By RANDY HOLLIS
OGDEN — Better late than never. Six months late, in fact.
But Weber State University head football coach Jay Hill is mighty glad that his team will still get an opportunity to play at least a portion of its canceled 2020 season in the spring — or, as it turns out, late-winter — of 2021.
When COVID-19 reared its ugly, devastating and often deadly head last summer, the Big Sky Conference chose to suspend its entire 2020 football season — along with all other athletic competition — in hopes of waiting for things to improve in time to play a first-ever spring football season this year.
Well, although the effects of the coronavirus are still very much upon us, Hill and the Wildcats will open their conference-only, six-game 2021 regular season this weekend with a 4 p.m. game against traditional rival Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho.
Hill doesn’t deny that seeing his team’s 2020 season scuttled by the ravages of COVID-19 was “just extremely disappointing in a way.”
“When last July came about, we still had hopes that they were going to find a way to play, and there were still a lot of conferences talking about finding ways to pull it off,” he said. “So we were hopeful, and then finding out we weren’t going to play was very disappointing.”
The Wildcats were able to hold a series of fall practices, but the up-and-down nature of dealing with the virus on a daily basis made for a great deal of indecision, frustration and confusion.
While all but a handful of Football Championship Subdivision schools chose to cancel their 2020 seasons, many of the big boys in the higher-profile Football Bowl Subdivision — the Alabamas and Clemsons of the world — chose to plow ahead and move forward with their 2020 seasons despite the threat posed by the virus.
“Seeing other teams pull it off was extremely frustrating, but we get it,” Hill said. “You can’t cry over spilled milk because of the decision that was made (by the Big Sky).
“Now we’ve got to make the most of this spring season, which we are excited about. These players have been preparing now for a long time to get ready to play a football game again.”
Of course, trying to play or practice in the not-so-springlike weather conditions of Utah can still present plenty of problems.
“It’s still frustrating right now,” Hill said after a series of snowstorms struck the state last week. “Today we had to practice at a soccer facility here in Ogden. We couldn’t get on our field because there was five inches of snow on it.
“The things that we’re dealing with right now, we usually don’t have to deal with until very, very late in the (national FCS) playoffs. It’s been a hassle. But I think our players are upbeat and our coaches are excited about what’s going on. All we can do is make the best of it. And other teams are going through things just as crazy if not worse.”
For example, two of the Big Sky’s founding members, the University of Montana and Montana State, will not be playing football at all this spring. And for good reason. Recent temperatures in Bozeman, Montana, dipped to minus-8 degrees for two or three days, with a windchill of minus-27.
“For the health and safety of their players, they just can’t pull this sort of thing off in the spring up there,” Hill said.
One of Weber State’s added frustrations to seeing its 2020 season suspended is that the Wildcats had conceivably one of the best teams in school history coming back last fall from a team that advanced all the way to the FCS semifinals for the first time in 2019.
Thankfully for the ‘Cats, most of those players chose to stick around and take another run at the national title this spring. So Weber State, with nine returning All-Big Sky players, four preseason All-Americans, three straight Big Sky titles and ranked between 2nd and 4th in the FCS preseason polls, will enter this abbreviated spring season with a king-sized bullseye on its back once again.
“That’s true, but it’s no bigger bullseye than we’ve had each of the last two years,” Hill said. “Once you’ve won the Big Sky Conference — no one had really repeated in the last 10 years, and for sure no one had three-peated in a long time — so we’ve had that bullseye on us for awhile now.
“Our players have done a great job of overcoming it last year. That 2019 team was extremely young, and in all reality, this team we have this year is still young, but they’re experienced now.
“When people are talking about what’s the potential of this team, if we can stay healthy and keep our difference-makers on the field, then this team has definitely got a shot (to make some noise),” he said.
“The big key to that is how we handle COVID, and hopefully we don’t get a position group or two knocked out for multiple games. And that’s going to be the critical component to all of this is how healthy we stay and how we handle the COVID situation. But if we do, I really believe this group has got a chance to be a special team.”
Indeed, injuries are always a factor for every sports team, especially football. But now, there’s COVID — ah, yes, that gigantic, dark cloud that’s hovering over the heads of not only every team but every person in America — that must be reckoned with, often with heartbreaking and tragic repercussions. The toll it has taken on human lives and the economy is unfathomable.
Strictly from a sports standpoint, we’ve already seen that COVID can cancel games or entire seasons, sideline players or entire position groups, and wreak havoc like no other opponent can.
We saw it happen last fall at the University of Utah, which had its first two games canceled, then had to go up against a strong USC team which had already played a couple of games in what turned out to be the Utes’ much-delayed, season-opening setback.
Coach Hill is well aware of what can happen in these precarious times, and the WSU program is doing everything in its power to try and prevent any virus-inflicted interruptions from derailing the Wildcats’ train.
“We want to play for sure,” Hill said. “… And we’re moving forward as though we’re going to have obstacles and things are going to come up and we’re going to have to overcome them.
“Bottom line is it’s not always going to be equal and we just want to get to that first game and play great and then just take one game at a time after that.
“It comes down to a question of can you balance all those things and handle those situations. Those are the things you’ve got to overcome,” Hill said of COVID concerns. “This year, that’s what this is going to come down to is: can you balance those kinds of things and overcome those situations. And if we do a good job of handling that, I think we’ve got a team that’s pretty special.”
Hill is entering his seventh season as Weber State’s head coach and, over the last four years, what his teams have collectively accomplished undeniably stands as the greatest run in the history of the Wildcats’ program.
With three straight Big Sky titles, three straight years with double-digit wins and four straight FCS playoff appearances, the Wildcats have never achieved this kind of success in the past.
Hill recently signed a two-year contract extension that will keep him on the WSU sidelines through the 2025 season.
“I am super excited about the direction of our program, what we have accomplished and where we are heading,” he said. “Weber State is a very special place to me, and I couldn’t be happier with the way our administration has backed me in building a championship program.”
However, that success is certainly no secret, and he is now being regularly mentioned virtually every time a head coaching vacancy opens up at more prestigious, higher profile/higher paying programs around the country.
He realizes that those schools may come knocking on his door with an offer someday. And though he is happy at Weber State, and the Wildcats’ program has his complete attention, he knows that such opportunities will come his way.
And he doesn’t shy away about obvious questions regarding his future.
“Everyone knows it’s part of the business,” Hill said. “I think the only way to respond to that is we love where we’re at and if an opportunity came along that you just couldn’t turn down and everyone understood what the situation was, then maybe it’s something we’ve got to take a look at.
“But right now, we’ve just got too much to do here to get caught up and hung up on all the other stuff that’s out there, all the rumors that go around.
“You never know what’s out there, and this team is what’s most important,” he said. “I do have an obligation to these players and the program and this institution. I’m most interested right now in putting the best product on the field that we can, and that’s our focus.”
The product the Wildcats have put on the field over the past several seasons has been mighty impressive.
Sure, he’s now 47-30 in his first six seasons at Weber State, and his teams have gone 34-14 in Big Sky play — the best winning percentage (.708) in conference games in WSU history and the second-highest overall winning percentage (.610) of any Wildcat football coach.
But if you subtract Hill’s first season at the helm, an agonizing 2-10 mark (2-6 Big Sky) when the Wildcats’ program was in full-blown rebuilding mode, then his career numbers improve to 45-20 overall (.692) and 32-8 (.800) in conference games.
Over the past four years, Weber State has gone 39-15 overall (.722) and a gaudy 27-5 (.844) in the Big Sky, with an impressive 23-3 record at home. And over the last three seasons, the Wildcats have compiled a 32-10 record overall (.762) and an amazing 21-3 Big Sky slate (.875).
With Hill also serving as the team’s defensive coordinator over the last three seasons, the Wildcats have been ranked in the top five in the country in each of the past three years and finished 2019 ranked third in the nation — their highest ranking ever in school history.
“Jay has done an incredible job in building our football program into what it is today,” said Weber State Director of Athletics Tim Crompton.
Hill, a Lehi, Utah native and former University of Utah player and assistant coach, cut his coaching teeth working for highly successful Ute coaches Ron McBride, Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham.
Now he’s built a highly successful program of his own at Weber State. And although the Wildcats’ sights are set on winning a national FCS championship, Hill insists that they’re not taking on a “title or bust” mantra this year.
“The goal is always to get better; that does not scare us that that’s the next step in our progression,” he said when spring practices got under way. “But this is not in my opinion and to you (media) guys ‘national championship or bust.’ You can’t really play it that way.
“Now is that a goal of ours? Absolutely. Do I think we have the pieces in place do it? Absolutely. Do things have to fall your way a little bit for that to happen? Yes, we understand that. That’s why we’re taking all the COVID precautions and we’ll do everything we can to try and stay healthy on the football field. But then the ball’s gotta bounce your way a little bit and you’ve gotta stay healthy. And those are the goals for us this year, though.”
Of course, on the heels of the 2021 spring season, there will be an unprecedented 2021 fall season as well this year.
And Hill, his coaching staff and the Wildcat players must prepare for a football marathon like nothing they’ve ever seen or experienced before.
“This is gonna be crazy,” he said. “We have six regular-season games this spring, plus potentially four postseason games. Next fall, we have 11 games plus potentially five postseason games. That could be 26 games in a year, and if it plays out that way, that means we’d pretty much play a football game every other week for a year. Think of that — 26 games in a year.
“So we as coaches are going to have to be smart on how we’re going to manage it. Now hopefully we’re going to get to the postseason, and if we do what we think this team can, then we’ve got a chance to do something special — and to make the postseason twice in one year and to win championships and do all those things that we’ve set our goals at, it’s all out there in front of us
“It could be special if we handle it right,” Hill said, “and that’s gonna be my job to make sure we’re keeping guys fresh and dealing with injuries and all the other stuff that will come with this season or seasons or extended year that lies ahead of us.”
2021 Weber State spring football season schedule
Feb. 27 — at Idaho State, 4 p.m.
March 13 — vs. UC Davis, 1 p.m.
March 27 — vs. Northern Arizona, 1 p.m.
April 3 — at Southern Utah, 2 p.m.
April 10 — vs. Idaho State, 1 p.m.
April 17 — at Cal Poly, TBA
April 24 — FCS playoffs, first round.