Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Gotta Hand It to Those Wildcats

It's tough to swallow, but you just have to hand it to the Weber State Wildcats, who are coming into Holt Arena Saturday with a chance to clinch the Big Sky's automatic playoff berth. The Wildcats haven't been to the FCS (nee 1-AA) playoffs since 1991, and the administration in Ogden came very close to shutting down the Weber State football program shortly thereafter.

With a last-second "bake-sale" like fundraising effort, Weber football partisans were able to save the program by raising enough money to cover a significant budget deficit. This all occurred shortly before I started broadcasting ISU football games in 1994, and I remember talking to WSU Coach Dave Arslanian immediately thereafter. All the talk about potentially eliminating football at Weber cost the Cats several recruits -- and one existing Wildcat, Brad Otton, who later quarterbacked USC against my alma mater, Northwestern, in the 1996 Rose Bowl.

As far as I know, the Weber football program hasn't been seriously in jeopardy since, although the quality of play and fan support has waxed and waned over the past 15 years. Weber did manage to extract a sizable donation from the Elizabeth Dee Shaw Stewart Foundation in the early 2000s, resulting in a 38,000-square foot addition to their stadium that includes luxury boxes and a Wildcat All-American room, among other amenities. Three years later, Weber hired former Utah Head Coach Ron McBride, who, at age 65, was all set for one last coaching hurrah. There was a great deal of excitement surrounding McBride's hire, and a lot of Wildcat fans expected instant gratification. (Imagine that -- college sports fans expecting results NOW!).

It didn't come. Coach Mac was 15-18 in his first three seasons at Weber, and a lot of Wildcat fans gave the program the old "Bengal shrug," which is the gesture ISU fans have perfected after yet another football coaching savior has been shown the door. The shrug is usually accompanied by mutterings along the lines of, "If Coach XXX couldn't get it done at Idaho State (Weber State), who can?"

Yet here we are, heading for the finish line in the Big Sky Conference race and the Wildcats have just about lapped the field. They've already dispatched perennial kingpin Montana, and manhandled Northern Arizona on the road. With just winless Idaho State and disappointing Eastern Washington left, the Wildcats look like a shoe-in to win the conference title outright.

So how did Coach Mac and his staff arrive at this exalted position, when early returns indicated more Ogden mediocrity? Well, in preparing for my broadcast this week, the one thing that really jumped out at me while I was looking at the Weber two-deeps is the relative cosmopolitan nature of the Wildcats' roster. These guys recruit from all over the West: the offense features two starters from Arizona, three from Hawaii, one from California, and five from Utah. The defense, meanwhile, has four starters from California, three from Utah, two from Idaho (J.D. Folsom, Salmon and Biff [gotta love that name] Swan from Jerome), and one each from Wyoming and Oklahoma.

Coach Mac and his staff obviously have deep recruiting roots. Recruiting is about relationships, and when your head coach has been in the game as long as McBride, you can build a network of high school and JC coaches that entangles much of the West Coast. That's how you convince a future all-American QB like Cameron Higgins, for example, to leave the warmth of Hawaii for northern Utah.

Next comes two bigger tests for McBride and Co.: stepping on to the national stage and winning a playoff game or two; and maintaining consistency as a Big Sky contender. The first will partially be a product of matchups: who will the Wildcats draw in round one, and where will the game be played?

In order to help assure achievement of the second, meanwhile, Weber is in the process of negotiating a contract extension with McBride and his staff, as we speak. At the age of 69, you know those recruiting against Mac and staff are constantly raising the "Joe Pa" question -- how much longer do you expect McBride to be around? The contract extension will purport to at least partially address that issue. It will also, as McBride told the Salt Lake Tribune, "take care of my assistants." Read that any way you like, but I expect it will result in the designation of an heir apparent, to further sooth future recruits.

No, as a Bengal fan it's awful hard to accept the fact that our archrivals are coming to Holt on Saturday for a coronation. If the Bengals are going to provide any salve at all to their beleagured fans this season, raining on the Wildcat pennant parade would seem most appropriate.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

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