Depending on your rooting preference, you might consider our latest trip around the sun to be among the worst sports years ever (sorry, BYU football fans) or one of the best ones yet (congrats, Utah ski supporters) or somewhere in between (kudos and condolences, Jazz faithful).
Before optimistically looking forward to your team winning (fill-in-the-blank) championship in 2018 — might as well embrace the hope of a brand-new, unblemished year — let’s review some defining moments that happened in Utah sports during 2017.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake yells at the ref in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
BYU’s football season started off with a lackluster 20-6 win over Portland State at home followed by seven straight losses. Though the Cougars ended on a positive note, beating Hawaii 30-20 and winning two of their last three games, the program slunk to its lowest point in decades. The combination of an onslaught of injuries and offensive ineptitude resulted in a miserable 4-9 record and snapped a 12-year bowl streak. The lowlights included not getting across the 50-yard line in a 27-0 loss to LSU, struggling to a 33-17 loss against a subpar East Carolina defense, falling to rival Utah for a seventh consecutive outing and, even worse, stumbling to a humiliating 16-10 loss at home to a UMass team that only won four games. The highlights: Looking like BYU of old for an afternoon in a 41-20 win over San Jose State to end the skid and, well, the merciful end of the season.
By beating Hawaii to finish 4-9, BYU avoided being just the second team in school history to lose 10 games.
“I owe it to the fans and the players here to get this team right and make sure this season doesn’t happen again,” Sitake said. “The first year we went 9-4 and in the second year we went 4-9. What are we going to do the third year? I’m willing, with our coaching staff and players, to work as hard as we can and see what happens when we play Arizona next season.”
Ty Detmer has been a BYU fan favorite since he rewrote the NCAA record book, beat No. 1 Miami, won the Heisman Trophy and led the Cougars to a bundle of wins with an aw-shucks smile and an awesome arm. Though certainly still a BYU legend, Detmer’s coaching career came to an abrupt halt when he was fired by Cougar coach Kalani Sitake after the worst offensive season the school has seen in a long, long time. BYU ranked No. 118 in total offense (325.2 yards per game); No. 123 in scoring offense (17.1 points per game); and No. 91 in passing offense (194.6 yards per game) out of 129 FBS programs.
“Although I’m disappointed I won’t have the opportunity to turn things around as the OC, I’ll always be grateful to Kalani for giving me the opportunity to return to BYU and coach there,” Detmer wrote on Twitter. “I want to thank those that have supported me through these past 2 seasons! I love the people I’ve been able to work with these past 2 years and wish everyone the best! At this time I don’t know what the future holds for our family but I’ll always be proud to be a Cougar!”
Two weeks later, BYU announced that LSU offensive line coach Jeff Grimes was returning to Provo to replace Detmer as offensive coordinator. Grimes coached BYU linemen from 2004-06.
Gordon Hayward’s best year with the Utah Jazz ended up being his last one. It wasn’t just that he left after leading the Jazz back into the playoffs for the first time in five years and after becoming an All-Star for the first time that was painful for the organization and its fans, it’s how he left that really stung. Hearts were broken around Jazzland twice on the Fourth of July — first when ESPN broke the news that Hayward was bolting for Boston to rejoin his college coach, Brad Stevens, and then a second time after Hayward’s camp denied the report and claimed his decision hadn’t been made only to verify it in a blog he wrote for The Players Tribune.
Boston Celtics' Gordon Hayward smiles during a news conference in Boston, Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. | Winslow Townson, Associated Press
Hayward tried to say all the right things in his essay. He thanked Jazz fans, telling them, “I really want you all to know that you mean the world to me and my family.” He called Salt Lake City a “special place” where he grew up from being a 20-year-old kid out of college to becoming a man with a family of his own.
He thanked the Jazz organization, including the “first-class” Miller family, team president Steve Starks, general manager Dennis Lindsey, coach Quin Snyder, assistant coaches Mark McKown, Isaiah Wright and Johnnie Bryant, and massage therapist Doug Birrell.
“I was literally the last Jazz player left who played under Coach Sloan — and I always took that as a lot more than just some piece of trivia,” Hayward wrote. “That was something that truly made me feel like a part of the fabric of this franchise. And that fabric is something that has meant a lot to me, ever since.”
It just didn’t mean enough for him to stay after seven years.
Hayward’s Boston era got off to an extremely painful start as he suffered a gruesome leg injury on national TV in his first five minutes with the Celtics. He’s not expected to return this season but is working hard to get back.
Making the playoffs for the first time in five years wasn’t enough for this team. Adding to the excitement and enjoyment of a fun 51-win season, the Jazz overcame a seemingly devastating Game 1 injury to Rudy Gobert and outlasted the favored Los Angeles Clippers in a thrilling seven-game series to advance to the Western Conference semifinals. Joe Johnson became a folk hero in Utah with his performance in the first round, and the Jazz clinched the series by winning at Los Angeles in what proved to be the unceremonious end of the Clippers’ Chris Paul-Blake Griffin era. The Jazz were no match for the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors in the second round, getting swept out of the postseason in four games but earning respect.
With four generations represented, Jazz owner Gail Miller announced that she has transferred ownership of the Utah Jazz and Vivint Arena to a legacy trust that will be overseen by her family and posterity.
This trust will ensure that the team, the family’s car dealerships and company headquarters remain in Utah in perpetuity.
“Our devotion to the Utah Jazz is stronger than ever,” Miller said. “The legacy trust will ensure that the team remains in and benefits Utah. Our goal is and always has been to win an NBA championship. Utah would not be the same without the Utah Jazz.”
Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) attempts to dunk over New Orleans Pelicans guard Tony Allen (24) as Utah hosts New Orleans at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. | Adam Fondren, Deseret News
Though the Jazz lost a big piece of their team when Hayward spurned the #stayward billboard campaign, this summer might be remembered more for what they picked up. Fans took a liking to the amicable and athletic Donovan Mitchell in summer league after Utah traded for him, and the love affair has only grown since then. The guard has quickly transformed into a rookie of the year candidate while showing great moxie, athleticism, a defensive prowess and an ability to score in versatile ways. He's the first Jazz rookie to average more than 17 points since another Louisville product: Darrell Griffith in 1981.
Under investigation by the NCAA in connection allegations that he received improper benefits from a booster, embattled guard Nick Emery decided to withdraw from BYU before the 2017-18 season began.
“Unfortunately, I am mentally not where I need to be in order to perform in basketball and in school this year,” Emery said. “As it has been made known, I went through a divorce this year and it has been really difficult for me. I have confidence that I will come back stronger and better.”
The Cougars responded in Emery’s absence. They went 11-2 in nonconference play, including a solid win over rival Utah after a one-year hiatus in the rivalry because Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak didn’t like Emery’s actions in the 2015 BYU-Utah matchup.
Emery has insisted he will return to play for BYU.
Big Sky, bigger season
Weber State Wildcats head coach Jay Hill hugs his wife Sara as his daughter Ashtyn cheers after the Wildcats defeat the Southern Utah Thunderbirds in NCAA football in Cedar City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
Utah and Utah State both qualified for bowl games after ho-hum six-win seasons, but the absolute best football story in the state this year undoubtedly took place with the FCS teams from Ogden and Cedar City. Southern Utah, led by Big Sky coach of the year Demario Warren, beat its northern rival early in the season during its best-ever season. Weber State exacted revenge when the two met in the second round of the playoffs a couple of months later. The Wildcats were then eliminated on the road by top-ranked James Madison in a 31-28 quarterfinal barnburner the following week, ending one heck of a fun run.
"I am super happy with how the guys fought and battled," Weber State coach Jay Hill said. "They battled, clawed. In the end we came up a little bit short. That is one heck of a team we played."
What Matt Gay did in 2017 is one of the most incredible stories to happen in sports this year. Gay only had one year of football experience under his belt — and he’d missed more field goals (seven) than he made (six) his senior season at Orem High. Following the suggestion of a friend who was killed in an auto accident, Gay gave up his successful soccer career and decided to pursue his dream of playing football.
Utah Utes place kicker Matt Gay (97) kicks a field goal in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Not only did he win the starting job at Utah — after not even being a contender at the beginning of fall camp and not being named starter for the first game — but the walk-on kicker nailed his first 14 field goals, set a Pac-12 record with 30 FGs, earned consensus All-American honors and became the first Ute to ever win the Lou Groza award as the nation’s best kicker.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham described Gay winning the coveted kicking prize as a "no-brainer."
"I think he’s hands-down the best kicker in the country," Whittingham said. "He was obviously important to our team this year."
Timpview High cross country runner Aidan Troutner didn’t lose a race his senior season, capping a terrific year with a national championship after finishing first in the prestigious Nike Cross Nationals. This is the third year in a row a Utahn won that elite meet.
It was also a strong year for local collegiate runners. BYU had one of its best cross country seasons ever. The second-ranked Cougars finished third at the NCAA championships for the second-best finish in program history. Meanwhile, Utah State sent both its men's and women's teams to the NCAAs for the first time in its history.
Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke stands for the national anthem before the match against the Vancouver Whitecaps at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, April 08, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
It was an interesting year for professional soccer in Utah — for men and women. Real Salt Lake got off to a rough start to their season, resulting in coach Jeff Cassar being fired. His replacement, Mike Petke, helped transform the Claret and Cobalt into one of the most high-powered offenses in the league the second half. RSL didn’t qualify for the playoffs but set the stage for a hopeful future. A hopeful future is also what girls in the state have in more abundance after RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen decided to buy a pro women’s soccer team. The Utah Royals Football Club of the National Women’s Soccer League will play its inaugural season in 2018.
Utahn Kelsey Chugg, a four-time women’s State Amateur champion and former Weber State golfer, won the U.S. Mid-Amateur Golf Championship in Houston in November despite shooting an 85 in the first round. Chugg qualified for the 64-golfer field with a 72 in the second round and then beat six opponents, including the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds, to capture the event for top 25-year-old-and-older women amateurs in the world. She’s only the fourth Utahn to ever win a USGA event.
Tony Finau watches his tee shot on the fourth hole during the second round of the BMW Championship golf tournament at Conway Farms Golf Club, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, in Lake Forest, Ill. | Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press
Tony Finau, a Salt Lake native and former West High star golfer, golfed very well on the PGA Tour all year. He even qualified for the year-end Tour Championship for the world’s top 30 golfers and finished the season ranked No. 19 on the final FedEx Cup list. Finau is qualified for all four majors in 2018.
BYU beat Utah at the Marriott Center as the rivalry resumed after a year off. Cougar faithful welcomed Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak with all sorts of safety-related chants ("80K!" to mock the $80,000 the coach agreed to pay to cancel last year's game and "That's not safe!," among others), posters, costumes and accessories (think police tape) in light of Coach K’s claim that he was canceling the 2016 game due to safety reasons after Nick Emery punched former Ute Brandon Taylor. BYU won the rematch 77-65, and cooler heads prevailed throughout the showdown.
"This is what it's all about. It's a cool setting," Krystkowiak said. "Like I said you've got to be good to win in a place like this."
Utah football hired its ninth new offensive coordinator in the Kyle Whittingham era, Troy Taylor, and things seemed promising for the Utes during a 4-0 start. The perfect season unraveled with a 23-20 loss to Stanford at Rice-Eccles Stadium, which sent Utah on a four-game losing streak. The Utes qualified for another bowl by smashing Colorado, 34-13, at home in the last regular-season game. Utah then did what Utah seems to always do in bowl games: win. The 30-14 victory over West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl improved Whittingham's record in bowls to an impressive 11-1 (and 7-6 on the year).
Utah and the Olympic sports community suffered a huge loss when Park City native Steve Holcomb unexpectedly passed away in May at age 37. The beloved bobsledder was a three-time Olympian, three-time Olympic medalist, five-time world champion and respected figure in the sport of bobsled.
While posing for a photo, US Bobsled athletes wear Superman T-shirts during a celebration of the life of U.S. bobsledding star and three-time Olympic medalist Steven Holcomb on Thursday, May 11, 2017, in Lake Placid, N.Y., as an image of Holcomb is displayed in the background. | Antonio Olivero/Adirondack Daily Enterprise via AP
"The only reason why the USA is in any conversation in the sport of bobsled is because of Steve Holcomb," U.S. bobsled pilot said Nick Cunningham. “He was the face of our team. He was the face of our sport. We all emulated him. Every driver in the world watched him, because he was that good at what he did. It's a huge loss, huge loss, not just for our team but for the entire bobsled community.”
An autopsy revealed that Holcomb had excessive amounts of prescription sleeping medicine and alcohol in his system.
During the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Holcomb’s four-man bobsled team captured the country’s first gold medal in the sport since 1948.
A star is born
Kyle Kuzma had a nice career at Utah, no doubt. The Flint, Michigan, native earned All-Pac-12 honors and finished averaging 10.1 points and 5.6 rebounds over three seasons for the Utes, including a team-high 16.2 points his junior year. Kuzma opted to enter the 2017 NBA Draft and forego his senior season in college, and the move turned out to be a brilliant one.
Kuzma fell to No. 27 overall in the first round, but the Lakers have gotten arguably the steal of the draft. The power forward has shined in a city of stars, picking up Western Conference rookie of the month honors for October/November. Through 30 NBA games, he was averaging 17.7 points and 6.9 rebounds to even outshine teammate and No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball.
President Donald Trump poses for photos with the University of Utah ski team during an event with NCAA championship teams at the White House, Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, in Washington. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is to the right of the President. | Evan Vucci, Associated Press
The Utah ski team earned a trip to the White House — and got a photo-op moment with President Trump flashing the U. — by winning an NCAA championship.
The Utes' title included some come-from-behind drama. Utah had to overcome a 34.5-point deficit on the final day to pass Denver and Colorado for the team's 11th NCAA crown and the 12th national championship all-time.
Utah's Nordic team helped make the final push, with Martin Bergström winning freestyle and classical cross-country-skiing titles.
• The Ogden Raptors captured their first Pioneer League championship in 24 years of existence.
• Utahns reignited a desire and movement to bring the Olympic torch and Winter Games back to Salt Lake City in 2026 or 2030.
• Former Lone Peak High star Frank Jackson left Duke after one season and was drafted early in the second round, 31st overall, by the Charlotte Hornets and then traded to New Orleans. A foot injury has delayed his NBA debut.
• BYU basketball suffered an offseason loss when All-WCC standout big man Eric Mika declared for the NBA draft following his sophomore season. Mika went undrafted and is now playing professionally in Italy.
• Former Utah star receiver Steve Smith retired from the NFL after 16 terrific seasons.
• The BYU and Utah women’s volleyball teams both made it to the Sweet 16.
• Utah softball player Hannah Flippen had one heck of a year, earning All-American and Pac-12 player of the year recognition.
• Rudy Gobert finished the 2016-17 season as the league’s most dominant interior defender and vastly improved his offense, finishing as the first player in NBA history to rank in the top three of defensive and offensive efficiency. Injuries have hampered his start to the 2017-18 campaign.
• BYU running back Jamaal Williams was drafted in the fourth round by the Green Bay Packers and went on to score six touchdowns so far in 2017. Cougar QB Taysom Hill got released by the Packers but found a home in New Orleans, even getting action with special teams, lining up as a receiver and showing Saints brass that he’s a potential successor to Drew Brees.
• A record eight Utah football players were picked up in the 2017 NFL Draft. Leading the way: offensive lineman Garett Bolles. The former Snow College and Saratoga Springs standout got selected 20th overall in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos. He’s now the starting left tackle for Denver.
• Utah high school sports begin playing in a six-classification system.
• It was a big year for the sport of lacrosse. The University of Utah announced it was adding an NCAA-sanctioned Division I team, only the third west of the Mississippi River. Also, the UHSAA approved both boys and girls lacrosse as fully sanctioned sports beginning in the 2019-20 season.