Q&A: Ron McBride talks about laying a foundation for Ute football, the importance of beating BYU and why Utah program was a ‘sleeping giant’
Former Utes coach also shares memories of his best victories, worst losses, favorite players, his friendship with LaVell Edwards and traveling on an old yellow bus
SALT LAKE CITY — He’s 80 years old now, but Ron McBride has hardly missed a beat since coming to Utah as an assistant football coach for the University of Utah 43 years ago.
He’s as busy as ever these days, still doing some coaching, while being heavily involved in the community through his Ron McBride Foundation that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for schools, churches and universities. His busy-ness was evident during an hour-long interview in his backyard, when his cellphone buzzed at least a dozen times.
McBride grew up in Los Angeles, excelling in football and baseball before going to San Jose State 1959-62, where he served as a team captain for the football team.
After coaching high school football, he took a pay cut to be an assistant junior college football coach before hooking up with Wayne Howard at UC-Riverside. The coaching staff moved on to Long Beach State in 1974 and to Utah in 1977, where he stayed until 1983, when he accepted a job at Wisconsin. Two years later he came back to Utah under Jim Fassel and then went to Arizona for three years under Dick Tomey at Arizona. In 1990 he was hired to replace Fassel as the Utah head coach.
He turned Utah into a winner in his second season and took the Utes to their first bowl game in 28 years in his third. He calls the 34-31 victory over BYU in Provo in 1993, his fourth season, as the “turning point” for Utah football.
McBride only had three losing records in 13 seasons, but after the third, a 5-6 mark in 2002, he was fired as the Ute coach and replaced by Urban Meyer.
After being an assistant at the University of Kentucky for two seasons, McBride returned to Utah to coach at Weber State, where he helped turn around the program, guiding the Wildcats to their first Big Sky title since 1968 in his fourth season. After seven seasons he retired in 2011. Since then he has helped coach the Utah Blaze and other arena league football teams.
These days McBride lives in Holladay with his wife, Vicki, who is as energetic as ever. He can still tell stories with the best of them, still has that smile and disarming way of making you feel like you’re his best friend. McBride recently sat down to talk about everything from his favorite players, worst losses and his famous commercials with his good friend, BYU coach LaVell Edwards. The following interview was edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: First, how is your health these days?
Ron McBride: I was at my heart doctor yesterday and am going good that way. I’ve had back surgery and hip surgery. I was coaching an arena football team up in Portland three years ago and my back was so bad I was coaching from a chair and came back and had back surgery. It wasn’t successful, so I’ve had struggles with that, then had my hip surgery after that, but I’m doing well.
DN: How are you coping with the coronavirus challenge in our country right now?
RM: I work out every day and I swim and I walk and lift weights. This neighborhood is good, people are good about keeping their distance, doing things they’re supposed to do and not having gatherings, just taking care of their business. We bought this house with my daughter and son-in-law where we split the bills. They’re the ideal people to live with, he’s very conscious of keeping everything up and my daughter’s a really good cook.
DN: How are you keeping busy these days?
RM: I’ve got the foundation and we’re selling masks for all the local teams (Utah, BYU, Utah State, Weber State, Jazz, Bees). We sell them for $20 and we support nine schools and scholarships with the Calvary Baptist Church. We just gave $35,000 to the University of Utah for tuition and books for students that are going to be teaching mental health in the state of Utah. It’s the Ron McBride Foundation, but actually (former BYU coach) LaVell (Edwards) and I started that foundation together in LaVell’s last year. We raised close to $400,000 last year and we support nine schools in Salt Lake and Ogden and we do scholarships for the Calvary Baptist Church and mental health department for the University of Utah.
DN: There had to be some hard feelings when you were let go by the Utah football program in 2002, yet you still seem close to the Utah program.
RM: Absolutely. You know what, it was hard at the time, because you built a program and brought it to where it became a factor. The year I got fired we had a really young team with some young quarterbacks, so it was all there. The unfortunate thing is I didn’t get to coach those kids. But Urban Meyer did a great job of taking it to the next level and look where it is right now. It ended up being all positive for the university and positive for the program.
DN: So do you feel like you set the table for the current program, but weren’t able to see it through?
RM: We built all of the blocks for the foundation and built the foundation and it was based on a premise of how you build a program systematically ... don’t be in a hurry, stay with your beliefs.
DN: You must be proud of how Kyle Whittingham’s career has turned out.
RM: Absolutely. I hired him and his dad, Fred and Gary Andersen. Obviously Kyle’s done really well. It’s fun to watch the program and how well they’ve recruited. Most of the guys up there played for me — pretty much all of their defensive staff. Morgan (Scalley) and Sharrieff (Shah) played for me, both the D-line coaches (Lewis Powell and Sione Pouha) played for me. Andy Ludwig was a GA for me. I know (offensive line coach) Jim Harding really well. The linebackers coach, Colton Swan, played for me at Weber State.
DN: You started the plan of recruiting returned missionaries and Polynesians, which has continued under coach Whittingham.
RM: Right. When I was here as an assistant coach (1977-83, 85-86), I knew exactly what needed to be done to build this program. A third of our team was going to be missionaries, a third was going to be Polynesians, and a third African Americans. And 10% of those were going to be high-risk kids in education, kids you take a chance on, particularly minority kids and see if you can create a better life for them. I knew what I was going to do and I was fortunate enough to get the job,
DN: What were some of the other changes you made after you got the job?
RM: You had to change the way people think. That’s why we took our team down to Price for Camp Carbon every August. You wanted to make the players uncomfortable, you wanted to make the coaches uncomfortable, you wanted to make everybody uncomfortable. You didn’t want everyone to have the niceties. They were crowded in the dorm rooms, the fields weren’t great, everything down there was going backwards economically at the time. So it was an ideal spot to talk about what real life was about. It helped our players, guys realized they had to toughen up. Another thing we did was start out with the premise that all of our best players played on defense and we were going to just maintain offensively for awhile. The idea was that in the third year everything would start to go the other way. We had a long-range plan on how we’d do the missionaries.
DN: Utah had lost to BYU 70-31 the year before you came. What were you told about beating BYU?
RM: Everybody was worried about BYU. I said, ‘Don’t worry about BYU, we’ll worry about them when we play them.’ It was the same way we treated Arizona State when I was at Arizona. Everybody was concerned, that was the first question they asked you. I remember being interviewed with Chris Hill and those people. They didn’t ask if you could beat BYU, they asked if you can not be embarrassed by them. That if you could just be 50-50 against them you could probably keep your job forever. They had no vision for football, it was all basketball. I told them this is a sleeping giant. We had turned, I think, 11 different programs from complete losers to complete winners during my career. So we had a plan for every program we went into. Every plan was simple, all you had to do was follow the plan.
DN: That game in 1993 when you beat BYU in Provo, what was your thinking, trying a 55-yard field goal with 30 seconds left? If you missed, they still had time to beat you.
RM: It went back to when we were playing Washington State in the bowl game the year before. The same field goal guy (Chris Yergensen) missed a 17-yard chip shot. I had a talk with him when we came back to Utah and told him, ‘Your teammates are not very high on you.’ I said, ‘You either need to be invested in this program or have to go, and earn the respect back of these players.’ He became a lot more involved in taking care of his business and was a lot more prepared to make that kick. I tell you what, that was the biggest turning point in Utah football, to beat them on their field on their Senior Day. All of a sudden they realized, ‘Utah’s in this for real.’ Now our players were as good as their players.
DN: Talk about your relationship with LaVell Edwards, you two seemed to have a genuine friendship.
RM: Oh yeah, he was a great man. I remember the first year I came up here under Wayne Howard in 1977. Everybody talked about LaVell Edwards and BYU, so my vision of him was a little different than when I met him. I met him at a weightlifting meet at the old Jordan High School. I went over and talked, and I thought, ‘the BYU coach is a really good guy, a down-home guy, easy to talk to.’ So when I left here to become the line coach at Wisconsin (in 1983), LaVell was actually the guy who got me the job. Dave McClain was the coach and wanted to know about the line coach at Utah, and LaVell recommended me. We did a lot of charity stuff together. He never turned down a charity event. He was one of those guys, you could never dislike him. He was just a regular dude, just a real good guy. My wife and his wife, Patti, are really good friends and do a lot of stuff together. They go out to lunch every couple of weeks and Vicki’s on the phone with Patti a couple of times a week.
DN: How about those famous 34-31 bank commercials you and LaVell used to do together?
RM: Those were fun. You’d have thought we beat them forever, because all they talked about was 34-31. Here’s this guy who had been beating the crap out of us for the previous 20-something years and he loses one and you’d think we were beating them. Everything was 34-31. It was legit money-wise, but it created quite a stir (with some of our boosters) and I was told, ‘You can’t do that commercial any more.’ LaVell did one the next year and told me ‘Yeah, coach, since you’re not in it anymore, the money is really good.”
DN: Can you say which games stand out as the greatest you’ve ever been involved with as a coach?
RM: The one at BYU in 1993. ... One at Wisconsin when we beat the heck out of Ohio State. ... Up at Weber State when we beat Montana and won the league championship for the first time in 40 years or whatever. Every place has had great wins. At UC-Riverside, we were a Division III school and we beat four Division I teams. We had all these Polynesian kids and we turned around that program in a year. We’d drive in on an old yellow bus, our guys were dressed in coveralls, looked like they were from the homeless shelter. We dressed them that way on purpose so the other team would say, ‘Here comes the guys in the yellow bus from Riverside.’
DN: What were some of your most disappointing games?
RM: LaVell’s last game (a 34-27 loss in 2000) when they had the fumble that was never called and we gave up three big plays. We had a game at Air Force (38-37 loss in 2001), where we were lined up to kick a field goal and I asked the guys on the sideline, ‘We’re kicking a field goal, right?’ Then all of a sudden, I see our line splits are changing and they say ‘We’re going to run one more play.’ Then our quarterback ran the clock out. A game like that puts you one step in the coffin. No matter who makes the call, it’s always the head coach’s problem. Different games have different repercussions. When we were undefeated in 1994, playing down at New Mexico — that was a way stupid loss, that you can blame on coaching. We blew a coverage, recovered a fumble and didn’t possess it properly. That team should have gone undefeated (it finished 10-2).
DN: Who were the greatest players you ever coached?
RM: Every place is different. Luther Elliss was the first key player here, he turned the locker room around, how you operate on a daily basis, how you lift weights, how you go about business, how you handle a loss. He didn’t talk a lot, but he was a great player, great in the locker room, too. Joe Tofflemire at Arizona was tough, a great leader. ... A kid named Danny Turk at Wisconsin, Derek Williams at Riverside, a tough running back. Every school there was someone that had a lot to do with turning things around, their ability to create an atmosphere, where they love the game of football and sacrifice everything for it. It kind of carries over with other people.
DN: Talk about your experience at Weber State. That must have been a fun time at the end of your career.
RM: Absolutely. That was an interesting thing because Dutch Belnap had a lot to do with me getting that job. He was the interim athletic director (in 2004) and the summer before I took the job, he said ‘Why don’t you come up and look at the facility?’ So I go to the weight room and said, ‘Where are all the players?’ He said, ‘Well we don’t keep our players here in the summer, just the local guys.’ So I say ‘How do you get your team ready if you don’t have your players here?’ He said, “We don’t worry about it.’ I thought, ‘This new guy’s going to fail for sure.’
The next year I interviewed there and they called and offered me the job. When I got on the plane from Kentucky to take the Weber State job, San Jose State called me and said they were hiring a coach there. I had played there and was a big alum and they said, ‘When you get to the airport in Salt Lake, hop a plane and come to San Jose.’ When I got to the airport I called them back and said, ‘No, I’m taking the Weber job.’ I didn’t want to go back to San Jose. I loved Utah and I thought Weber was a program I could turn around and do it the right way. Weber had no recruiting budget. I hired guys like Jason Kaufusi, who worked part-time for United, and Chad Kauhaahaa, whose wife worked for the airlines, so they could get free flights to Hawaii. And we got Kamaal Ahmad, who played for me at Kentucky and was from Oklahoma. We built with local players and were able to recruit Oklahoma and Hawaii. Go to Utah first and then different areas to get different players. In Oklahoma we got good skill players, in Hawaii we got D-linemen, linebackers, offensive linemen, plus our in-state recruits.
DN: What do you think about the overall state of college football these days?
RM: It’s great. The money is huge, probably too much, it’s gotten out of hand. It’s like a huge machine now. You go visit a school and they have a lot of administrative assistants and people. I don’t know what they all do, but they have a lot of people employed. Alabama was the forerunner of that, (Nick) Saban has a guy for a guy and another guy for another guy. Now in most athletic departments they have four or five analysts, a recruiting coordinator, a media guy that’s all into electronic stuff. It’s all changed dramatically. I think it’s good because it gives people jobs as they try to earn their way up the ladder. College football is awesome, there’s nothing better than college football.
DN: What’s in Ron McBride’s future?
RM: I still get up to Utah State and help Gary Andersen. I’m kind of a guest coach up there, so I’ll spend some time up there. Our foundation has three things coming up. Our golf tournament is dedicated to Jerry Sloan, it’s the Jerry Sloan Memorial Golf Tournament on Aug. 3. We’ve got a MAFU thing after the USC game (Oct. 3) here for former players, a fundraiser for the foundation, then we have a gala on Oct. 24 to honor four people who are retiring — Pastor France Davis, Kent Jones, the heart surgeon, Lonnie Paulos, the orthopedic surgeon, and Terry Orchard, who coached Little League football for 50-something years up in Bountiful. My foundation works mostly with junior high schools, Title I schools in Ogden and Salt Lake. This year more than any other year, it’s going to be more important how much money we raise, because we’ll have more impact on the schools because they’re taking money away from the schools with the budget cuts. So I’m keeping busy.