From Jimmer to Jerry, Utah was home to some sensational sports headlines in 2011.
The Deseret News staff took a look at some of the state's top sports headlines from this past calendar year, and asked a few local sports commentators and reporters for their thoughts and observations on the phenomenal and the phenoms. Hope you enjoy.
Jimmer Fredette became more than a star player, he became a phenomenon. His ability to score points when BYU needed them most — and from the longest of ranges — made him a household name. In fact, his name became a verb (meaning one has just been smoked, humiliated, smacked down, etc.) and his ability became legend.
"I compare it to the hype of Justin Bieber," said Hans Olsen, former BYU and NFL player and co-host of the "Hans and OC Show" on 97.5 FM. "My dad, who is 70 and lives in the back woods of Idaho and couldn't hate pop music more, knows who Justin Bieber is. And the same could be said of Jimmer. Little old ladies who'd rather watch Matlock (than college hoops) know who Jimmer is."
Adds Alema Harrington, co-host of "Powerhouse" (1320 AM) and "Jazz Live" (KJZZ), "I played with Ty Detmer; I played on the national championship team in 1984. I've never seen anything like what happened with Jimmer. It was an absolute phenomenon, a movement, and I don't think that we'll ever see it again."
Deseret News columnist and sports writer Dick Harmon, whose covered BYU since he was a student there in 1976, said some of Jimmermania can be attributed to the rise in social media.
"It was all the ways it could be covered — Facebook, Twitter, the Internet — with even NBA players chiming in," he said. "It was massive coverage and it built a foundation of launching this kid."
And for a journalist, it infused a very familiar game with surprises.
"Every night there was magic," he said. "The expectation was that as soon as he crossed half court, he could shoot and make it … It almost became like a fable, something you'd read in a storybook. It was unreal."
2. Sloan RETIRES
Jerry Sloan's retirement didn't come as anyone would have expected. On Feb. 10, in the middle of his 23rd season as the head coach of the Utah Jazz, Sloan abruptly resigned. His long-time assistant Phil Johnson resigned with him, leaving fans wondering if he'd secretly been fired or was fed up with the egos of NBA stars. He said simply that he didn't have the energy the job required anymore and denied any behind-the-scenes trouble.
"Who would have thought a guy who never relents would quit in the middle of a season?" said Deseret News columnist Brad Rock. "This is a guy who didn't back down from Wilt Chamberlain, who played with torn plantar fasciitis, and who broke his nose half a dozen times playing."
Sloan stepping aside was monumental because he wasn't just a sports icon to Utahns.
"He was a cultural part of the community," said David Locke, Jazz play-by-play announcer and co-host of Boler, Locke and Gerrard (1320 AM), who felt Sloan retiring was the state's top story. "He was a bedrock … He's in the Hall of Fame. The amount of people who were given a guiding light by Jerry of how to do things, and not just his players … I think Jerry represented what we all want to achieve."
Spencer Checketts, co-host of the Bill and Spence Show (700 AM) said it was an unfortunate end to a storied career.
"He was the face of a franchise that did not embrace change at all," said Checketts. "In three weeks, they got a new coach and traded away a star player … I think it was a sad day, and I think he deserved better."
3. Utes begin play in Pac-12, BYU goes independent
While Utah struggled in its first Pac-12 season, BYU dealt with the ups and downs of independence. As the Utes began their first Pac-12 season there was palpable energy on campus, at games and even around Salt Lake City.
While the result was what most predicted, the opportunity to represent the South Division in the first Pac-12 championship raised hopes — only to have them dashed with a loss to Colorado.
"If they get the win against Colorado and play for that Pac-12 championship, it's a more successful season than I expected," said 1280 AM sports talk radio co-host Hans Olsen. "The history books would have Utah written down as the first team to represent the south in the first Pac-12 championship … That would have been amazing."
As far as BYU playing football without a conference affiliation, while this year was a success on paper, media members and fans wondered if the Cougars could secure — and sustain — a challenging schedule each year as conferences shifted, grew and made TV deals with each other.
The Cougars did end on a high note, with Riley Nelson leading the Cougars to a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl on Friday.
"For me, I'm hoping it's a means to an end," said Olsen. "I don't want this to be a long-term situation for BYU. I don't expect this to be a long-term situation for BYU. I hope they don't expect this to be long-term fix for BYU. I think growth is limited … financial growth is limited; strength of schedule growth is limited. Being an independent is OK if you can leverage and demand and control revenue. BYU is not there yet."
4. Life of Riley
Jake Heaps came to BYU amid great fanfare and high expectations. Riley Nelson arrived in Provo after a controversial (post-mission) transfer and much skepticism. Yet, this fall, Nelson not only earned the starting quarterback job, he earned the affection and loyalty of players, coaches and fans. Nelson's success led Heaps to transfer to Kansas, leaving Cougar faithful to wonder what might have been and what went wrong between BYU and one of the country's most sought-after high school recruits.
"I thought he was primed to have a gigantic season," said Patrick Kinahan, co-host of the DJ and PK Show on 1320 AM. "Watching him in fall camp … there was just no way I would have forecasted that in his fourth or fifth game he was struggling so bad they would have absolutely no choice but to replace him. That was a stunner."
Harmon sees Heaps' departure as a loss for the program.
"They lose a potential player that would have worked into someone like the other quarterbacks they'd had," said Harmon. "He needed time to become salty, experienced and to have other people on the team react to him. For several reasons, that never happened."
Harmon said of the 66 off-season workouts last year, Heaps managed to attend just three because of injuries, his marriage and a family trip.
"This team was reluctant to follow him," said Harmon. "Yes, Nelson is the anti-Jake. He was there at every practice, willing to do anything, wash windows, shine cars, sit at the back of the bus … Riley is so smart, and he knew the emotional buttons he could push. He embraced the warrior spirit that Bronco Mendenhall loves so much."
Kinahan also observed a difference in the way the team played for Heaps compared to Nelson.
"It was also shocking to see how much he lost the team, lost the confidence of his teammates," Kinahan said of Heaps. "They didn't quit playing for him, but they certainly played a lot harder for Nelson."
That, and leading a comeback win against Utah State, helped Nelson secure both the hearts and minds of BYU coaches and fans
5. D-Will dealt
On Feb. 23, the Utah Jazz broke up with D-Will before he broke up with them. Fearing he would not re-sign with the team, Jazz brass traded him to New Jersey for forward Derrick Favors and point guard Devin Harris. It was both shocking and bold, and the ramifications are still felt 10 months later.
"Normally, you hear a buzz about, 'Hey they're thinking about trading Deron.' But we were all surprised. (Deron) was genuinely floored; he didn't know it was coming," said Harrington. "It certainly was a departure from the Jazz tradition ... Whether people want to believe it or not, it had a lot to do with Jerry Sloan and what happened there."
Added Checketts, "I think it signaled a new attitude around the league. We're rapidly heading to the haves and the have-nots with big stars wanting to play in big markets … It's what the NBA has always been about. Guys like John Stockton and Karl Malone and Tim Duncan were so different … I don't know that it was necessarily a change in philosophy for the Jazz as much as Kevin (O'Connor) and Greg (Miller) said, 'We're not going to let a player hold us hostage.' It's tough to trade a superstar."
6. Brandon Davies drama, BYU's NCAA tourney run
BYU's decision to dismiss star forward Brandon Davies from the Cougars' basketball team for an Honor Code violation at the very peak of BYU's most successful season in recent memory made national headlines.
"It was a stunner," said Harmon, "a shock to that team. To lose a player like that, right before the NCAA Tournament, for an issue which would not have been an issue at 99.5 percent of schools in the NCAA, was puzzling for people outside BYU to understand."
And, in the opinion of many, losing Davies meant not advancing past the Sweet 16.
"They had to change their offense," said Harmon. "They had to bring Noah Hartsock inside and Jimmer had to carry more of the offensive load … It made people wonder if they'd had Brandon Davies if they could have gotten into that next round."
Even without Davies, the Cougars managed to advance to the Sweet 16 with victories over Wofford and Gonzaga before succumbing to Florida.
7. High school champs — four undefeated kind
Every year the state crowns state champions in football. But it isn't every year — or any year until the fall of 2011 — that four state champions won their titles with undefeated seasons. Lone Peak (5A), Logan (4A), Hurricane (3A) and Duchesne (1A) all won football titles without suffering a single loss.
"In addition to three undefeated champions, it wasn't Alta or Bingham or in 3A Juan Diego," said Harrington. "It was teams that kind of broke through … People don't know how difficult it is to go undefeated in a season, especially in football. So many things could go wrong, and for all three of them to do it, that was pretty spectacular."
And two of those four teams featured future college quarterbacks (Lone Peak's Chase Hansen and Logan's D.J. Nelson) doing what they do best — winning.
"It's very rare that two great quarterbacks get a chance to shine like that," said Rod Zundel, host of KSL's Game Night Live. "They had their moments and they seized the opportunities. … And as for Hurricane, there was no better story of perseverance and never give up than Hurricane. Most people don't get a second chance, let alone four — and Hurricane didn't waste it."
8. Real close
Real Salt Lake played in the CONCACAF Champions League Finals. They came up short in their bid to reach the FIFA Club World Cup, but thrilled not just local soccer fans but the entire MLS nation with their effort. A 1-0 loss to Monterrey (Mexico) also snapped a 37-game home unbeaten streak. It wasn't just die-hard soccer fans who supported Real's run, the national implications drew new and casual fans to the team, many of whom were coming off the BYU men's basketball high and were in search of something better to cheer for than the Jazz, who by that point in the season were struggling.
"I think really what it meant more than anything else was an evolution in soccer education," said Checketts. "No team in the MLS had done what RSL did … It just catapulted them to a whole new level."
The team could have attracted a bit more media attention thanks to the timing of the CONCACAF playoffs.
"I think the timing was good for them," said the News' Rock. "The Jazz were starting to fall apart; the gang was breaking up; the BYU men's team was out of the NCAA Tournament … It was a nice diversion from the usual menu."
9. Bye-bye, Boylen ... Hello, Larry
Utah fired head basketball coach Jim Boylen the day after his fourth season ended. Attendance had plummeted and players were defecting, but most believe it was about the back-to-back losing season (Utah finished the 2011 season with a 13-18 record). Three weeks later, Utah hired New Jersey Nets assistant coach Larry Krystkowiak, but putting the program back together has proven difficult as the Utes are in the midst of one of their worst seasons ever.
"The real story is the demise of the Utah basketball program," said Kinahan. "I covered them in the '90s and they rocked. To see this program as bad as it is, is literally shocking."
With the loss of players, most suspected Krystkowiak's squad would struggle, especially playing in the Pac-12.
"Everybody suspected this is what was going to happen," said Rock. "But they were willing to suspend reality, hoping some miracle would happen by the time the season came around."
10. Rise of the Aggies
Utah State football enjoyed its best season in more than 20 years. The Aggies advanced to a bowl game for the first time since 1997, and the season could have been even better — 10 of the team's 13 games were decided by a touchdown or less.
"What Gary (Andersen, head coach) did, for the first time, I can remember in years and years, they truly expected to win games," said Rock. "When they lost in the (Famous) Idaho Potato Bowl, it was genuine surprise and disappointment. The optimism is the most it's been in decades up there."
Raising expectations also means more opportunity to disappoint.
"I thought they'd do better," said Olsen. "I thought they'd win the WAC, and to watch Louisiana Tech win the WAC and watch USU flounder and lose ground, lose close games, it was a letdown for me. Watching what they did to BYU, it escalated my expectations."
The future does look promising for the Aggies, and just what that means for the landscape of football in Utah is unknown.
"They've always been everybody's second-favorite team," said Rock. "People usually like the Utes or the Cougars and then everybody is kind of pulling for the Aggies. What I want to know is how popular they'll be if they start beating Utah and BYU?"
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