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Doug Robinson: McBride set the table for new era at Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Ron McBride, the retired (not really) 78-year-old coach, will be among several Ute football luminaries who will be honored at halftime of Thursday's season-opener against Weber State on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Utah football.

Whatever they do to honor McBride, it won’t be enough.

It would be difficult to find someone who did more for Utah football in the modern era than Ron McBride. He was the first to envision something bigger for the Utes, and he set the table for everything that has happened in the last 15 years — Urban Meyer’s ascendant two years, two unbeaten seasons, the Pac-12, the sustained and solid Kyle Whittingham era.

Without Mac, it doesn’t happen.

For 50 years, the Utes simply could not produce a consistent winning football team; it was five decades of almost perfect mediocrity. As a Ute assistant coach under Wayne Howard in the ’70s, Mac recalls, “I could see it was a sleeping giant.” After leaving Utah in 1986, he returned four years later as head coach and found nothing had changed. “It was a soft program,” he recalls. “They had no vision for Utah football. Their vision was, if you could go .500 and not get embarrassed by BYU you’re doing your job. That’s what they accepted. My deal was I was going to build it the right way, systematically, as a long-term venture, not short term.”

Coaches didn’t build for the long term because the Utes were more of a stepping stone than a destination. Mac built his program with returned missionaries, in-state recruits and Polynesians — they required time and patience, and none of the above was being utilized at Utah, even though those athletes had enjoyed great success at BYU. He won four games in his first season. Then things began to happen.

• In their first 100 years of football, the Utes were invited to just three bowl games. Mac took the Utes to six bowls (and won three of them) — this was before there was a glut of bowl games and going to a bowl meant something.

• In the 50 years before Mac arrived, the Utes were a .500 program. He produced nine winning seasons — the best stretch at Utah since Ike Armstrong, who coached from 1925 to 1949. He became the second winningest coach in Utah history behind Armstrong, with an 88-63 record over 13 seasons (Kyle Whittingham has since surpassed him). Under Mac, they finished the 1994 season in the top 20 of the national polls for only the second time in school history — ranked eighth with a 10-2 record.

• In the previous 30-plus years, they had won just one conference championship. Mac’s Utes won a share of the Western Athletic Conference championship in both 1995 and 1999.

• The Utes had lost 19 of 21 games to BYU, including Mac’s first three seasons, and then he won the next three, and six of 10 against Utah’s archrival. It permanently altered the rivalry. Since Mac first beat BYU in 1993, the Utes have won 17 of 24 games against BYU.

• A charismatic recruiter and player’s coach, he brought in a new level of talent — among them, future NFL players Luther Elliss, Mike Anderson, Jamal Anderson, Kevin and Andre Dyson, future Hall of Famer Steve Smith, Jordan Gross, Anthony Davis.

As is the fate of most coaches, Mac was eventually shown the door by his school, but he has had a part in everything that has happened since then. Meyer, a young superstar whom the Utes caught on the way up, won 22 of 24 games the next two seasons. He did so with Mac’s players. “Urban did a nice job with them,” says Mac graciously. “He got the most out of them.” Nine years after Mac left, the Utes were invited into the Pac-12. “It’s awesome,” he says. “It took the whole program to a different level. It’s a gift from heaven.”

Mac still attends the games. He does a pregame radio show and then watches the action. He coached for more than 50 years — high school, junior college, small college, college, arena — and still can’t get enough of the game. He attends prep games on weekends, usually a game in which one of his former players is coaching (you can hardly name a high school in the state that doesn’t have one of his former players on the sideline).

Even after he was fired by Utah at the age of 63, he coached linebackers at Kentucky for a year instead of retiring, then served as head coach at Weber State for seven years and still it wasn’t enough. He coached the Utah Blaze for a season. He lived in a hotel to coach the Portland Steel in 2016 (he had to coach from a chair because of an aching back). He coached the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles last season at the age of 77.

When his former player, Gary Andersen, was the head coach at Wisconsin and later Oregon State, Mac attended spring practices and fall two-a-days and wrote up evaluations. He still coaches prep all-star games in Hawaii and Utah every year and teams with other coaches to train linemen.

“The game’s been great for me,” says Mac.

And Mac has been great for the game — and for the Utes.