PROVO — The grandparents of first-year BYU offensive line coach Eric Mateos immigrated to the United States from Cuba decades ago with big dreams and a desire to carve out a better life for their family.
“They came over here as refugees with two kids and nothing in their pockets,” Mateos said. “I’m very grateful. I’ve been very blessed to have the life that I have. I know it might not have been that way had they not made that move. It’s shaped me.”
Mateos’ father, Juan, and his mother, Becky, provided him a childhood rich in diverse experiences. Mateos grew up fishing off bridges in Key West, Florida, and there were times when he’d play around a barn on farmland in the small town of Maryville, Missouri.
“I’m very blessed to have had the upbringing that I’ve had. I’ve been around a lot of different cultures. I’ve grown up in Haitian areas and Cuban areas,” he said. “I’ve been around every kind of person that there is — rich and poor. I’ve seen Lamborghinis driving down I-95 and I’ve seen people living in the streets of Little Havana. The other half of my family is Midwestern, from Missouri. Total opposite. It makes me appreciate different cultures. It makes me appreciate people. It’s a big part of who I am.”
Mateos, who was hired last February to coach the BYU O-line, has no ties to the program and he’s not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates the school.
It should come as no surprise that he’s had no problem acclimating.
In college, he played at Southwest Baptist from 2009-11 before becoming a graduate assistant there. Later, he served as the offensive line graduate assistant at Arkansas for two seasons (2013-15) before coaching the tight ends at Louisiana State (2016) and coaching the offensive line at Texas State for two years (2017-18).
BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes coached with Mateos at LSU. And Mateos has fit in well in Provo.
“It’s been easy. There’s a lot of people that look at it as a difficult transition for me, but it hasn’t been. The kids are willing. I value this place,” Mateos said. “I went to a Baptist school that had a similar honor code set of standards. It’s not like this was a total culture shock. It hasn’t been that crazy of an adjustment as some people might think. I think I’m a pretty easy guy to get along with. I treat people well and they treat me well. There have been no problems.”
With 18 offensive linemen on the roster, Mateos has plenty of pupils to coach and mentor. He’s gotten to know them well in a relatively short time.
“He tells us every day that he loves hanging out with us. We have working dinners and he’ll talk to us — not about football but about life,” said junior guard Tristen Hoge. “He likes to meet all of our families when he can. He wants to meet our parents. He’s really good about that. Knowing that he wants to get to know us personally makes us want to fight for him.”
Mateos is coaching several returned missionaries and he’s learned a lot about missions in recent months.
“It’s been probably the coolest thing, learning about that. That’s always been one of my favorite things about coaching anyway — learning about people’s backgrounds and their lives,” he said. “When you’re learning about the culture of guys going on missions, they’re so difficult. Some of them are so rigorous — not just the duty but some of the conditions that they’re in. I can’t even fathom that.”
One of those returned missionaries is redshirt freshman tackle Clark Barrington, who served in Kampala, Uganda.
“I have a lot of respect for those guys. They’ve obviously experienced something that I haven’t experienced. It boosts their maturity. We want to take the things that some people perceive as a weakness and accentuate them and make them our strength,” Mateos said. “If you can get a freshman who’s 20 years old and had serious life experience, that’s a whole lot different from a freshman that was doing graduation and a pizza party last week. It’s a totally different thing. I love it. I joke with them that I’m going to try to go on a mission to Uganda so I can lose some weight like Clark did. I admire them for it.”
Hoge describes Mateos as “a smorgasbord of things.” He likes his approach as a coach.
“One thing I like is his intensity. He sets a high bar for us. We want him to set a high bar and he’ll tell us when we don’t meet that expectation. If we have a bad day, he’s going to tell us. That’s one thing we can appreciate from a coach,” Hoge said. “He’s somebody that can push us to get to that bar every single day. Of course, he can be light, too. There’s an intensity on the field. Then we’re in a meeting room, we’ll be talking about a play and he’ll put on a clip from ‘The Simpsons’ for a little levity. He mixes levity with intensity.”
The Cougars have three returning starters on the line — Hoge at right guard, James Empey at center and Brady Christensen at left tackle.
During fall camp, Mateos is overseeing position battles at left guard and right tackle. But despite that intense competition, there’s a lot of cohesion on the line as he sorts out starting spots.
“It’s neck-and-neck — like the Kentucky Derby — super competitive. I love it and they like it,” he said. “Chandon Herring and Harris LaChance, they help each other and they’re competing for time. They’re out there coaching each other, helping each other. We’ve got eight guys that are just fighting and playing really well. We have eight guys playing at a high, winning football level. We have 10 guys that aren’t quite there yet. I’ve been at places where we had great lines and we only had five guys that were ready. If we have eight guys that are ready, that would be awesome.”