendous leadership qualities. His attention to detail, his meticulous nature made him fantastic in the operation’s role. He was responsible for tracking implants and lock codes. Every implant that ever goes into a patient has to be tracked in case of a recall or an FDA action.

“His group of people in charge of receiving, shipping, accounting and billing, and knowing where everything was going was critical. You have to be unbelievably meticulous, accurate and focused. He is all that.

“In the field, in the marketplace, you have to be driven because it is so competitive. When I put him in a trauma sales role, he continued to be meticulous but he showed his competitive nature by establishing that in his guys in sales, bringing out the best in his salesmen. He was very good for us, a fantastic employee.”

When Kalani Sitake and Detmer approached Empey to return to college coaching in 2016, Empey told Fowler he was thinking of getting back in the college rat race. “I didn’t want to lose him. He was like my right hand,” said Fowler. “I prepared a list of reasons he shouldn’t get back into coaching. I had it in a file folder.”

Fowler sat down with Empey and before he got to his own agenda, he asked, “Why do you think you want to do this?”

Empey then outlined specifically all the things he wanted to do differently as a coach. “He said he wanted to make these men better men, how he wanted to be more plugged in to the university and develop relationships between football and the university. He described how he wanted to be more connected to the fan base and the donors, that this time he wanted to make sure all the stakeholders felt connected to the program. But more importantly, he wanted to make young men better.”

Fowler listened intently and felt Empey’s passion and desire. “I thought to myself, ‘forget my list.’ I literally took the folder, put it back in my briefcase and told him, ‘you need to go take that job.’ His reasons were so noble in why he wanted to go do that. His reasons were fantastic. Who was I to tell him not to do that?”

Fowler told Empey, that is where he belonged. Empey pursued it, got it and now when Fowler goes to practices in his role as a father of safety Gavin, former player and sportscaster, he sees Empey at his craft.

“He loves those kids. He has such great passion to make them better. He just gets it. He’s driven, he’s going to grind them, but he’s doing it to make them better men and better players. He is in it right now for all the right reasons and I can see it, he is awesome.”

On Wednesday after a spring practice session, I saw Empey looking at some of his players as they headed to some other aspect of the day. After a brief interview about BYU offensive linemen, I finished by asking, “Are you having fun?”

His answer was quick and succinct.

“Yeah, I’m having a blast. It’s awesome. It’s everything I thought it would be, probably better.”

Why?

“We are out here, the sun is shining, we’re on the grass working with great kids and great coaches. You start out every day just grateful and then go to work. We don’t want to let each other down, so we work hard.”

He’s back.