Have Utes reached Boylen point with their basketball coach?
Frenzied college basketball fans are not usually the most mature and respectful group in the world. Even so, when they start chanting that your coach is about to get fired, you know times are getting tough.
So it is with coach Jim Boylen and his Utah Utes.
The chorus chanting for his exit both home and away, figuratively and literally has grown louder with each dispiriting loss, and has reached the point that some fans already have moved on to speculating who will be the next coach, as if the Boylen ouster is a foregone conclusion.
Might just be, too.
Though athletic director Chris Hill declines to publicly address such matters, sources close to the program said he already has begun working the backchannels to prepare for a potential transition something records show he started to do in January, during his last two basketball coaching searches.
That would come as no surprise to the San Diego State fans who mercilessly chanted "Boylen's fired" during the Aztecs' 85-53 blowout of the Utes on Tuesday, or the local fans who have watched their once-powerful program endure another frustrating season.
The Utes are 10-15 and riding a five-game losing streak at a time when their biggest rival is enjoying one of its greatest seasons, no less. The No. 7 Brigham Young Cougars beat the Utes for the second time this season on Saturday, 72-59 at the Marriott Center in Provo.
Yet Boylen said he remains committed to the Utes as they prepare to join the Pac-12 Conference next season, and believes he has laid a solid foundation for them to flourish in the future, with improved scheduling, academics and recruiting.
"We're working hard," he said. "I believe in the school and believe in this program. I believe we have pieces in place to build upon. We've had a difficult time with injuries and we've also had a difficult time with newness and youngness, and those things only get better with the passage of time. You try to accelerate that as a coach, and I'm trying to accelerate that."
"We haven't won enough" • It's not happening fast enough for some boosters, though, and Hill is facing a tough decision on the man he hired to rebuild the program.
His team is in bad shape, having lost 13 of its past 17 games to conjure memories of the season that cost previous coach Ray Giacoletti his job just two years after reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
While those Utes played poor defense they ranked almost last nationally in field-goal percentage allowed the current group has sputtered offensively and ranks among the worst in the nation in assists and turnover margin.
And with at least six games remaining, the Utes are in danger of finishing worse than the 11-19 team that counted in Giacoletti's final season as the worst in 23 years. They have lost four of their five league games at home, fallen twice to undersized Air Force ever the symbol of regional weakness, even if the Falcons aren't half-bad this season and averaged just 56.6 points during their current losing streak.
"I agree â¦ we haven't won enough games this year," Boylen said.
At the same time, though, the Utes are young and inexperienced. They have been operating with five newcomers this season and without any seniors since starting forward Jay Watkins was knocked out for the year last month with back problems.
Center David Foster has had knee trouble, too, limiting the fitness and mobility of the reigning Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year.
Beyond that, Boylen believes he has improved the quality of the recruiting, even though he has failed to land the top local prospects in fairness, what coach wearing red was going to pry Tyler Haws or Kyle Collinsworth out of Utah County and away from the Cougars? and endured some high-profile player departures.
"We're doing everything we can to improve the group of guys and grow," Boylen said.
"Turn the page" • Trouble is, fans haven't bought it.
Many of them criticize Boylen's strategies and doubt his vision.
Several members of the Crimson Club booster organization said that although many admire his passion and energy Boylen has worked hard to foster good will in the community, going so far as to hand out tickets at local stores his manic sideline demeanor and occasional emotional outbursts have rubbed others the wrong way. Few are sold on his recruiting, especially considering the results on the floor.
"Time to turn the page," one booster said.
So the Utes are left trying to decide whether to have faith that Boylen has the program pointed in the right direction despite its record, or start over for the third time in seven years.
Money talks • Whatever they decide, politics and finance will play a big role.
Firing Boylen would cost $2 million under the terms of the five-year contract extension the Utes gave him after winning the Mountain West Conference and reaching the NCAA Tournament just two years ago, and raising that much from his top donors would put pressure on Hill to finally deliver with a basketball hire to match his home-run football choices.
But buyouts are part of the cost of doing business in the modern world of big-time college athletics, and the Utes might feel it would cost even more in lost opportunities to keep Boylen, especially if they fear a further drain on attendance or an inability to compete in the Pac-12 Conference.
What's more, Hill needs to remain on good terms with his boosters now more than ever, as the Utes begin to raise ticket prices and push for more donations to help power their move into the Pac-12.
In such a climate, especially, it might be hard to remember the good things Boylen has done such as graduate all of his seniors, improve the overall team grade-point average to above 3.0 for the first time in years and raise the team's important "academic performance rate" to among the best in the nation.
"We've played a very good schedule," he said. "We play defense, we changed the program in a lot of ways. That's where I'm at. I'm just working every day. We have five league games left and the league tournament, and my job is to continue to teach and coach. That's what I've done and that's what I will continue to do."
It just hard to say whether that will be enough, anymore.
Attendance has been another sore spot
Attendance has continued its steady decline under Jim Boylen, and the Utes are certain to finish the season with the lowest average attendance in the 42-year history of the Huntsman Center. They're averaging 8,241 fans per game, nearly 600 fewer than the 8,830 they averaged in the 1972-73 season though it seems a stretch to think a new coach would immediately solve that problem.
The crowds have shrunk every year but one since 1998-99, the year after the Utes made their historic run to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament under legendary coach Rick Majerus. The only increase in that span came in Boylen's first season, when an average of 457 more fans came to games than had during Ray Giacoletti's final season.
The Boylen file
Coach Jim Boylen is 66-57 overall with the Utes:
Year Overall MWC
2007-08 18-15 7-9
2008-09 24-10 12-4
2009-10 14-17 7-9
2010-11 10-15 3-8
Total 66-57 29-30