Doug Robinson: Good old days of U. sports are today

Great teams, great players, great coaches everywhere this year

Published: Thursday, March 24 2005 9:16 a.m. MST

Have you noticed? The Utes have got it going on in a big way. They're hotter than Hillary Swank. Hotter than Paris Hilton's cell phone.

They're so hot that even people outside of Utah know what a Ute is. The Ute athletic department has got some serious mojo. If you could have bought Ute stock last fall, you'd have more money than Michael Jackson's lawyers by now.

These are golden days for the Utes and their fans. How could it get any better than this?

The men's basketball team is in the Sweet 16, just two wins from the Final Four.

This comes two months after Utah's football team went undefeated and untied and became the first school from a non-BCS conference to go to a BCS bowl.

It also makes Utah only the fifth school ever to play in the Sweet 16 and a BCS bowl in the same school year.

Wait, there's more. The women's gymnastics team is ranked No. 1 in the nation.

The ski team finished third at the national championships.

The volleyball and soccer teams earned berths in the NCAA tournament.

Last fall, Utah's football, volleyball and soccer teams were all ranked in the Top 25 at the same time. Only one other school (Florida) could make that claim.

Alex Smith was named national Player of the Year by Sports Illustrated and Sporting News.

Andrew Bogut was named national Player of the Year by Basketball Times and ESPN.com and is a good bet to win the Naismith and Wooden awards as well. He was the leading vote-getter on the AP All-American team.

The Utes could have the top picks in both the NFL and NBA drafts, with Smith and Bogut.

Ute football coach Urban Meyer was voted national Coach of the Year and won the Florida sweepstakes. Everybody wanted to hire Meyer, the way they wanted to hire Rick Majerus, and the way they soon might want to hire his replacement, Ray Giacoletti, who's a candidate for national Coach of the Year honors, as well.

Utah's athletic director, Chris Hill, is pursued regularly by big-name schools, which is understandable when you consider that he has overseen the rise of Utah athletics from mediocrity to supremacy, renovating facilities and building new ones, raising money and demonstrating an uncanny ability to hire no-name coaches such as Majerus, Giacoletti, Meyer and Ron McBride over sexier names out there and watch them turn into household names.

Is that all? No way.

The school's men's and women's swim teams won conference titles — a first for the women and the first in a long time for the men.

The Utes have produced conference players of the year across the board — Alex Smith and Morgan Scalley (football — offensive and defensive players of the year), Bogut (basketball), Kim Smith and Shona Thorburn (co-winners in women's basketball), Connie Dangerfield (volleyball) and Kelsey Patterson (diving).

So far, they've had three conference coaches of the year — Meyer, Giacoletti, Beth Launiere (volleyball).

"It's just been one thing after another," says Liz Abel, the school's sports information director whose public relations job has gotten a lot easier. "Even sports that haven't been good are doing well. In our department, we come to work every day and wonder, can it get any better?"

The Utes are on a roll, and maybe this is long overdue. For years they were underachievers, and no one could understand it. They were Enigma U. They seemed to have everything going for them. They were based in one of the largest cities in the Mountain West. The University of Utah is reputed to be one of the finest academic institutions in the country. It boasted one of the largest student bodies in the West. It has moneyed boosters. But the athletic program fizzled.

The men's basketball team slipped into mediocrity in the '80s, but they were a juggernaut compared to the football team, which couldn't even win a conference championship. During the 45-year stretch that ended in 1994, the football team was 233-244-8, averaging five wins per year.

They should have had at least accidentally stumbled upon a great season occasionally, but they didn't. Meanwhile, even UTEP and Wyoming — hardly located in recruiting hotbeds and populous, popular cities that would attract top recruits — produced the occasional great teams. The Utes weren't even the best team in the neighborhood. They took a back seat to BYU. A successful season at Utah meant a win over BYU, and those were rare. As for the rest of the sports, don't ask. Gymnastics carried the banner alone on a national level.

"We always said it was a sleeping giant," says Hill. "There was potential here."

Now that the Utes are enjoying unprecedented success, there is one problem: "At the end of the year we produce a highlight film," says Abel. "There have been so many highlights. Now we're wondering what we're going to end it with. What if we go to the Final Four? Do you pick the Fiesta Bowl or the Final Four?"


E-mail: drob@desnews.com

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