Saturday, March 14, 2009 | 9:12 p.m.
Utah basketball coach Jim Boylen coaches out of fear.
“Fear of failure,” he said. “Fear of not reaching your potential.”
His voice was a coarse whisper outside his team’s Thomas & Mack Center locker room long after the Utes had won the solo championship he had challenged it to win.
It wasn’t long after he had broken down a bit on a podium during a media interview session when he cut to the chase about why he coaches out of fear.
“Fear of having your selfish b.s. affect whether you win or lose, because a lot of guys want to be right instead of win,” Boylen said. “I tell them, ‘(Bleep) that. We’re going to do what’s right for the team and win, not what’s right for you.’
“Guys aren’t raised that way these days.”
The 44-year-old Boylen was raised that way by Helen Boylen, whom he spoke with in Michigan earlier Saturday.
“Just trust God,” she told the youngest of her three sons, “and it’ll be OK.”
Trust also is a theme when he talks with his players.
“You better trust somebody,” Boylen said. “You better figure out who it is. You better trust a system or your work. If you don’t earn it, in work, how can you trust it?
“If you don’t go and work out, lift and run and shoot, how can you trust it?”
His first day on the job, at his introductory press conference, Boylen pointed to the back of the room at the Utah players he inherited and said, "Those are MY guys!"
His second day, he had those players report to the weight room for mandatory lifting at 6:30 a.m.
Saturday, at the end of Boylen’s second season in Salt Lake City, he won an outright championship for the first time as a head coach.
Utah turned a 20-12 deficit near the end of the first half into a 26-20 advantage early in the second half, and the Utes (24-9) hung on for a 52-50 victory over San Diego State (23-9).
The Utes won their first Mountain West Conference tournament title since 2004 and will get the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament that will be announced Sunday.
Utah shared the regular-season conference crown with BYU and New Mexico, all of whom finished 12-4.
Senior guard Lawrence Borha opened the floodgates for Boylen when Borha talked about that first press conference, when Boylen point out HIS guys.
That’s when Borha and the rest of the Utes straightened their spines.
“That’s when I knew we’d be a good team,” Borha said. “He did his work, believed in us, thought we could win.”
Asked about Borha’s comments, Boylen struggled before a group of writers and broadcasters. He struggled for composure. He poked at his microphone stand.
His eyes became glassy and red. He wiped away a tear or two. He sighed. He sniffled. He dodged the question, saying he’d return to it.
Those 30 or 40 seconds felt like 30 or 40 minutes.
Then he got back to it, saying when Borha cut his hair he transformed himself from a cartoon character who thought he was a great player – “who wasn’t worth a (bleep),” Boylen said – into a teammate.
“He started to take responsibility for his actions on and off the floor,” Boylen said.
Boylen talked about the transformations of a few other Utes, but taking responsibility resonated with Boylen deeper than he let on before the press and might have triggered his emotions.
Back outside his locker room, Boylen remembered East Grand Rapids (Mich.) High hoops coach Rick Albro.
Boylen’s father, a standout prep linebacker who played football at Michigan State and boxed, wasn’t around to raise Jim and his two brothers.
Meet you Saturday at noon, his father told Jim. Jim wouldn’t hear from him for weeks.
“That’s when I really learned toughness,” Boylen said. “Tough love is really what he taught me. That’s what I do with my guys. He made me take ownership for my actions and accountability for what I did.
“He made me accountable to working and doing what’s right.”
His stints under Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich also toughened Boylen for his task at Utah.
“I talk about mental toughness, bringing it every day,” he said. “Toughness is being a teammate. Toughness is doing the right things, sharing and trusting. That’s toughness.”
It’s not always about being physical or fighting.
“It’s an ability to do what’s right and stay with what’s right for your team, for your teammates,” Boylen said. “Trust your coaches. That’s toughness.
“There’s a physical toughness in our program. We talk about that a lot, about not having fear of contact. Don’t be a (weakling). You have to play through contact.”
How frequently did he dream of one day running his own collegiate program during all that time he spent under Izzo and Tomjanovich?
“Every day,” Boylen said. “I just dreamt of looking into my own players’ eyes and having the chance to put my handprint on a program. I knew the system I wanted to do and I knew how I wanted to play.”
That’s what occurred this weekend at the Thomas & Mack Center, where Utah stifled TCU, Wyoming and SDSU into shooting a combined 35.7 percent.
There’s a reason why it looked like a blue-collar Michigan State game.
“I’ve coached over 1,700 games,” Boylen said. “People forget that. I’ve been preparing for 1,700 games.”
To see it all come to fruition early Saturday night overpowered Boylen. He was asked about his emotion and passion outside his locker room.
“No, I felt like a jerk,” Boylen said of his dramatic public display. “But that’s the way it is.”