San Diego State students chanted "Boylen's fired," a reference to the tenuous job security of embattled fourth-year Utah coach Jim Boylen.
Mean-spirited or not, the topic is a valid one with the Utes (10-14, 3-7) mired in seventh place in the Mountain West and well on their way to a second straight losing season. They appear to have regressed since a 7-3 start against middling non-league competition, dropping 11 of 14 games entering what promises to be another difficult matchup at rival BYU on Saturday.
For a program once accustomed to contending for conference championships and making annual NCAA tournament appearances, the recent slide toward irrelevancy has been difficult to stomach. The Utes endured back-to-back losing seasons under Ray Giacoletti in 2006 and 2007, recovered to return to the NCAA tournament in 2009 in Boylen's second year and then plunged back into mediocrity the past two seasons.
The timing of Utah's struggles could not be worse considering the program will join the Pac-12 next season. The top of that league has arguably been weaker than the Mountain West the past two seasons, yet the Pac-12 is still far deeper, meaning there won't be many bottom dwellers against which Utah can fatten its record.
Boylen's long-term recruiting strategy entering this season was to focus on bringing in an elite class in 2012, giving the program 18 months to attract higher level prospects enticed by Utah's new conference affiliation.
This season's crop of seven newcomers was part of that strategy. It featured four junior college prospects, all of whom were signed to address a glaring lack of speed and quickness at guard but also because they'll graduate in 2012, freeing up scholarships for incoming freshmen.
Junior college transfers Will Clyburn and Josh Watkins have been Utah's top players this season, but their arrival hasn't made the Utes competitive. The program is still suffering from the abrupt turnover caused by five underclassmen leaving the program in the offseason because of disciplinary issues, a lack of playing time or an inability to get along with the coaches
The question now facing Utah athletic director Chris Hill is whether Boylen is the right coach to secure that all-important 2012 class Utah envisions as the foundation for its future success in the Pac-12.
Has Boylen shown the ability as a talent evaluator and a recruiter to bring in the caliber of player Utah wants? And just as importantly, can Boylen successfully recruit when other coaches will be whispering in players' ears that he may not keep his job for much longer?
If Hill still has faith in Boylen, he should give the fourth-year coach a strong vote of confidence at the end of the season and encourage the Utah fan base to get behind him. If not, he should acknowledge he made a mistake giving Boylen a five-year extension in 2009, sever ties with him after the season and bring in a new coach as quickly as possible.
The 2012 recruiting class is first real opportunity Utah has to replenish its roster and begin the climb to the top of the Pac-12. We'll find out next month if the Utes still believe Boylen is the man to lead that journey.
- Jim Boylen