OGDEN — It’s no secret, but Thursday’s season opener is anything but a normal game for Weber State head football coach Jay Hill.
Hill will take his Wildcats south to the Salt Lake Valley and up the hill to Rice-Eccles Stadium where he played for two years and coached for 13 more.
After transferring to Utah from Ricks College, Hill started at cornerback for two seasons for the Utes, leading the Mountain West Conference in interceptions as a senior in 1999.
“That place was so special to me for such a long time, for a lot of reasons,” Hill said. “I remember making plays in that stadium as a player. I remember some huge games we won as a player and a coach, so many awesome memories with the fans and coaches who are still there.”
Hill was a graduate assistant for Utah from 2001-03 and an administrative assistant in 2004 when the Utes went undefeated and won the Fiesta Bowl.
Head coach Urban Meyer departed for Florida and longtime Utah assistant Kyle Whittingham was given the reins to the program. During his introductory press conference, Whittingham said he’d hire Hill as a full-time coach and Hill did that for nine seasons before becoming Weber State’s guy.
“He did a great job for us while he was here in every area, whether it was special teams, offense, defense, recruiting. Across the board, he was outstanding,” Whittingham said about Hill.
Not only Whittingham, but Hill coached with Gary Andersen for many years in Salt Lake City. Andersen, who went off to Utah State, Wisconsin and Oregon State as head coach, is now back with Utah as an assistant.
Hill doesn’t hedge when talking about coaching against his mentors.
“When you’re going up against Whitt, you’re going up against one of the elite coaches who, in my opinion, is one of the smartest Xs and Os guys ever,” he said. “Now, they’ve got Coach Andersen who’s an unbelievable motivator and a great coach himself. So in my opinion, that’s two unbelievable head coaches.”
In his fifth season at Weber State, Hill says he still speaks often with those two, plus Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, as brothers of the coaching fraternity.
“They’re guys I trust and believe in. When I want to bounce an idea off someone, those are usual the ones I go to,” Hill said.
“There’s been less this year because we play each other Game 1 ... I’m sure the communication will start right back up the week after we play.”
It’s still close enough that even some players Hill remembers sitting in their living rooms to recruit are still playing for the Utes.
But Hill has his own credentials now, too, having turned a two-win team into a program that finished last season ranked No. 5 and enters this season at No. 8.
Those things don’t go unnoticed.
“Jay’s done a great job and hasn’t surprised me a bit,” Whittingham said. “He’s smart, disciplined, well-organized. He has a grasp of all three phases, offense, defense, special teams. And he has good rapport with the players.”
With the mutual respect and 15 years of history, it’s no wonder there are some different feelings about the game — “There’s a lot going into this thing,” Hill said.
“But I know this: I’m excited to go in there wearing purple, excited to go in there with this team. I can’t wait to get the ball kicked off.”