The University of Utah’s football team looks like it might find itself in the second edition of the College Football Playoff, while BYU and Utah State likely will end up in bowl games themselves.
But there’s one more college football team in Utah that might just taste a little postseason success of its own this year.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Southern Utah Thunderbirds.
To many Utahns, the thought of there being anything south of Spanish Fork — or, at least, anything between Spanish Fork and St. George — comes as a bit of a surprise. But 250 miles away from the state capitol in Cedar City is a Football Championship Subdivision squad that has strong playoff aspirations.
When I attended SUU, the “T” in T-Birds might as well have stood for “terrible.”
The team went 1-10 when I was a freshman, leading to the firing of head coach C. Ray Gregory. Gary Andersen — yes, that Gary Andersen — coached the T-Birds to a 4-7 record in his lone season at the helm before returning to the U of U. His successor, Wes Meier, got the team to 6-5 in 2004, only to go 1-9, 3-8 and 0-11 in the next three seasons, leading to his ouster.
In came Ed Lamb, a former BYU player and assistant under Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego. The program has improved slowly but surely ever since.
SUU went 6-5 in 2010, its first winning record in six years. The next season, the T-Birds stunned UNLV on the road. They slipped to 5-6 in 2012, but picked up wins over Big Sky powerhouses Montana, Eastern Washington (which had current Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams at the helm) and Northern Arizona.
The next season, Southern Utah made its first-ever postseason appearance, posting an 8-5 record that included a win over Football Bowl Subdivision opponent South Alabama. The T-Birds took a step back last year, going 3-9, but they’ve turned things around early in 2015.
This year, the T-Birds gave Utah State all it could handle and earned its first shutout against an FCS opponent in 17 years in a 44-0 shellacking of in-state rival Weber State.
What’s the secret? Perhaps it’s that Lamb’s coaching staff has a vested interest in seeing the program do well. The list of former SUU players on the T-Birds’ staff includes Sam Lutui, Jared Ursua, Aaron Fernandez, Jacob Allie, Fatu Moala and Nick Nissen.
Defensive line coach Ryan Hunt, a Tooele High graduate and Erda native, never missed a game during his career as an offensive lineman at SUU. He’s seen the program through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. He’s been a part of the T-Birds’ coaching staff for the past 10 years, and has helped SUU become known for strong defensive play. He also serves as Lamb’s assistant head coach.
Newly minted offensive coordinator Justin Walterscheid also played for the T-Birds as a kick returner in the early 2000s, and was the primary play-caller during SUU’s playoff run in 2013. He takes over for Gary Crowton, who stepped down from the position earlier this season.
Walterscheid’s connection to the T-Birds goes beyond his own playing career. His father, Lenny Walterscheid, went from Grand County High School in Moab, to what was then Southern Utah State College, to the National Football League, where he played eight seasons. His uniform number was retired by both GCHS and SUU, and he is a member of the SUU Athletics Hall of Fame.
Could SUU return to the postseason in 2015? The Thunderbirds already won their first two Big Sky games against Northern Colorado and Weber State by a combined score of 74-3. Their remaining schedule doesn’t include Montana or Eastern Washington, and they play Northern Arizona at home in the season finale.
A 7-4 or 8-3 record isn’t totally out of the question, and should be good enough to get them there. Thanks to their coaching staff, the T-Birds will be prepared for whatever challenge they have in front of them.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. He worked for the SUU football program as a freshman — a job that took him to such exotic locales as Troy, Alabama; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Missoula, Montana. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.