Prep football: A tale of two Utah football programs
By TOM WHARTON | The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Aug 16 2014 03:15PM
The Bingham and Cyprus High football programs should have much in common.
Both schools trace their roots to the blue-collar families who once worked at the Kennecott Copper Mine and Smelter. The Miners and Pirates represent communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley that contain loyal fan bases.
Yet, as far as success goes, the 17 miles that separate Bingham and Cyprus are as great as the length of the entire state. Since Cyprus alum and former Pirates coach Dave Peck took over Bingham’s program 14 years ago, he has led the Miners to a 141-36 record. The team has won four state titles since 2006 after going 60 years without a football gold trophy. In ten of the last 14 years, Bingham has played in either the state semifinals or title game.
The Miners’ worst mark in the decade is 9-3.
Cyprus, which won its last state football title in 1944, has struggled. Since 2003, the Pirates are 32-75. Their only winning season came in 2007, when they were 6-5 and lost in the first round of the state tournament.
What is the difference between schools such as Timpview, with seven state titles since 2004, Duchesne with five and Bingham and Juan Diego with four each, and teams fielded by nearby institutions such as Cyprus, Murray or Hillcrest that have struggled mightily? Murray has won just one football game in each of the last three seasons. Hillcrest was 1-9 last year, preceded by three straight 3-7 seasons.
What accounts for the lopsided playing field?
Money, open enrollment help • Major factors include socioeconomics, open enrollment, facilities and integration of youth football into the high school programs.
Peck, who grew up in Magna and coached at Hunter and Cyprus before coming to Bingham, has a unique perspective on the differences in the two programs.
"As a west side guy, I did think Bingham was the best of all worlds," he said. "We have more of a higher level economically. South Jordan is comparable to the east side schools. That plays a role. So you have the combination of having a little bit of an economic advantage along with the west side kids’ mentality, and that pushes you over the edge. We still have that blue-collar work ethic, where you fight, scratch and claw for whatever you get."
Peck also said open enrollment, a policy that allows students to attend any school they choose, plays a factor in Bingham’s success. He said the Miners get three to five athletes a year from out of the South Jordan school’s boundaries.
"When you have a good program, people accuse you of recruiting," he said. "I like to shoot that down. But I am not going to lie. Our program, because of the success we have, recruits a kid. They move in from out of state and see we play an out-of-state school every year and that we have a national reputation."
Cyprus coach Scott Woolridge has felt the sting of losing players to other programs. This summer, for example, the athlete he regarded as perhaps his best lineman transferred to Skyline. In the three years he has been at Cyprus, as many as five potential starters have left for other schools.
"Coaches don’t do a ton of recruiting," he said. "But there are opportunities. Kids or parents see a school doing well and think they can do better there than they can in another place. Peck’s built a great program. They are on ESPN every year. Kids think that if they go to Bingham, they are recognized by colleges. What they don’t realize is that anywhere you go, you get recognized by colleges. Kids and parents don’t understand that."
Rob Cuff, executive director of the Utah High School Activities Association, said open enrollment helps some schools stay strong in football.
"Students and parents are going to choose schools based on activities, just like they might for a math, English or physics department," said Cuff. "They want to go where their kids can be the most successful, boundary or not."
Building a foundation • Lori Jacketta, president of the Cyprus Booster Parent Club, watches her son play high school football for the Pirates. Her daughter is on the drill team and a younger son plays youth football. She and Woolridge both say community support isn’t an issue for the Pirates. Win or lose, the Magna community usually packs the stands each Friday night when the big "C" on the Oquirrh Mountains above the school lights up.
But Jacketta said losing athletes to other schools due to open enrollment hurts the team, and she’s stumped as to what to do about it.
"I wish there were an answer," she said. "Sometimes the kids could get more playing time out here instead of going to the bigger schools."
Woolridge, who coached Cyprus to a respectable 5-5 record in his first season, said the only solution is to build a foundation and then keep working. He said that a program needs to be successful for kids to want to be in it. He said his goal is to build a foundation and then try to keep it going.
One way football coaches start the process is through youth football programs.
Jeff Mackey, a long-time Bingham booster who has served as the club president and now films all of the Miners’ football games, credits Peck with working closely with the little league feeder programs.
"Dave takes a Saturday, observes the little league games and gives the coaches and players insight into the things they can expect when they get to a high school," he said.
But that may be where socioeconomics of a community can play a role. Woolridge said since Magna is a poorer community, some families can’t afford the sign-up fee to get their kids into youth football. And some high school athletes are lost because they decide to work instead of participate.
Facilities also play a role. Cyprus’ gymnasium, for example, was built in 1945, making it one of the oldest — if not the oldest facility still being used in Utah. Bingham’s football stadium is state-of-the-art, with sports turf and one of the state’s only high school jumbotrons.
High on Cuff’s list is the fact that the era of the all-around athlete in most of Utah’s bigger schools has ended. That can hurt a school that might be smaller than some of the teams it plays, as a potential football star might opt to play only basketball.
"You get a few two-sport guys, but specializing has hurt these smaller schools," he said. "Coaches don’t get to share athletes like they used to. It’s parent-driven to specialize in one sport to get a scholarship, so another sport suffers."
Cuff said the reason the association that governs prep sports went to a sixth classification in football — compared to five in other sports — was an attempt to keep the largest school in a classification no larger than having twice as many students as the smallest. A new proposal being discussed would also take into account success on the field, with less-successful teams perhaps moving down a classification in football in order to better compete.
Luck doesn’t hurt • The bottom line might be simply finding the right coach at the right time for the right place.
Take, for example, Taylorsville. After the school suffered through three straight 1-9 seasons, second-year coach Rod Wells put together a 6-4 season last year that included a Region 2 championship and hosting a first-round playoff game. He credits an influx of new assistant coaches for the big turnaround.
Bingham booster Mackey said Peck is a major reason for Bingham’s success.
"When Dave came, he brought with him a measure of integrity," said Mackey. "He accepted no nonsense. He was above board, straight and honest. That really worked for the program. People had a lot of respect for him. They liked how he conducted himself. There was no bad language and zero tolerance for any kind of mischief. He surrounded himself with good people. … When good people are involved, good things happened."
Peck said the key to a successful program is to promote solid academics, develop leaders, establish a year-round code of ethics, and have continuity in a coaching staff.
That said, Peck calls his experiences at both Bingham and Cyprus positive.
"At Cyprus, we didn’t win any championships, but I felt good about my team," he said. "They played hard and competed well. … Sometimes, it’s not about wins and losses. … As a coach, you have to treat people right, set high standards and back up everything you say you are going to do."