ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Ask John Baxter about the Utah Utes football program.
Go ahead and fire your best shot.
Ask him about the ins and outs, the records, the coaches and the traditions–the Michigan Wolverines special teams coordinator knows it all.
And he will school you.
“This football program at Utah, I have unbelievable respect for,” said Baxter, who coaches his first game with Michigan on Sept. 3 vs. the Utes in Salt Lake City. “My father-in-law (Ron McBride) was the head coach there for double-digit years (1990-2002). He built that program from a team that had been to only a couple of bowl games to a team that won every year–a team that had a winning record against BYU.”
For those unaware, BYU and Utah are fierce rivals located within an hour of one another. Dating back to 1896, “The Holy War” is one of the oldest rivalries in all of college football. Due in part to McBride’s six victories from 1990 to 2002, the Utes lead the series 57-34-4.
Want more proof of Baxter’s Utes-pertise? How’s this for a special twist on the special teams coordinator’s story?
“I played against them,” Baxter proudly said. “I got married in that town (Salt Lake City). There are coaches on that staff, including the head coach (Kyle Whittingham), that were at my wedding. I’ve played against them when they were in the WAC and I was at Fresno State. I played against them in a bowl game in the (1999) Las Vegas Bowl (L, 17-16)–when they were in the Mountain West and we (Fresno State) were in the WAC.
I played against them at USC when they first came to the Pac-12. So the growth of that program since 1997-98 has been spectacular. And really, (father-in-law) Ron McBride and Kyle Whittingham have pretty much–other than the two years Urban Meyer was there (2003, 2004)–have dominated a quarter century. They’ve shown great stability.”
Part of the Utes’ stability can be directly traced to their efficient special teams and defense.
According to CFBStats.com, Utah had the No. 30-ranked total defense in the FBS this past season. In 2013, the Utes ranked No. 61. The year before that, they finished ranked at No. 36. In 2011, they were No. 40, so on and so forth–again, a steady presence on defense for a team that’s won 60 games since 2008.
The Utes have had two losing seasons during that span: They went 5-7 in 2013 and 2014, their first two years in the Pac-12. This past season, they got back on track with a 9-4 mark highlighted by a 45-10 Las Vegas Bowl victory over Colorado State.
With senior punter and Ray Guy Award-winner Tom Hackett and redshirt sophomore kicker Andy Phillips, an All Pac-12 first-teamer in 2014, Whittingham’s Utes have quite the advantage, said Baxter.
Phillips, a 5’10,” 210-pound Lou Groza candidate, has made 40 of 48 field goal attempts and has converted 85 of 86 point-after-attempts. Hackett, a 5’11,” 195-pound history maker for Utah and the Pac-12–he was their first Guy winner–averages 44.24 yards per punt and has 45 punts of 50 or more yards.
They’re difference-makers, and Baxter has paid close attention to their careers. When asked “how much thought” he’s put into game-planning against two of the nation’s best, Baxter was simple and direct.
“If sleepless nights count as ‘a lot of thought,’ I have,” he said with a smile.
That’s that respect thing again.
“One of their formulas for winning is great defense and great kicking game,” said Baxter. “I’ll tell you what–put it on film, and you look at the games last year… They swept California–they beat Stanford, USC and Fresno State and they did it with defense and kicking game. If you’re not careful, they can put you on a long field and it’s hard to dig out of that hole.”
And that hole can get deep–roughly 10 points deep when viewing Phillips’ potential impact. In 2014, his right foot put 12 points on the board, helping the Utes to a 30-28 road victory over UCLA. Three weeks later, his pair of field goals helped seal a 24-21 win over USC. Three weeks later, two point-after attempts proved invaluable during Utah’s 27-20 double-overtime road victory over Stanford. Since becoming a starter in 2013, Phillips has produced 10 or more points eight times–and five happened in 2014.
Being a special teams guy, Baxter appreicates that type of steady reliability. And that’s just the kicking part. There are other areas–such as returning and defending–in which Utah excels.
However, the emotional and personal connections trump any stat, number or score in the archives.
But that doesn’t mean that he’s not excited to show off his new toys Thursday on the familiar stomping grounds of Rice-Eccles Stadium. That means that punters Kenny Allen and Blake O’Neill, along with kickers Andrew David and Kyle Seychel, must be prepared for the grand debut/reunion.
“I’ll tell you, it has unbelievable significance to me,” said Baxter. “You know, it’s sort of like…One, I don’t like playing against my friends. But hey, you know, Coach Harbaugh and his brother (John) coached in the Super Bowl (against one another)…”
Being an outsider, enemy, foe or otherwise is only temporary for Baxter. Once it’s all over on Thursday, he’ll return to being to his Utah-appreciating self.
But Don’t be fooled by the smiles and compliments. Baxter, just like Harbaugh, is out for one thing on Sept. 3.
And it doesn’t involve congratulating Utah on a win.
“It’s like pick-up basketball, if we’re going to play pick-up basketball, I’m going to try to win,” Baxter said of coaching against friends and extended family. “If we’re going to go out and play beanbags, I’m going to try to win. But you know, like I said, I have seen this (Utah) program grow and watched it myself from the inside. It’s a place that I have unbelievably fond memories for…
I hold the head coach in the highest of esteem–the guy’s a great defensive coach, a great special teams coach. He’s been there 10 years. He’s done a good job taking a team to the Pac-12, but let me tell you something: This is the opener for Michigan, and it couldn’t be any bigger. They have an unbelievably great environment for games and it’ll be fun to go, you know, turn the heat up on our guys and see what we got.”
Follow Adam Biggers of Today’s U on Twitter @AdamBiggers81