Most Influential in Utah sports: Whittingham wields power
Coach elevated Utes in Pac-12, revived fans’ interest in program.
Published: August 21, 2012 08:07AM
Updated: November 30, 2012 11:32PM
image
Tribune file photo Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has a 66-25 record with the Utes and has increased their profile with the Pac-12 move.

As of the late 1990s, University of Utah athletic director Chris Hill says he could not have imagined the game-day atmosphere the Utes now enjoy at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The growth of the program, combined with revived fan interest and a level of student support that seemed inconceivable only 15 years ago, is a success story in college football. The Utes have moved into the Pac-12 Conference, becoming established in the sport’s hierarchy just in time for the adoption of a playoff system in 2014.

Because of the Utes’ status locally and nationally, coach Kyle Whittingham tops The Salt Lake Tribune’s eighth annual list of the Most Influential People in Utah Sports. He’s the first coach to earn the No. 1 ranking, reflecting football’s increased prominence in the state in recent years and his stamp on the Ute program.

Whittingham’s $2 million salary is evidence of his position’s newfound power. So is a season-ticket renewal rate of 98 percent. The “MUSS” student section has become a fixture, replacing general disinterest that was a symptom of a commuter school.

Next spring, the Utes will move into a $30 million football complex. The 120,000-square-foot facility is described as “one of the premier training centers in college football.” Whittingham’s support staff also continues to expand.

Whittingham, entering his eighth season as head coach at age 52, has grown into his job. He owns a 66-25 record, having gone from a tenuous position early in his career to a point where he probably can coach the Utes as long as he likes.

No. 2 Kevin O’Connor

Jazz executive VP

Previous ranking • No. 3

O’Connor relinquished his general manager’s title this month when Dennis Lindsey moved from San Antonio to take that position, yet O’Connor has only gained power in the Jazz organization over the past 18 months. In his new job description, he’ll have the final say about personnel matters, functioning the way the late Larry H. Miller and former coach Jerry Sloan exercised their influence. O’Connor faces some key decisions about his roster in the next 10 months.

No. 3 Bronco Mendenhall

BYU football coach

Previous ranking • No. 10

Mendenhall’s rise in influence, much like Kyle Whittingham’s, is due to the growing level of interest in college football in Utah. His management of the BYU program as an independent is a subject of some curiosity nationally. The Cougars must succeed to attract attention and justify their ESPN contract, while maintaining the identity that Mendenhall espouses as part of the church-owned school’s mission. He also functions as BYU’s defensive coordinator.

No. 4 Tom Holmoe

BYU athletic director

Previous ranking • No. 4

Holmoe is responsible for BYU’s football scheduling, which makes him as vital as Mendenhall in carrying out the program’s plan of independence. The Cougars’ 2013 schedule, featuring Texas and Wisconsin, represents a risk/reward approach in BYU’s quest for relevance without competing for a conference championship. And after the first year of WCC membership for BYU’s basketball program and other sports, the move appears successful.

No. 5 Dave Checketts

Real Salt Lake owner

Previous ranking • No. 5

Real Salt Lake has not won a trophy since claiming the 2009 MLS Cup, but the franchise continues to solidify itself in this market and Rio Tinto Stadium keeps hosting niche events. Checketts was deep into the process of selling the NHL’s St. Louis Blues during the past season, but his overhaul of the organization made an impact in the league. The Blues posted the second-best record in the Western Conference and won a playoff series.

No. 6 Chris Hill

Utah athletic director

Previous ranking • No. 7

Hill’s role in scheduling a home-and-home football series with Michigan and, in the process, creating a reason to interrupt the Utah-BYU rivalry for two years, bumps him one spot in 2012. He would have moved up more if not for the historic depths of the Ute men’s basketball program, coming off a 6-25 season. A potential recovery in that sport, combined with a $150 million capital campaign for athletics, will further shape Hill’s legacy.

No. 7 Larry Scott

Pac-12 commissioner

Previous ranking • No. 1

Scott’s negotiating a $3 billion television contract with ESPN and Fox in 2011 was an achievement that’s tough to top, but this month’s launch of the Pac-12 Networks helps the University of Utah significantly. The Utes will continue to benefit from Scott’s vision in creating exposure for not only football and men’s basketball, but also other sports as well. Scott’s choice to hold the Pac-12 football championship game at a campus site makes Utah a potential host.

No. 8 Al Jefferson

Jazz center

Previous ranking • NR

Jefferson is approaching a position once held by Deron Williams, in terms of affecting the franchise’s personnel decisions. He’s the leading scorer and rebounder for a team that made the playoffs in 2011-12. Beyond that, his $15 million expiring contract makes him a symbol of how the management tandem of O’Connor and Dennis Lindsey will approach the 2013 offseason. They can try to get value in return by trading him, or use his salary cap space.

No. 9 Gail Miller and Greg Miller

Jazz owners

Previous ranking • Nos. 9/13

The Jazz’s mother-son ownership duo is collectively referred to as “the Miller family” by Jazz players and staff members, giving Gail (who was remarried this summer) and Greg something of a shared identity. Greg created a stir in January by engaging in a battle of words with former Jazz star Karl Malone, which they apparently settled. The hiring of Dennis Lindsey as a front-office addition is viewed as evidence of the owners’ commitment to the team.

No. 10 Scott Barnes

Utah State athletic director

Previous ranking • NR

Utah State’s football program has an entirely different outlook, largely due to coach Gary Andersen’s work and president Stan Albrecht’s support. Barnes is the point man, however, deserving credit for building an athletic program worthy of Mountain West Conference membership. That invitation saved Aggie football, beyond anything Andersen could do. Barnes continues to improve USU’s facilities, securing private funding for a $6.2 million weight room that’s under construction.

No. 11 Dave Rose

BYU basketball coach

Previous ranking • No. 11

Rose responded to the end of BYU’s Jimmer Fredette era by earning a sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth. The Cougars then staged the biggest comeback in tournament history, rallying from 25 points behind to beat Iona in a First Four game before losing to Marquette. BYU drew an average of 17,966 fans for home games, further evidence of the program’s staying power in the absence of Jimmer. Rose has a .774 winning percentage.

No. 12 Randy Rigby

Jazz president

Previous ranking • No. 15

Media members are exempt from this list, but in his role as president of Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment, Rigby’s shakeup of the sports radio market made an impact. The company bought 1280 The Zone in an effort to create a “powerhouse” station of talent and airwaves reach. Several big names switched stations as a result. Rigby also facilitated the Jazz’s hiring of Dennis Lindsey as general manger, creating another executive layer.

No. 13 Jeff Robbins

Utah Sports Commission CEO

Previous ranking • No. 14

The Utah Sports Commission took a hit when the Dew Tour chose not to return to its highly successful stops in the state. Yet Robbins and his staff continue to find other opportunities, such as a partnership with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association in developing winter events. The commission also brought the U.S. women’s soccer team to Sandy for its final pre-Olympic game and again staged Utah’s only PGA Tour-brand event.

No. 14 Tyrone Corbin

Jazz coach

Previous ranking • No. 19

Corbin seemed to settle into his job during the lockout-shortened, 2011-12 season and is looking forward to his first cycle of a full training camp and 82-game schedule in 2012-13. His team overachieved by making the playoffs with a 36-30 record, although complaints from unhappy players about Corbin’s lack of communication with them somewhat tarnished his performance. He will be closely judged this season, with a contract extension at stake.

No. 15 Jason Kreis

Real Salt Lake coach

Previous ranking • No. 12

Real Salt Lake’s inconsistency has not reflected well on Kreis, who steered the team through a series of injuries, suspensions and international call-ups in 2011. RSL held the best record in Major League Soccer near the halfway point of the season, only to fade. With a roster designed to make a run at another championship, Kreis needs to position his team for the playoffs, although the chances of hosting the MLS Cup final appear remote.

No. 16 Bill Marolt

U.S. Ski and Snowboard CEO

Previous ranking • No. 18

The USSA’s 2011-12 season was headlined by Lindsey Vonn’s record fourth overall World Cup title in Alpine skiing. With the Center of Excellence, the USSA has made Park City a training base for growing numbers of America’s top winter sports athletes. Teaming with the Utah Sports Commission, the USSA will bring five major events to Utah in 2012-13 and ‘13-14, showcasing stars of freestyle skiing, freeskiing and snowboarding.

No. 17 Sarah Hendrickson

Ski jumper

Previous ranking • NR

Thanks to a Utah-based drive to have women’s ski jumping included in the Olympics, Hendrickson is positioned to become a star in Sochi, Russia, in 2014. Recently featured in Sports Illustrated, the 17-year-old student of the Park City Winter School won the overall World Cup title with nine victories in 13 events. Hendrickson joined the U.S. Ski Team at age 14. The 5-foot-3, 95-pound athlete has skied since she was 2.

No. 18 Bill Manning

Real Salt Lake president

Previous ranking • No. 22

Entering Saturday’s game, RSL was averaging a franchise-record 18,680 fans (93 percent of capacity) in 2012. Manning received a new contract through June 2015, rewarding him for RSL’s operational turnaround. Initially hired in 2008, Manning reversed a big deficit with positive cash flow in 2011, having increased sponsorships from $1.6 million to $6.3 million. RSL owner Dave Checketts said Manning “pulled everything together” in the front office.

No. 19 Damian Lillard

Former Weber State guard

Previous ranking • NR

Lillard never could get Weber State into the NCAA Tournament in his three seasons in Ogden, but he distinguished the Wildcat program by becoming the No. 6 selection (by Portland) in the NBA draft. The point guard finished second in the country in scoring, despite facing defenses geared to stop him. Lillard missed most of the 2011-12 season with a broken foot, but came back stronger. Coach Randy Rahe believes Lillard permanently elevated WSU’s program.

No. 20 Rob Cuff

UHSAA executive director

Previous ranking • No. 23

In a job that continually becomes more complex and demanding, Cuff directs the Utah High School Athletic Association’s governance of more than 85,000 participants from some 140 member schools. The UHSAA tries to closely monitor and rule fairly on transfer cases, which have become a big part of its duties. A former high school basketball coach, Cuff was hired by the association in 2001 and promoted to his current position in 2009.

No. 21 Trevor Lewis

L.A. Kings forward

Previous ranking • NR

Lewis’ impact is easily gauged. He’s bringing the Stanley Cup to Utah this month. A former Brighton High School player, Lewis posted three goals and six assists in 20 playoff games for the Kings. He’s only the eighth Utah high school product to win a major championship in football, basketball, baseball or hockey. Lewis will display the Stanley Cup and greet fans Aug. 30 at the Maverik Center in West Valley City.

No. 22 Greg & Megan Marsden

Utah gymnastics co-coaches

Previous ranking • No. 21

The Utes finished fifth in the NCAA Championships, remaining the only school to qualify for the Super Six finals every year since 2000. Utah broke its own national attendance record with a 14,352 average and successfully hosted the school’s first Pac-12 Conference meet. By finishing second a close second to UCLA in that eight-team competition, the gymnastics program claimed by far Utah’s best ranking in any Pac-12 sport in 2012-13.

No. 23 Kaycee Feild

Bareback rider

Previous ranking • NR

Feild joined his father, Lewis, as a bareback world champion in the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December. The Payson resident earned $256,236 in rodeos in 2011. He also distinguished himself in May with a third annual trip to the Middle East to visit U.S. troops as part of the Wrangler National Patriot Tour. In 2012, he ranks third in bareback riding in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association standings.

No. 24 Tommy Grady

Utah Blaze quarterback

Previous ranking • NR

The Blaze continued to play their way back into the market’s consciousness in the reorganized Arena Football League, averaging 8,840 fans at EnergySolutions Arena in 2012 and falling just short of the AFL championship game. Grady, a former University of Utah quarterback, was named the league MVP. He broke AFL season records with 5,870 passing yards and 142 touchdowns, including 12 in one game, attracting attention from NFL teams.

No. 25 Mike Trout

Los Angeles Angels OF

Previous ranking • NR

He stayed in Salt Lake City only three weeks after starting the 2012 season with the Bees, but Trout serves a reminder of what it means to have a Triple-A franchise in Utah. After batting .403 in 20 games with the Bees, Trout has hovered around .340 with the Angels, producing one of the best rookie seasons in baseball history. He remains an American League MVP candidate, while helping to keep the Angels in the wild-card race.

Most Influential in Utah Sports • See bios on page C4

1. Kyle Whittingham

2. Kevin O’Connor

3. Bronco Mendenhall

4. Tom Holmoe

5. Dave Checketts

6. Chris Hill

7. Larry Scott

8. Al Jefferson

9. Greg Miller and Gail Miller

10. Scott Barnes

11. Dave Rose

12. Randy Rigby

13. Jeff Robbins

14. Tyrone Corbin

15. Jason Kreis

16. Bill Marolt

17. Sarah Hendrickson

18. Bill Manning

19. Damian Lillard

20. Rob Cuff

21. Trevor Lewis

22. Greg & Megan Marsden

23. Kaycee Feild

24. Tommy Grady

25. Mike Trout