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December 10, 2010For the University of Utah mens basketball team, a trip to play Big Ten member Michigan is a homecoming of sorts. It is, at least for a good portion of the Runnin' Utes.
As is well known, head coach Jim Boylen is from East Grand Rapids, Michigan. Additionally, assistant coach Jeff Smith (Carson City, Mich) Director of Basketball Operations Jon Dykema(Grand Rapids, Mich),Director of Player Development Jason Larson (Manistee, Mich) video coordinator Mark Plaisier(Grand Rapids, Mich)and Graduate Manager Charlie Henry (Livonia, Mich) all hail from Boylen's home state. Ute center Jason Washburn and wing Will Clyburn are both from Michigan; Washburn hails from Battle Creek and Clyburn from Detroit.
With several Michigan natives directly associated with the program, the Utes' trip to Michigan is not coincidental, but it's far less for the staff than it is for the two Ute players who call Michigan home.
"We promised [Washburn and Clyburn] we'd get them a game. We played in Oklahoma for [former Ute] Jordan Cyphers," said Boylen. "It's a big deal. They made a commitment to come here, why can't we go there for one game?"
Washburn and Clyburn both addressed Friday's game in Ann Arbor and not surprisingly, both downplayed the trip. Both, though, were visibly excited about the trip home.
"It's going to be a lot of family, a lot of fans there. We might have more fans there than Michigan," Clyburn joked. "It's great. Coach [Boylen] said he was going to do it for me, and I guess he didn't lie about it. He said he'd get me back home to play in front of my family, and he did it."
"We're trying not to let it be a distraction, we have a game to play and win," explained Washburn. "It's going to be a lot of fun. I'm going to have a lot of people there. I'm looking forward to it, but trying to not to let that be too much of a focus or it could get in the way of what we're there to do. But it means a lot."
Scheduling games in the home states of players within any given program is nothing new. For Utah and Coach Boylen, however, it is perhaps a little bit more personal. In fact, he considers everything within the Utah basketball program personal. For Boylen, the team and the supporting staff are very much a family.
Boylen has a genuine, personal interest in his players, far beyond their role on the hardwood. It's possible that the family atmosphere has little impact on the final win-loss record, but Coach Boylen remains passionately devoted to his players nonetheless. Working closely with Athletic Director Chris Hill, who more than willingly goes out of his way to schedule "home games" for current Ute players, Boylen is actively attempting to get games in Texas for Chris Hines and Sean Glover, thus far, to no avail.
"We're trying to get a game down in Texas for Chris [Hines] and Shawn [Glover], said Boylen. "We're trying Rice, Houston, Texas, Baylor, whoever. We just can't get one. We'll keep trying though."
With a roster that reaches from New York to Oakland and Georgia to Michigan, Ute fans can likely look forward to some interesting schedules and matchups in the near future, as Boylen's philosophy on getting his guys to play at home doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon.
"Getting a guy home to play in front of his family is one of the most gratifying things as a coach," explained Boylen. "It's a sacrifice coming all this way from home and giving your all."
If it sounds like Boylen is speaking from experience, he is. Boylen grew up in East Grand Rapids, roughly 60 miles from Michigan State University, in nearby Lansing. Boylen played his college ball at Maine and was able to recall a fond memory of his experience playing at home.
"When I was in college, at Maine, my coach got a series with Michigan State. My junior year, I was able to go home and play at Michigan State, and we lost, but it was still great," recalled Boylen. "My senior year, we had Michigan State [in Maine] and won. We beat Michigan State. What a memory. So I've lived it, I've lived going home and playing for my family. It's special. It's a big deal."
The Utes take on 6-2 Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan Friday December 10 at 4:30 PM MST. The game will air nationally on the Big Ten Network.