Just Weber? Utes’ season-opening opponent is more than respectable, at the Wildcats’ level of college football

Former Ute player and coach Jay Hill’s program has become a Big Sky power.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber State football Head Coach Jay Hill during a practice at Stewart Stadium Wednesday, October 4, 2017.

Ogden • Pac-12 football teams will launch the season this week, facing the likes of Auburn and Ohio State. Utah’s opponent? Just Weber State.

Make that #JustWeber, a formerly self-effacing phrase that has become a campus rallying point. The Wildcats, ranked No. 8 in FCS preseason polls, might be the best Big Sky Conference team the Utes have faced in this decade.

They've come a long way since 2013, when they last visited Rice-Eccles Stadium. That's when Utah scored a seventh touchdown just before halftime in an eventual 70-7 victory and a coach was furious about the Utes' running up the score.

That's understandable, although the incensed offensive coordinator was Utah's Dennis Erickson. He came down from the press box to the locker room at halftime and was “ripping us” for scoring too much, said Jay Hill, then one of Erickson's offensive staff members.

The scene helps illustrate the state of WSU football five years ago, three months before Hill took over the program. After losing his first nine games, Hill has gone 26-14 with a Big Sky co-championship and an FCS quarterfinal appearance in 2017.

GETTING BETTER Jay Hill’s Weber State coaching record (with Big Sky records): 2014 – 2-10 (2-6). 2015 – 6-5 (5-3). 2016 – 7-5 (6-2). 2017 – 11-3 (7-1). Total – 26-23 (20-12).

“He's been awesome,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, Hill's boss for nine years. “Jay's done a great job. Doesn't surprise me a bit. He's smart, he's disciplined, he's well organized, he's got a great grasp of all three phases – offense, defense and special teams; he worked in all three here. And he's got great rapport with the players.”

Hill is thriving in Ogden, and Weber State's self-image is improving. The story is told of area high school graduates being asked where they were going to college and responding, “Just Weber” – as opposed to bigger, supposedly more glamorous schools. In recent years, student leaders sought to alter that outlook by creating the #JustWeber social media hashtag and redefining the word “just” to mean only or distinctive.

As this bumper sticker shows, the phrase "JustWeber" has become a source of pride for Weber State.

Colton Swan endorses that viewpoint. “When you come here,” he said, “it is a hidden gem.”

Swan arrived on campus nearly 20 years ago as a walk-on linebacker from Idaho and never left. Entering his 15th season on the staff, coaching inside linebackers and special teams, Swan has worked for five head coaches.

He remembers coming to Utah in 2008, when Ron McBride’s Wildcats competed favorably in a 37-21 loss to the Utes' 13-0 team, and the 2013 visit, when Jody Sears' team trailed 49-0 at halftime. “Oooh, that’s a bad memory,” he said good-naturedly after Saturday’s practice. “I’ve tried to erase that from my mind.”

Yet that experience and WSU's 70-6 loss at Utah State the following week serve as a baseline for Hill's rebuilding project. It has not taken Hill long to establish a self-sustaining program. “How fast it's grown is unbelievable,” Swan said, citing “consistency, recruiting, organization, foresight, expectations. … It's a machine that's running itself. That's what you want from a good program.”

Hill recalls coming to a Weber State game as a Lehi High School player in the mid 1990s, and thinking, “This is a cool place.”

Same story, when he interviewed for the job in December 2013. “It just fired me up to know that you can win here; there's everything you want in a school,” he said.

The Wildcats have improved every year. At age 43, Hill has a nice career trajectory in the making. After an initial 2-10 season, there was at least mild interest from Whittingham or Hill (or both) in having Hill return to Utah as defensive coordinator. Now, he could be in play at any FBS school in Utah where there's a head coaching vacancy in the coming years.

Big things already are at happening at Weber State, where ground will be broken Tuesday for construction of a 27,000-square-foot athletic facility at the north end of Stewart Stadium.

With a contract that runs through 2023, Hill is embraced by the school and the community. The support has helped his wife, Sara, through cancer treatment since her diagnosis of Hodgkins' Lymphoma in the summer of 2016. “She’s the best she’s been in two years,” Hill said. “It’s fun to watch her continue to heal.”

Weber State's winning a bunch of football games in those two seasons couldn't cure her disease, but the Wildcats' success has helped. Another chapter begins Thursday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, where Jay Hill played and coached for Utah. And this prediction is safe: Five years later, the Utes won't lead 49-0 at halftime.

Eight of Weber State’s full-time coaches have played or coached at Utah.
Jay Hill, head coach. Played 1998-99, coached 2005-13.
Brent Myers, offensive line. Coached 2003.
Dave Schramm, offensive coordinator. Coached 2005-11.
Kite Afeaki, defensive line. Played 2004-05.
Joe Dale, safeties. Played 2006-09.
Quinton Ganther, running backs. Played 2004-05.
Grant Duff, linebackers. Graduate assistant coach, 2011-12
Al Pupunu, tight ends. Intern, 2007.