Jernaro Gilford said he felt like famed jockey Victor Espinoza, except that the first horse BYU’s cornerbacks coach ever rode was named Jewels, and not 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
Meanwhile, BYU running backs coach AJ Steward said he felt like he was on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Gilford, who grew up in Los Angeles, and Steward, who is from St. Louis, climbed aboard horses for the first time in their lives a few weeks ago when BYU’s entire football coaching staff went on a three-day retreat to Idaho to get away from it all and do some bonding without cellphones, recruiting pressures and the like.
The coaches went on several horseback rides, including an extra-long journey before camping under the stars for a night. They also sang around the campfire — assistant coach Ed Lamb is in a band and an accomplished musician — and stayed one night at a cabin. They did some boating, water-skiing and wake-boarding at a mountain lake, and talked about the upcoming season.
“We were literally on a horse for seven hours straight,” Steward said. “I was a little bit saddle sore, but it was good. … I am the farthest thing from a country cowboy. I would rather be in a mall, shopping, looking for shoes. It was definitely something that got me out of my comfort zone.”
Gilford said he was also “very, very sore,” but will never forget the experience.
“It was my first time being around a horse like that,” Gilford said. “I was nervous, because horses are big and they can have minds of their own. But I had a good time. It was a fun experience.”
Receivers coach Fesi Sitake and defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki also spoke fondly of the horseback riding experience at media day last week, with Sitake recounting steep mountain climbs and Tuiaki reminiscing about getting bucked off a horse when he was growing up in Tonga and being hooked on horseback riding ever since.
“Almost everybody wanted to shoot somebody at the end of that long ride,” Tuiaki said. “But for me, I was living the dream. Man, I loved it.”
So is this what college football coaches do all summer when they can’t be around players, due to NCAA rules?
Hardly, coaches say, then bristle at suggestions that they get most of the summer off, like school teachers.
“Not even close,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said after a charity golf event in early June. “We get a little time off here and there, but July is really the only month in which you can get totally, well, almost totally, away from the job.”
Whittingham said he gives his assistant coaches all of July off, then he and his wife Jamie take their entire family, grandkids and all, to Maui for a couple of weeks, as was detailed in The Salt Lake Tribune last August.
“That’s my getaway,” Whittingham said. “I surf a little bit, but I am more into just hanging out on the beach and relaxing, or playing golf or stuff like that.”
Whittingham used to despise golf, but now he says he can’t get enough of it. He’s a regular at a tournament for coaches at Pebble Beach Golf Links and surrounding golf courses every May, and won it two years ago.
Whittingham never golfs during the season, however, and neither does BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, who is also getting hooked on the sport.
“When I do play golf, I try to play early in the morning,” Sitake said. “My wife says, ‘I don’t care if you play, but play early so you can be home with the kids.' I’m the first one out on the course sometimes.”
June gets busier
After spring football practices end, usually in late April, coaches say they do a lot of recruiting in April and May. June is all about putting on football camps, or attending them elsewhere.
“The thing that’s changed a little bit is there’s more recruiting going on in June now since we can have official visits in June,” said BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, who plans to take his family to North Carolina, Missouri and perhaps a few more summer vacation spots in July. “For a lot of us, June is one of the busiest months of the year now.”
Grimes said the period between the end of spring camp and beginning of July involves a lot of planning.
“You can’t just show up and say, OK, let’s start fall camp at the beginning of August,” he said. “You’ve got to have all that done ahead of time. So May and June involve a lot of planning, some recapping, some self-scouting and some self-evaluation.”
Sitake and Grimes said there is a lot of professional development, which is what the retreat to Idaho was all about, coupled with work on the playbook.
“You are always tinkering with that,” Grimes said.
For the past few years, Sitake has been traveling to New York City in the summer to do charity work with the Harlem Jets through his More2Life Foundation, which helps disadvantaged kids engage in mentoring, education and athletic opportunities. He takes dozens of BYU players with him as a way to honor the memory of former BYU coach LaVell Edwards, who served a church mission in the area in 2002.
The group left last week.
“It has been cool to go there and meet people who knew LaVell and really do some good work in the community there,” Sitake said. “It’s been a really cool thing. We stay connected throughout the entire year through Skype and other social media outlets.”
BYU’s Gilford, now an “aspiring jockey,” he says with a laugh, uses July to catch up with extended family back in the L.A. area and recharge his batteries for the upcoming season.
“I’ll go visit my mom, relax a little bit,” says the former BYU defensive back. “Of course, the game is always in me. I am always sneaking away to watch film. My wife will say, ‘come on now, this is my time.’ She looks forward to it more than I do.”
Lamb, who was Southern Utah’s head coach from 2007 to 2015, came up with the idea to go on the horseback riding retreat, according to the other coaches. He said he will use July to spend as much time with his family as possible.
“I get to be a dad a few more hours a day than I will in the fall,” he said. “I have hobbies and things, but those vacations and things like that take a backseat, in my mind. I just want to spend time with my family. That may mean taking them to their dance competitions, or soccer games or whatever is going on in their lives. Then I might be just working in the garden or taking care of the chickens. That’s what I enjoy, is just being out there working with my hands.”
And riding a few horses, too.