A football life: Former Utes coach Ron McBride just can’t hang up the whistle
Longtime coach is helping coach the Juan Diego High football team this fall, just the latest stop in a football coaching journey that began in 1965
When I caught up with Ron McBride at his home this week, he said he was watching “film.” His ever-present dogs were barking in the background.
Wait, what? Watching film? Football film?
Didn’t this guy retire from coaching about 200 years ago? What do you mean he’s watching film?
McBride — aka Ronnie Mac, Coach Mac, Mac — explained that he’s a volunteer football coach at Juan Diego High, the private Catholic institution in Draper.
He is nearly 83 years old.
But there it is: he’s still coaching. He’s never been able to give it up. It’s oxygen for him. He loves it so much he’d do it for free. Actually, that’s what he’s doing — he isn’t paid. He loves it so much he’d do it even if it was painful, which it is. He has chronic pain that would keep most men in their armchair at home.
I asked him if he actually attends practice at his age and in his condition. “Are you kidding?!” his loyal and wise-cracking wife Vicky says from the back of the room. “I think he’s crazy, but I always thought he was crazy. It’s nothing new. He has about 40 jobs. He likes to work.”
He goes to practice every day (Vicky jokes that he’s a GA — graduate assistant). He sits in a golf cart most of the time. Walking triggers pain up through his right thigh and into his hip. He had back surgery a few years ago. It didn’t work. All it did was cause his right leg to go numb and confine him to a hospital for a week.
“He walks everywhere but he’s in pain when he does it,” says Vicky. “He refuses to use a cane. … He’d rather fall than use a cane, but no one has ever said he’s smart.”
So why not let go of coaching and relax in his golden years?
“I enjoy it,” he explains. “I enjoy watching the kids get better. I enjoy being around the game.”
It’s a lifelong addiction. He will coach football wherever there’s a team. No team and no job is too small even though he is a former Division I head coach. After his 13-year run as head coach at the University of Utah ended, he coached linebackers at Kentucky for a couple of years. Then he was the head coach at Weber State , an FCS school, for seven years.
He coached the offensive line for the Utah Blaze for a year, the offensive line for the Portland Steel for a year, and was an assistant head coach of the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles for a year. Between all those minor-league jobs, he served in an advisory role to some of his former players-turned-coaches at Fresno State, Wisconsin and Oregon State, traveling to those schools for spring ball and two-a-days. He’s coached the defensive line for three years at Juan Diego, a Class 3A school (there are six classes).
Think about it. This man has been coaching since 1965. Lyndon Johnson was president then, Vietnam was raging, Muhammad Ali was decking Sonny Liston in their rematch, Watts was burning. Fifty-seven years later he’s still coaching. He hasn’t drawn a coaching paycheck for almost a decade but he coaches on. In the offseason, he has coached more than a dozen high school players, most of whom are in college now.
His is a football life. He keeps in touch with hundreds of his former players — 300 of them alone on Facebook. “He’s coached for almost 60 years,” says Vicky. “That’s about 4,000 players. He talks to players every day.”
Ron and Vicky recently attended the reunion of his Long Beach State teams. They’re all old men now, well into their 60s, with all the attendant problems of age. Several of them have cancer. Another has both kidney disease and cancer. The Rev. Herb Lusk, a former running back, was there. He brought the Super Bowl ring he won with the Philadelphia Eagles. “He has stage four cancer,” says McBride. Syd Justin, another of Mac’s former players who had an NFL career, was there, too. He’s now known as the man who took over as the lead singer for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
McBride’s coaching career has been so extensive and broad that he probably knows someone at every football-playing school in the U.S., and if you applied the six degrees of separation (or three) he is probably connected to every player and coach in the country somehow.
He was always personable and good with people — a playful charmer who could chat up anyone — which is why he was a masterful recruiter and so beloved by his players. He has friends everywhere. A personal side story: Many years ago, when he learned I was taking my family to Hawaii, where we planned to take a long, tricky hike to a waterfall high above Laie, he made a call. A Hawaiian man met us at the trailhead, introduced himself and gave us very detailed instructions on how to find the falls. When we finally returned hours later, just as it was getting dark, he was waiting anxiously for us to make sure we were OK. Anything for Ronnie Mac.
Mac has reached an age now when some of his players and coaching friends have passed on, of course. They come up in conversations. One of them is the legendary coach at archrival BYU, LaVell Edwards, in December 2016, with whom Mac struck up a close friendship despite the intense rivalry between their schools.
“He was a great man; he was special,” says McBride quietly, and he goes on at length in his admiration for the man. Vicky has lunch with Edwards’ widow, Patti, every few weeks and they talk on the phone weekly. “She’s one of my dear friends,” says Vicky.
Coach Mac and Edwards started a nonprofit several years ago and McBride has continued the work. He raises money to support Prop. 1 schools — about 25 in all, in Ogden and Salt Lake City. The Ron McBride Foundation raises the money through golf tournaments and galas to support after-school programs and the needs of junior high schools. He consulted school principals to learn what was needed. They told him their biggest need was money for after-school programs to keep the kids busy and off the streets from 3-6 p.m.
They built a library at one, provided books at another. They bought computers and created dance and sports programs at another. They funded facilities (construction is underway for the Ron McBride track and field facility at Glendale Middle School).
“I love helping these schools,” says Mac. “The schools we work with have great principals who care about their kids.”
Mac marches on despite discomfort and pain. For some outings — such as the trip to Long Beach — he gets help from former players such as Alex Gerke to get around. Asked about the pain, Mac says, “It’s horrible. My right leg is just shot. Any time I go someplace, Alex Gerke has to babysit me. The pain is not good for me or anyone else.”
One of his former players, Greg Hoffman, is his doctor. “I’m on speed dial with Hoffman,” he says.
Vicky tells this story: they once had a dog named Coach, and one day Vicky, without thinking, told a friend they were going to have Coach put to sleep that day. The friend said, “I hope you’re talking about the dog.”
McBride’s body is wearing out but doesn’t seem to slow him much, although riding around in a golf cart at practice is a necessary concession. He walks two miles around his neighborhood with a walker. He swims a mile every day. And of course he spends his afternoons at Juan Diego.
Ronnie Mac and Vickie have had a rich football life. They live in Salt Lake City with their dogs, and they have close contact with a wide circle of friends, former players, coaches and family members.
“We have been so lucky,” says Vicky. “Patti and I say that weekly.”