SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's annual Red-White Spring Game is developing into something much more for the football program. This year it was the culmination of a busy weekend that included a pair of coaching clinics (125 from the high school ranks and 250 Ute Conference coaches), an alumni/coaches golf tournament and luncheon with 144 participants, plus the traditional flag football games featuring the MUSS and former Utes.
"I would say it's both fun and hectic," said Utah player personnel director Fred Whittingham Jr. "There's a lot of logistics involved."
It all went well, especially in regard to a strong showing by past players. It's something head coach Kyle Whittingham plans to build upon.
"Coach Whittingham has made a big effort just to bring our guys back. We want to make them understand that they're our family," said safeties coach Morgan Scalley. "They set the stage for us entering the Pac-12 and they're welcome back. We want to do more functions with them, help them understand how grateful we are for the sacrifices they made."
It's about the collective group, he added.
"This program has just gotten better and better every year since I left. This event, this spring game, this whole weekend is just outstanding," said Jordan Gross of the Carolina Panthers. "They do a lot for the former players and for the fans. It's a lot of fun."
Gross added that this year's gathering is extra special for him because his coach at Utah, Ron McBride, is being inducted into the Crimson Club Hall of Fame on Monday.
And that's not all.
"It's just good to see all the guys and the weather is awesome, too," Gross said. "So we lucked out."
Gross recalled his last spring game at Utah. It was played at nearby East High School because Rice-Eccles Stadium was being renovated.
"This is a far cry from that spring ball 11 years ago or whatever it was," he said, while noting that fans are embracing and supporting the program. "Coach Whittingham, I think, has just taken everything he learned from McBride and from Urban (Meyer) and has just done an outstanding job."
Gross also noted the "great" support of former players.
"This is us. This is family," said Eric Weddle of the San Diego Chargers. "It's great to see all the people that you played with and you have great memories with and seeing everyone doing good is pretty special."
Whittingham acknowledged it's great to have the former players around and considers it a big positive that they want to be there. It says a lot, he continued, about their feelings for one another and the experience they had at Utah.
"It was a great event. Everybody got together and had a great time. We couldn't be more excited about former players coming back — continuing to be a part of our program," Whittingham said. "... The event itself was a home run. We want to build on that and continue to grow it each year and make it a bigger and better experience for them every year."
The athletic department got involved and covered the costs of the golf tournament and lunch that followed. Nearly four dozen of the players accepted invitations to play in the Alumni Game on Saturday. Scalley noted that participants included Cal Beck, Jason and Jesse Boone, Bryan Borreson, Brent Casteel, Casey Evans, Steve Fifita, Quinton Ganther, Ray Holdcraft, Scott Mitchell and Steve Tate. Current NFL players like Gross, Weddle, Sione Pouha (New York Jets) and "adopted Ute" Haloti Ngata (Baltimore Ravens) observed from the sidelines — for the most part.
"It's just a blessing to see all these guys again. I've missed these guys," Ganther said. "Playing in the NFL you meet some friends, but your true friends are really here. So seeing these guys I haven't seen in years, it feels good."
"It just felt good seeing everybody," he said. "It was probably better seeing them at the golf course yesterday than running around out here today."
The alumni flag football game went down to the wire. A "Hail Mary" pass from Brian Johnson to Braden Godfrey capped all scoring in the 28-28 contest.
"They know better. That's all I'm going to say," Johnson joked. "Don't give me a chance to win it with two minutes left in a game. That's just what I do . . . I don't understand why they gave me that opportunity."
GANTHER WANTS TO COACH: After getting a taste of coaching this spring with Utah's running backs, Ganther plans to submit his retirement papers to the NFL soon — following stints with the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills.
"I'm going to hang them up and get out here," Ganther said. "I want to coach here because this is where it all started for me. So I want to coach here and just help these guys out and teach them."
Ganther is eager to share his knowledge on how to help the youngsters become better players and better men.
"I love it just to see the kids respond to what you teach them and see them put it to use. I think that's what I'm going to be, I'm going to be a coach," Ganther said. "Every running backs coach I've had in the NFL always told me 'Q, you're a pure coach. You're going to coach.' So I like it and that's what I'm going to continue to do."
Whittingham sees the same thing.
"He seems to be a natural," Whittingham added while noting there's a possibility Ganther will continue helping the Utes this fall. "We're working on the particulars. He may be able to be a student assistant, so we're working through the red tape trying to make that happen."
EXTRA POINTS: As usual, former "Voice of the Utes" Bill Marcroft walked the field and provided play-by-play of the Alumni Game over the public address system. ... Walter Francom was the MVP of the ninth annual MUSS flag football game. ... After the Red-White Game, the Utes signed autographs for fans in the east concourse of the stadium. ... Players report for fall camp on Aug. 1 and practices begin the next day. Utah opens the 2012 season at home on Thursday, Aug. 30, against Northern Colorado.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @DirkFacer
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company