Crowton, meanwhile, assumed the reins from a legend in coach LaVell Edwards who recorded a 6-6 season the year before, and guided the Cougars to an impressive 12-2 season record in 2001 that had media pundits nationally declaring him an "offensive genius." He was named MWC Coach of the Year and won BYU's first outright MWC title ever.
How times have changed. Both men, widely respected for their football minds, find themselves on the coaching "hot seat" this fall, in jeopardy of losing their jobs if they do not substantially improve on their 2003 season records. Willingham's Fighting Irish squad could do no better than 5-7 last season while Crowton's Cougars hit a 30-year low with a dismal 4-8 season record.
Against this precarious backdrop, their teams line up opposite each other Saturday with much more than a win, loss or pride on the line. "It just goes to show you it's not what you did for me in the past; it's what you're doing for me right now. Every year is a new year and a new opportunity," Crowton noted on Thursday.
Crowton told reporters he and Willingham golfed together once when the latter was head coach at Stanford. "I had the chance to get to know him a little bit. I just know him enough to say ‘Hello' and talk to him."
He added: "I have great respect for him (Willingham) and thought he did an outstanding job. Look at what he did at Stanford. They had a very good year and then the next they didn't have a very good one at all. Then all of a sudden, he just knuckled down and the next year they won eight games. The year after, he's the coach at Notre Dame."
Both coaches and their teams are looking for personal redemption this season as they make final preparations for Saturday's nationally televised ESPN contest in primetime.
"I think we're very organized," Crowton said of his players and coaches. "We started with our dress rehearsal, went through all the plays and just finished with the plays being scripted. We've got everything is down on paper … We've got it all so. Based on the experiences I've had … we're going to be very well organized, especially going into this first game," Crowton said.
"Right now," he continued, "we just got to make sure the players know what we want them to do exactly. There's still time to go over the video and the plays. That's what we'll do right up until game time," Crowton commented.
At this point, coaches on both sides clearly understand and have game-planned their opponents' strengths and weaknesses on paper, even if they haven't faced each other up close and personal this season.
"Defensively, our front is good. We're a little thin at backer," Crowton noted. I thought we were OK, but we had a couple of problems at linebacker. (Bryant) Atkinson and (Paul) Walkenhorst were the biggest two. K.C. Bills, we moved over and he got hurt."
He added, "I like our first four or five guys (linebackers), but the guys behind that we've got to develop. They're working hard. Our secondary is decent, a little bit thin behind the safeties. Our corners aren't bad, but the safeties are working hard to catch up. It's encouraging. You like to stay healthy when you play a challenging schedule. It's a concern, but at this point going in, we are who we are and we'll just get after it. Actually, I like our depth better on offense.
Asked to comment on plans to liberally use freshmen on offense, he said: "Austin Collie is very confident, mature and has been around football because of his father (Scott, a former BYU receiver standout and Canadian Football League professional). Antwaun Harris is the same way. They're two of the most mature guys as far as handling game stuff up to this point, but come game day, we'll see. Right now, I feel really good. Dennis Pitta (freshman tight end backup) was here in the spring and he's very mature also," Crowton said.
He added that he feels more comfortable about his quarterback and offensive line position this year compared to last season.
"…The two positions we were really youthful with last year, we're not as youthful this year (quarterback and offensive line). Last year in our top 11 guys (offensive line) we had seven freshmen. This year going in, we only have one freshman in our two deep this year on our offensive line. We don't have very many seniors, but we're not as young as we were last year."
Alluding to his quarterbacks, he said "John (Beck) was a freshman and Jackson Brown hadn't played as a walk-on. Then Matt (Berry) got hurt and the quarterbacks went through all that experience (injuries). Hopefully it will give them some maturity.
"Receivers-wise, we have a mixture of veterans that played last year. We didn't lose very many guys, but we have new younger and new receivers to go along with that mix. I like the balance," he said.
Crowton also discounted Internet-based rumors that injured wide receiver Michael Morris was either leaving BYU or contemplating it. "I haven't heard anything about that. I just know he's in school here ready to go. He hasn't asked us for any request (scholarship release). He came by upset because somebody had mentioned that. He's here in class and registered."
Questioned about a media report that Arizona State transfer quarterback Mike Affleck was booked by police for alcohol consumption in early August before he signed as a BYU walk-on, Crowton said, "I'm not sure of the particulars. I talked to Mike and said if there's any incident in that regard, I wouldn't let him on this football team for now until all that stuff gets taken care of through the university."
He spoke positively about his running game answering reporters questions about naming Naufahu Tahi as his starter for the Notre Dame game. "Fahu Tahi is going to do good. He's a very well-rounded back. He can catch; he can block; he can run; he's disciplined and knows what he's doing. He's a leader," he said.
In light of all that has transpired in the last two seasons and all that must transpire this fall, Crowton concluded: "We have a good foundation. If we come out and have a good year, we're going to be good for awhile and that's encouraging."
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