The past few seasons have not been kind to the Weber State Wildcats and their fans. In 2011, head coach Ron McBride announced that he would be retiring at the age of 72 after more than 50 years of Division I coaching experience.
While replacing a respected and seasoned coach is no easy feat for any college football team, it can be especially difficult for a team like Weber State, a program historically on the lower end of the middle tier of FCS football. Not only do programs in that situation lack the luxury that major FBS programs have in being able to choose from a bevy of obviously qualified candidates, they also lack the luxury that historically upper-tier FCS teams such as Montana, Delaware and North Dakota State have in being able to choose from a pool of candidates with a proven level of skill at the FCS coaching level.
Such programs usually have to either take a chance on a completely unproven hire or get lucky and be able to find an older coach with a degree of previous success during his career but who is no longer in his coaching prime.
The latter situation was the case when the program hired McBride initially. He had taken the in-state Utah Utes and transformed them from a perennial loser for most of the '70s and '80s to a solid program to be reckoned with in the '90s and early 2000s. The rise of the Utes to a national powerhouse for a good portion of the 2000s and early 2010s was built mostly on the foundation that McBride built during his tenure, turning Utah from a "basketball school" into one with a fairly formidable football program as well.
Perhaps most importantly, he restored competitiveness with the archival BYU Cougars, who had basically had a monopoly on quality football and access to solid talent in the state of Utah for most of the previous two decades. It was McBride who led the Utes out from the shadow of the BYU program that had been smothering the growth of Utah's program.
However, McBride's teams started to falter a little toward the end of his tenure at Utah. Although not reverting back to their previous lopsidedly losing ways, the Utes now had higher expectations, leading to McBride being let go at the end of the 2002 season after alternating between moderately losing and moderately winning seasons in his final three years.
McBride then landed at Kentucky as a linebackers coach before Weber State was able to bring him on as head coach in 2004, confident that he would be able to provide at least moderate respectability for its program at the FCS level even if he was past his FBS prime of a decade earlier.
This proved to be the case, with McBride leading a Weber State program that had gone 32-46 during his predecessor's seven-year tenure to a 38-32 overall record during his own seven-year tenure. This included two playoff berths, which are a mark of success for teams historically in the category that Weber State is in.
With McBride's retirement, Weber State found itself in a precarious position. For teams that are historically in the lower end of the middle tier in the FCS, the line between going from a team with moderate recent success to becoming a perennial losing team near the bottom of the league is quite thin. It often hinges on a specific coaching hire or a key recruit or transfer.
The Wildcats were hoping to avoid the slide into ignominy by hiring another respected head coach with prior success who was now in the twilight of his coaching career. This time, they looked to John L. Smith, who posted an overall record of 41-21 at Louisville from 1998 to 2002 while leading the Cardinals to five straight bowl appearances.
Being able to land Smith to replace McBride was realistically one of the best-case scenarios for Weber State. However, things unexpectedly and abruptly went wrong.
How will Weber State football fare this season?
Former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino's dismissal following spring drills in 2012 due to a scandal that revealed a misuse of power on his part resulted in the Razorbacks finding themselves in sudden need of a head coach for that upcoming season long after the hiring season for college football coaches was over. So they turned to Smith, who had served as the Razorbacks special teams coach for the previous three season.
Unfortunately for Weber State, this resulted in the Wildcats losing their safe option for continued moderate success. Instead, they found themselves scrambling to pick up the pieces and completely changing course just months before the season started. The school tabbed Jody Sears, who had just been hired as the team's defensive coordinator, as interim head coach.
With the Wildcats' plans and offseason preparations thrown into chaos, the 2012 season quickly turned from best-case scenario to worst-case scenario. Although able to defeat budding in-state rival Southern Utah (who had just joined Weber State's Big Sky Conference), the team went 2-9, quickly falling off the pinnacle of moderate success it had been on and into its worst fear—the bottom of the league.
With the chaos and calamity that had marred their 2012 season, the Wildcats retained Sears as head coach, hoping that the stability would lead them back out of the basement.
Sadly, it didn't. Things actually got worse for the Wildcats last season. They posted a 2-10 record while regressing from the previous season in both offensive and defensive production and suffering the added setback of losing to SUU, who was quickly developing a successful program and establishing themselves as the top FCS program in the state. Both their offensive and defensive statistics were atrocious, scoring only 15.8 points per game while giving up 41.4 points per game.
The terrible season, in conjunction with SUU having a good season, was especially problematic. FCS competitiveness in the state of Utah is vital to both teams, as it grants better access to the transfers from successful in-state FBS programs BYU and Utah.
Due to both of those teams having complicated roster situations each season as a result of having a significant number of Latter-day Saint players either leaving to go on their LDS missions or returning from their LDS missions, there are abnormally large amounts of transfer players from those programs. This gives Weber State and SUU much more access than the average FCS program to players they could have never dreamed of landing during their recruiting processes.
Some of the transfers are higher in profile and in impact than others, and landing one or more of those can be a game-changer for SUU or Weber State. A prime example is former SUU quarterback Brad Sorensen, who was the Thunderbirds' starting QB from 2010-2012 after transferring from BYU in order to get playing time. He surpassed 3,000 yards passing in each of his three seasons at the school, something no previous SUU QB had done for even a single season. He also graduated as the school's all-time leader in both passing yards and passing touchdowns and then promptly became the first-ever SUU player taken in the NFL draft, as he's now residing on the San Diego Chargers' roster.
Given that unique transfer dynamic, Weber State finds itself in desperate need of a turnaround in order to avoid being gradually phased out of the market by SUU for BYU and Utah transfers. The good news for Wildcats fans is that there is good reason to be optimistic this season instead of fearing falling deeper into FCS despair and irrelevancy.
For starters, new head coach Jay Hill is not an entirely unproven coaching commodity. While never having served as a head coach in collegiate football before, he has served in various assistant coaching positions for Utah. He is also young (39), which seems to be a growing trend in college football among head coaching hires. Perhaps most promisingly for Wildcats fans, Hill is known as a top-notch recruiter, being named to Rivals' top recruiters of 2009 list.
The other major reason for optimism about Weber State's upcoming season is because there are several big-impact players on this year's roster, most of whom were not there last season. Although threatened in the future if the program doesn't improve soon, Weber State's access to high-impact, in-state transfers from FBS teams is still very much intact currently.
At least seven transfers from Utah, Utah State and BYU joined the program this offseason. Included among those players are former BYU QB Billy Green, who could have a Sorensen-like impact on the program, and former Utah defensive back Tyron Morris-Edwards, who brings solid experience with him, including multiple starts for the Utes. In addition, the team returns two known offensive playmakers in workhorse running back Bo Bolen and receiver Shaydon Kehano, who led the entire state of Utah in both the FCS and FBS levels in both receiving yards and touchdown receptions in 2011, before injuries limited his production in the last two seasons.
Despite nearly hitting rock-bottom the past two seasons, the Weber State Wildcats do have the potential to have a turnaround season and put themselves back on track for consistent success. In less than two weeks, that quest begins.