After a hot, early-August day of fall camp practice on a scorching turf field, many Weber State football players shuffled off the field and into huge tubs of nearby ice water. Some milled around the track, talking to position coaches or other teammates.
All were surrounded by big changes at Stewart Stadium.
Beyond the south end zone was a frame of white metal where WSU’s big, purple scoreboard once hung. Purple sheets previously framed small sections of light bulbs that displayed time, score, down, distance and more. Those surrounded what was once a modest video screen that, in 2019, had become a scant part of the stadium experience.
Crews were preparing the same framework for the hanging of LED panels that would turn the entirety of the same square footage into one massive, high-definition videoboard.
That was only somewhat noticeable, given the edifice that had risen beyond the north end zone.
Attaching to the west grandstand and curving around most of the north bend of the track was a new, mostly finished, $16 million stadium addition to house new locker rooms, offices, meeting rooms, equipment rooms, a ticket office and souvenir shop.
Following the building’s wrap around the track to the corner closest to the east grandstand brings you to a large corner office with glass walls on nearly all sides, providing a grand vista of both the mountains and the stadium where Jay Hill and future head coaches will sit with players and recruits to discuss the vision of Weber State football.
A few days later, players would move into the building’s big, new weightlifting area.
The football team has accomplished big things in competition, too.
Before 2018, Weber State had never won consecutive conference titles, nor had it ever earned a national seed or a bye in the FCS playoffs.
But now, the Wildcats are a on a three-year run of going 20-4 in conference games and are 21-6 overall in the last two seasons. WSU has shared consecutive Big Sky championships and, not only did the Wildcats finally earn that coveted national seed in 2018, they were awarded with the No. 2 slot in the bracket.
Those consecutive conference titles came with two straight years of winning at least one game in the playoffs — and also came with associated heartbreak in consecutive quarterfinal losses.
In 2017, No. 11 Weber State blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown right before halftime against No. 1 James Madison, but the score was called back on a frustratingly dubious holding call.
Later, WSU scored with 3:14 left to go up 28-20 but, somehow, when that 3:14 had expired, the Wildcats had lost 31-28.
In 2018, the No. 2 seed meant a path of home contests to the national championship game but Weber State won only the first, a 48-23 drubbing of No. 20 Southeast Missouri State.
The next week, No. 12 Maine kept WSU from cashing in on scoring chances and eventually put the game away on a gutsy 46-yard field goal that made it 23-12 with 1:34 remaining.
A road paved to the biggest thing of all — playing for the national title — had crumbled.
How does a program go from an elite, two-year run to becoming consistently dominant? Perhaps even a dynasty?
“We’ve definitely talked about it a lot,” senior linebacker Auston Tesch said.
But on this early August day at Stewart Stadium, with a sizable scoreboard and a program-changing facility both nearing completion, big things were far from the minds of players and coaches.
“We’ve got to do the little things right,” junior quarterback Jake Constantine said. “You never see anything from North Dakota State having guys suspended for anything. They’re always doing the little things right and that’s why they put themselves in the championship game every year.
“It’s crazy all the teams you see like Alabama, the New England Patriots, who are repeatedly good, they are always doing the little things right … even if they’re not the most athletic team.”
The little things.
“If we can find ways to do a few more little things right, that can be the difference in taking that big step,” Hill said. “We’re not far off. But we do need to take another step. I think it’s a matter of doing a few more little things right or better.”
As good as the Wildcats have been, a competitive coach like Hill would remember the little things that led to a stunning, turnover-laden, 28-24 loss at Northern Arizona last year. Or, the little things that led to a tough, key 35-30 road win at No. 22 North Dakota.
“We’ve got to execute the pass game a little better, we have weapons on the outside and need to get those guys the ball,” Hill said as he began his list. “Defensively last year, there were a couple missed opportunities we can take advantage of better.
“Just those situational things the great teams do a little better than we did last year, especially in the big games,” Hill continued. “We had an opportunity at James Madison and didn’t take advantage of it. We had opportunities multiple times in the first half against Maine to give us a two-score lead and make it hard on them, but we just let them hang around and before you know it, we’re behind and they were doing that to us.”
Players and coaches seem to know what those little things are — the ones they feel kept them from reaching higher heights in previous seasons that, when taken care of, will prepare the way for taking that next step.
“What we do now, how we execute in practice is going to lead to success in games. We know what we have to do to become champions, we have been the past two seasons,” junior receiver Rashid Shaheed said. “We just need to finish. The last two seasons, we’ve been right there, been very close, but we haven’t finished. Once we finish, there’s not another team that can beat us.”
Hill echoed Shaheed: “We’re trying to work on toughness and discipline and practicing the right way ... execution.”
Others pointed to off-the-field factors.
“We’ve been good and we’ve been winning, but the next step is not necessarily practicing more. We need everyone to buy in more to the off-field stuff — spending more time watching our practice film, watching opponent film,” senior defensive end Jonah Williams said. “That mental edge is what that next step is for us.”
Constantine said WSU needs to “limit distractions.”
“Making sure people are staying on top of their personal lives on and off the field, making sure they’re in their books studying for the game but also studying for school,” he said. “Sometimes we get guys who aren’t able to help us because they’re not taking care of things.”
Tesch said a continued and deeper buy-in is required.
“If we get everybody on board, we’ll be able to make it deeper into the season,” he said. “It’s going to take everybody. People get hurt throughout the season, young guys have to step up. Everyone’s going to have a role to play so we need everybody on board 100% to make it.”
It all sounds good, but are the right pieces in place?
“Coach Hill is the best I’ve ever seen do it, culture-wise. Every player he has follows him. He’s a player’s coach, you want to go fight for him every practice, every day,” Constantine said. “He wants the best for you and the team, and he expects that out of you because that’s what a winning culture is.
“That’s why everything we having coming at this building, this facility, it’s built through a winning culture. You don’t get that by losing. We know what the expectation is. And we’re so balanced this year … we could be really dangerous.”