By Jay Drew • Salt Lake Tribune
Spend any amount of time in Sanpete County, and you will learn that the rural communities in central Utah treasure the now defunct Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, lieutenant governor Spencer Cox of Fairview, Wasatch Academy’s nationally prominent high school basketball program in Mount Pleasant, and Snow College football in Ephraim.
The latter, folks along US-89 will quickly and proudly point out, isn’t going the way of the pageant seven miles down the road.
“Snow College football is far too important to this community and this school to let die,” says Snow athletic director Robert Nielson, who also doubles as the school’s head men’s basketball coach.
It could also be said that the state’s only junior college football program is also too important to Utah’s five four-year college football programs — Utah, BYU, Utah State, Weber State and Southern Utah — to see go away because all five use it as a pipeline for talent.
“That’s something we pride ourselves on — being a place where the local Division I schools can look for immediate help,” said new Snow football coach Andrew Mitchell, a tall, energetic and gregarious former Badgers offensive lineman who took the head job last December despite plenty of offers to go elsewhere when two-year Snow coach Paul Peterson left for Dixie State in St. George.
So many former Badgers have made it to the NFL that school officials have lost count, but the list of notable alumni who made it to the NFL includes former Utah linemen Garett Bolles and Star Lotulelei, ex-Utah running back Matt Asiata and former BYU defensive tackle Brett Keisel.
“I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think this program would be here for a long, long time,” Mitchell said.
Some prominent college coaches have also passed through Ephraim, including Virginia’s Bronco Mendenhall and Central Florida’s Josh Heupel.
To outsiders, however, Snow’s football demise appeared to be a distinct possibility last December when its conference, the Western States Football League, announced it was going out of business due to six members — all in Arizona — dropping football. Shortly after that, two more Arizona schools, Eastern Arizona College and Arizona Western, announced they, too, were dropping football.
That left Snow a college football independent — just like BYU up the road — and sent Mitchell scrambling to find teams to play. He spends at least an hour a day working on the schedule, while also teaching four classes per semester and doing everything else associated with being a head football coach.
“Over the past six months, I feel like I’ve contacted every junior college football program in the country, so the challenge was there, certainly,” Mitchell said last week.
As of the end of June, Mitchell had lined up eight games — four on its 2-year-old artificial turf field at Badger Stadium and four on the road, including a game in Florida against a school called ASA Miami College that the Badgers walloped 71-27 last year at home.
“We would like to get into a conference — that would be our preference,” Nielson said. “Scheduling has been difficult. But there’s no danger of Snow College giving up football.”
As proof, Mitchell and Nielson point from their offices in the building that houses the swimming pool and the basketball gymnasium on Center Street in the direction of the football stadium to a $5.8 million building currently under construction — the Eric and Chandra Bergeson Athletic Center. When completed, the facility will include a new weight room, football offices, a study hall, a fitness center for the campus and community, and more.
Eric Bergeson is a former Snow College and BYU defensive back who played briefly in the NFL, then got his MBA at Stanford and has made it big in the financial advising business and, like many former Badgers, wants to ensure the program stays afloat, Mitchell said.
“One of my big things, aside from winning games, is a more structured financial support system for Badger athletics, specifically football,” Mitchell said. “We haven’t come up with a name, yet. Maybe Badger Club, or Badger Boosters. We will see.”
Of more immediate concern for the former NFL player — after his All-America career at Snow, Mitchell moved on to Oklahoma State for two years and then spent time in the pros with the Bengals, Seahawks and Jaguars — is continuing the tradition of winning established by predecessors such as Steve Coburn, Britt Maughan and Peterson, who compiled an 18-4 record before taking on the task of guiding Dixie State into Division I college football.
“We’re absolutely, 100 percent committed to it,” Mitchell said. “You’ve got more skin in the game when you are a product of this place, obviously. It is special to me. We’ve put together a great staff. We’re excited about what the future holds.”
Former BYU standout Jan Jorgensen is the new defensive coordinator and Matt Mitchell joins the staff as offensive coordinator after spending the last two years at Western Kentucky. Former BYU player and Skyline High coach Zac Erekson is the associate head coach and defensive backs coach, while former Ute Lei Talamaivao is the defensive line coach. Nelson Fishback is the special teams coordinator and receivers coach and Harry Wright is the running backs coach and recruiting coordinator.
“It is really good football,” Nielson says. “It is great football. It is going to be good for the future of two-year college football in the nation, because we are going to be playing everybody. We are going to become kind of the measuring stick across the country in a lot of ways to help [people] figure out the rankings, decide who’s good and who isn’t.”
When Mitchell was named head coach, Snow College president Gary Carlston addressed the future of the program, saying it was vital to provide increased opportunities for young men to continue their education and to enhance campus life and involvement with the community.
“There is still work to do to find membership in a football conference to sustain the program, and we are hoping to make progress in the near future,” Carlston told KSL.com.
Mitchell and Nielson said they have reached out to many schools in California, but those schools don’t belong to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) and are hesitant about playing Snow, let alone allowing the Badgers into one of their conferences, because they don’t give out scholarships like Snow does.
They’ve also reached out to the Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC), which includes community colleges in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia, Canada. Talks to add some NWAC teams to the schedule are in the works.
But for now, they’re bullish on moving ahead as an independent.
Travel will increase “just a little bit,” Nielson says, but “we committed to the school that it really wasn’t going to be too much of an increase in our budget to keep football. It means too much to us to let it fade away.”
Like that other community treasure down the street.