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San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, center, looks on as the defense run a drill during an NFL football practice at the Chargers training facility Monday, June 3, 2013, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Kragthorpe: Chargers’ job good fit for ex-Ute Mike McCoy

Safety Eric Weddle says new coach and ex-Ute Mike McCoy has brought renewed energy to San Diego.

First Published Jul 24 2013 09:31 am • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:36 pm

Having marveled about Mike McCoy’s football knowledge after they spent a season together as University of Utah quarterbacks, Frank Dolce can only wonder why McCoy is just now becoming an NFL head coach.

It all makes sense, actually. Before deciding to join the San Diego Chargers, McCoy used the same guideline that once led him to Utah. He would not take any opportunity — just one that gave him genuine hope of succeeding.

At a glance

McCoy with the Utes

» Beyond quarterbacking the Utah Utes to consecutive 34-31 wins over BYU, Mike McCoy holds a place in Ute history for his role in the 1994 season. With McCoy and defensive lineman Luther Elliss as team leaders, the Utes won their first eight games before losing at New Mexico and Air Force. They earned a Top 10 final ranking by rallying to beat BYU and Arizona in the Freedom Bowl on McCoy’s touchdown pass to Kevin Dyson. That team’s 10-2 record would not be matched until the 2004 Utes went 12-0.

» In those ’93 and ’94 wins over BYU, which had won 19 of the previous 21 meetings, McCoy passed for a total of 681 yards and seven touchdowns to outduel John Walsh.

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The quarterback who delivered those two famous 34-31 victories over BYU and helped produce the Utes’ memorable 10-2 season of 1994 opened his first training camp as the Chargers’ coach Wednesday.

Having assembled an offensive that includes former Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and Fred Graves, who coached Utah’s receivers in the McCoy era, he’s addressing every aspect of the Chargers’ operation.

McCoy, 41, needed only a mini-camp in May to make a good impression. Former Ute safety Eric Weddle, entering his seventh season with the Chargers, quickly discovered what Dolce, coach Ron McBride and other Utahns learned about McCoy long ago.

"He’s come in and really revamped things, with that sense of belief, the confidence, the energy — he’s just kind of transformed the whole team into what he wants," Weddle said.

The Chargers have underachieved. That’s why Norv Turner was fired and McCoy was hired, joining George Seifert — his boss with the Carolina Panthers — on a very short list of ex-Utes who have become NFL head coaches.

McCoy cites many coaches who have influenced him, including McBride and former Ute offensive coaches Rick Rasnick and Dan Henson, while remaining close to them. McCoy and his Long Beach State teammates had become college football’s version of free agents when the school discontinued its program after his freshman year. He knew Utah would need a quarterback after Dolce’s senior season.

That was a shrewd choice. The ’94 Utes became one of the greatest teams in the program’s history. McCoy met his future wife, Kellie, who’s from Salt Lake City.

He played his way into an NFL training camp, where he met a quarterback who would give him first break in coaching. All because Long Beach State dropped football.

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"You never always know it right away," McCoy told The Tribune recently, "but things happen for a reason."

Having proven himself as an offensive coordinator in Denver with quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning, he’s eager to apply everything he’s experienced — including those three seasons at Utah.

"It all started with Ron McBride," McCoy said. "I learned a ton from him about communication skills, as you become a coach or anything else in life."

McCoy was not necessarily pointed toward a coaching career in those days, but Dolce knew he was well-suited to it. "I kind of had to work at the game on the mental side of it, to really understand what the coaches were trying to accomplish," Dolce said. "It was more intuitive to him. He was in step with what the coaches were doing all the time. On film, he could see things that were happening just differently than I did."

That ability naturally translated into coaching, beginning in 2000 with Carolina under offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, an acquaintance from McCoy’s time in Denver’s camp.

McCoy gradually took on more responsibility after John Fox replaced Seifert and brought in Dan Henning as coordinator. "He’s very detailed, very analytical," said Henning, who appreciated McCoy as someone who "knows how to speak up when he needs to speak up and be quiet when he needs to be quiet."

In Denver, McCoy worked for Josh McDaniels, who basically ran his own offense, and became the play-caller when Fox was hired as coach. That meant adapting to Tebow’s skills and then working with Manning during a 13-3 season that ended with an overtime loss to Baltimore in the divisional playoffs.

The Chargers immediately pursued McCoy, who was ready to take over his own team.

"Four or five years ago, I really started building a plan if I got that opportunity and got the right one, I would look into it," McCoy said.

That’s a sound approach from a former quarterback who "didn’t do stupid stuff," McBride said. "He didn’t have a great arm, but he was a great decision-maker."

Picking the Chargers is just more evidence of his good judgment.

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