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Associated Press
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)
It's made a difference in my life and that's the reason I think for the majority of us that make contributions because Utah has had an impact on our lives. —Sione Pouha

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."

Having the University of Utah name on their chest, on their uniforms, creates a bond that Knuth believes ties them to the school for the rest of their lives. Competing for the Utes, he continued, translates into a lifelong affinity to the U., and a desire to give back.

"The University of Utah has made a difference in our lives and there's no way to say thank you than to return the favor and help out," said Sione Pouha of the New York Jets. "Whatever contributions that we can make help the university, whether it be financial or be a time or a shoutout or something like that. I tell you what it's made a difference in my life and that's the reason I think for the majority of us that make contributions because Utah has had an impact on our lives."

Pouha is among several professional athletes, including other NFL stars like Jordan Gross, Alex Smith, Steve Smith and Eric Weddle as well as Andrew Bogut and Andre Miller of the NBA, to make significant financial contributions in recent years.

"The University of Utah has made a difference in my life," Pouha said. "The lessons that I learned there with football and being a student-athlete ... . I think that's where I matured into the working world."

Utah offensive coordinator Brian Johnson agrees. The Most Outstanding Player in the Utes' Sugar Bowl win over Alabama also made a large donation to the "Invest in Exellence" drive.

"I think for the most part we provide a great student-athlete experience and we know that being in this place that people are obviously very passionate about it," Johnson said. "You somewhat become an adult here and you learn through our programs. It teaches you a lot of lessons that prepare you for life after that. So I think most of the people that come here end up leaving with a positive experience and are very passionate about our programs."

Many show their appreciation by making financial contributions.

"I think we're fortunate enough where multiple guys are feeling that way and finding ways to give back," Johnson said.

Hendrix considers it the ultimate compliment from a student-athlete.

"It speaks volumes to our coaching staff, it speaks volumes to our administrative staff and all the support, it speaks volumes to the university as a whole, and I think to the community," he said.

As such, Hill acknowledged that the athletic department is extremely grateful for the contributions and wants to thank them as much as possible. It conveys the message, he continued, that student-athletes have a wonderful experience at the University of Utah.

"It's good to share that, for our other donors to see that and get excited about it," Hill said while adding that people have been very generous over the past 10-11 years and it has created some wonderful opportunities for the university — putting Utah in the upper echelon of contributions by former athletes.

Knuth, who is overseeing the "Invest in Excellence" program, said things are going well. The number of donors, dollars raised and major gifts continue to increase.

"Everything's looking good and it's tracking along well. Obviously we need to keep growing and keep it going," Knuth said of the ongoing fundraising effort. "It's a tremendous goal. But for us to be competitive in the Pac-12 we've got to be — just like how coach (Kyle) Whittingham says we've got to be aggressive everyday in football — we've got to be aggressive everyday in fundraising if we want to be successful."

Giving back: A sampling of athletics

Department donations by former Utes:

Jordan Gross (football) — $500,000

Andre Miller (basketball) — $500,000

Alex Smith (football) — $500,000

Steve Smith (football) — $275,000

Eric Weddle (football) — $250,000

Andrew Bogut (basketball) — $125,000

Daniel Spinnazola (football) — $100,000

* Walt Deland (trainer) — $50,000

Brian Johnson (football) — $50,000

Sione Pouha (football) — $50,000

Keith Van Horn (basketball) donated $1 million to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in 2001.

*Deceased. Donation made in his honor by sons Gary and Lonnie Deland.

SOURCE: University of Utah

How do the Utes compare?

Operating budgets for Pac-12 athletic programs in 2010-11, prior to Utah and Colorado joining the conference.

School — Millions of dollars

Stanford — $81.1

Oregon — $76.3

USC — $75.7

Washington — $67.9

UCLA — $66

California — $64.5

Arizona — $60.3

Colorado — $59.2

Arizona State — $57.1

Oregon State — $49.9

Washington State — $40.6

UTAH — $36.8

Source: University of Utah

For more information on "Invest in Excellence: The campaign for Utah athletics," go to www.InvestInUtahAthletics.org.

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