Utah athletics: New drive has many athletes giving back to the U.

Published: Monday, June 25 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith (89) celebrates his touchdown reception in the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Detroit, Sunday , Nov. 20, 2011. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Athletes are playing, make that paying, a big role in the University of Utah's "Invest in Excellence" fundraising drive. Since launching the campaign nearly two years ago, 225 former student-athletes have made contributions.

Before the new drive began, many former Utah athletes donated large sums of money after making it big in the pros. Those athletes were the precursor to the new drive that has raised approximately $1.3 million for the cause, which aims to close the funding gap between Utah athletics and other teams in the Pac-12. When the Utes joined the conference last July, their operating budget ranked last and was $26.7 million below the league average.

"I think it's just a real credit to the type of people we have in our program, the athletes themselves and also their feeling about the university," said athletics director Chris Hill.

Contributions have come from every sport on campus. Hill credits Manny Hendrix, Utah's director of athletic relations for being a link to those folks.

The former Ute, who played basketball in college before embarking on an NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys, insists he's just carrying out a mission and vision that Hill had for the program.

"He wanted athletes to be able to always have someone that they connected with in an administrative role because coaches come and go," Hendrix said. "... We want to keep them in the fold."

Hendrix noted that Hill wanted to really define the position and show the former athletes that they really mattered.

The response has exceeded expectations.

"We've kind of developed it. We had no idea it would be going like this," Hendrix said. "We just wanted athletes to be able to come back."

The Varsity Club brings everyone together. The organization's focal point is to reinvest and not just invest in Utah athletics. Hendrix added that donations, whether they be $1 or $1 million, are appreciated. They treat everyone the same and give former athletes a voice.

"Valuing student-athletes is probably the first step in the whole athletic department's mission," Hendrix said. "We value student-athletes. We build everything around that.

"If you went here then you're in the family," he added.

The approach has created a generous environment of giving. Senior associate athletics director Doug Knuth, who has worked at his alma mater Connecticut, as well as Massachusetts, Ohio and Michigan State, noted that Utah's situation is unlike any of the others.

"There's been successful fundraising at each one of those places from former athletes but not to the quantity or the quality that we've experienced here," Knuth said. "At Utah we have this tradition that's establishing now."

It's progressed to the point where almost every year a high-profile donation from a professional athlete is made. Knuth considers it "real powerful stuff" that guys are excited to give back.

What's special, Knuth noted, is the relationship Utah athletes have with their coaches and Hill.

"Having an athletic director that's been here 25 years is a difference maker," Knuth said. " There's stability and there's security."

It's one of the keys to success, he explained, that includes having great coaches and a great experience for student-athletes.

"Most athletes stay connected to their alma mater. There's something in their DNA," Knuth said. "There's something about their experience when they were here that I think really keeps them closer to the university than other alumni."

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