This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Conventional football wisdom dictates that an onside kick is a risky play. In the NFL or college, it's generally a last-ditch attempt to regain possession that rarely succeeds.
Some Utah Blaze fans may wonder, why oh why is coach Ron James so fond of onside kicks? Through 11 games, the team has attempted an AFL-high 19 and recovered only four of them.
The thing fans should know about James is this: He doesn't take risks.
Any move he makes has a calculation some of them literal percentages that he's worked on to prepare for these situations. So when he calls an onside kick, as he frequently does, either way, he's looking to score before the clock runs out, either by getting the ball back right away or leaving some time on the clock to make a last-minute drive.
"It's not a move of desperation," he says, sitting at his desk surrounded by binders and greaseboards filled with research. "It's hard for fans to understand. When coach [Ron] McBride came on staff, he gave me this look of horror when we said we'd do onside kicks in these situations."
As much as he can, the 48-year-old James won't leave the fate of the Utah Blaze to chance. In his two-year tenure, he's made the details his top priority. His mind is as sharp as his haircut, a close-cropped silver buzz that reflects the military bearing of his childhood home.
James' meticulous nature gave the Blaze ownership confidence enough to expand his responsibilities to include team president and minority owner in this past offseason. In turn, he's done what he can to build the Utah Blaze back to respectability and profitability.
"Ron gets that this is a business, and understands how it needs to be organized and run," owner Logan Hunter says. "We wanted the team to feel like it had a hands-on general, and that leadership has been there."
Although he wasn't always sure he should take on the team presidency, James recalled a line from his days as an assistant at Army that stuck with him: "Never turn down a command position."
James describes himself as a football junkie, a man who used to have greaseboards to draw up plays in every room in his house even the bathroom. For every game, he draws up spreadsheets of plays and game situations that would likely impress an accountant.
But others acknowledge that James is personable despite his obsession with detail. He's funny, some say, and it takes him a while to open up. It's a curious mix of traits that comes with growing up with five siblings as the son of a veteran.
"When you came home, things had to be in order, and a lot of that was living with six kids on a government worker's salary," James says. "A football team requires that preparation."
It was about two years ago when James was approached with the chance to run a team that he had been hired to coach in 2008, right before the AFL went dark for a season. The ownership group approached James midseason in 2010, seeking a change.
James accepted and joined the Blaze, who were then at the Maverik Center. The new coaching staff almost literally started with nothing.
"When I first took over and got to the office, there wasn't one piece of film, no playbooks just an empty shopping cart that for some reason the previous staff had left there," James recalls. "I didn't even know a lot of the players' names, and we didn't have any scouting done for our next game."
The Blaze slogged through a 2-14 season, but the next offseason, James started building the organization in his own image. He culled the roster of problem players, and brought in personnel from winning teams, from NFL training camps and young players who hadn't yet met their promise. He utilized extensive connections he's built through 26 years of coaching in circles from college football to the pros.
He also started instituted stricter policies, bringing organization to a franchise that used to have players who didn't show up to practice. With James, showing up five minutes early is on time. Players have learned not to be late to the bus it will be gone.
The results showed on the field in a much-improved 9-9 season. But the biggest change might have been that James helped sculpt the Blaze into a team that drew in successful people.
"Everything about coach James is professional," fullback Ben Stallings says. "I mean, 18 games is a long season. But we'll have meetings every morning at 7:30, and he's going to bring that energy. You have to be ready for it."
At the same time, part of James' appeal as a leader is that he doesn't try to micromanage. Offensive coordinator Matt Sauk says the freedom to run the offense as he sees fit has been a key factor in why it's been so easy to get along in Utah.
"I think the fact that he's truthful to people, that he's fair and isn't looking over your shoulder allows you to do your job," Sauk says. "He's probably the most organized person I know, and he plans months in advance. But he also can be kind of a free-flowing person and mostly hands-off."
For a man who prides himself on his routines and habits, who arrives to the office every day at 5:30 a.m. after hitting the gym, there was nothing harder to deal with than a health scare last season.
During a road game in Iowa, James felt faint and weak. Medical personnel arrived and wheeled him out of the arena. Doctors determined he needed stents in his heart.
The rush of events and gripping realities made James realize there were some things in his life that were beyond his control.
"I had never had a health issue before that I'd never been in the hospital overnight before," he says. "It was humbling. From that time on, I realized I would have to take better care of myself for my family."
He admits he tried to come back to the office more than he should have in the subsequent two weeks, as Sauk took the reins of the team as interim coach. James tried riding a bike to see if he could get back to exercising.
But since the incident, James has learned that he has coronary artery disease, a genetic condition that may have influenced his father's death two years ago. He's had to cut back on caffeine and his workout routine and be more aware of his stress. This season, during a bye week, James had more stents inserted in his heart, and doctors tell him more invasive surgery will likely be needed.
Those around him say although James has changed his lifestyle, not much else is different.
"He's got good doctors who are helping him deal with it," Sauk says. "But he's still going to go at it 100 miles per hour. It's his team. He's the leader."
On the day when that risk becomes too much to bear when it threatens the livelihoods of his 9-year-old son Brady, his 6-year-old daughter Alexis, and his wife, Lynn James will take a step back.
For now, he's not taking a risk. He's managing it.
"My dad always said, 'The harder you work, the luckier you get,' " James says. "If I ever feel like it's risky to be in this business, I'll do something else long-term for my kids. I want to go out on my own terms."
Ron James' football history
• All-American offensive lineman at Siena College
• College coaching stops at Siena, Hartwick, Kentucky Wesleyan and Army
• AFL coaching stops at Albany, Houston and Las Vegas
• Has worked with NFL scouting departments
• Hired as Blaze head coach in 2010, made team president in 2011