Kurt Kragthorpe: Dave Checketts creates unique legacy in Utah sports
Published: January 24, 2013 06:04PM
Updated: May 5, 2013 11:33PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

Sandy

Rio Tinto Stadium is built, the 2009 MLS Cup is on display and the best coaching and management team in Major League Soccer remains intact. Dave Checketts can walk away from his ownership of Real Salt Lake with pride and satisfaction.

The sale of his majority share of RSL to co-owner Dell Loy Hansen should meet Checketts’ goal to “uncomplicate” his life and reduce his worries. He’s free to live happily in Connecticut without agonizing about what’s happening on the scoreboard in Sandy.

Which is precisely why I’m predicting he’ll be miserable, and believe there’s another team out there for Checketts to run someday — probably in the NBA.

Working as the CEO of Legends Hospitality Management, owned by the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys and designed for high-end marketing of sports franchises, would be fulfilling enough for most people.

Yet nothing ever drove Checketts, 56, quite like the actual competition — on the basketball court, the hockey rink or the soccer field.

He’ll miss that, even more than he knows. “What I love most of all, what wakes me up in the morning,” he was saying after Thursday’s news conference, “is putting a group of people together to win a championship.”

He delivered a championship to his home state — with a franchise that’s thriving far beyond anyone’s expectations, playing in a spectacular stadium that Checketts overcame all kinds of political battles and funding issues to get built, and being administered by an MLS model front-office operation.

Mix in his work in 1980s with the Jazz, turning a joke of a franchise into a stable, highly respected organization, and Checketts created a remarkable legacy, stretched over 30 years in two phases of his Utah-based career. He’d make any all-time list of the 10 most influential people — athletes, coaches, owners and executives — in Utah pro sports, with a unique distinction of turning around an NBA franchise and launching an MLS expansion team.

The Jazz would not be here without Larry H. Miller, but attracting Miller as a co-owner who subsequently bought the rest of the team was Checketts’ responsibility.

He’s the executive who made the Jazz viable in this market and RSL, obviously, would not have existed without him.

RSL offered him the rare, dual opportunity to start a franchise from scratch — and then do what he does best, which is execute a turnaround strategy. In the middle of the club’s third season of 2007, he fired his original coach and general manager and made two brilliant hires, converting Jason Kreis from a player to a coach and bringing in Garth Lagerwey as GM. Bill Manning later arrived as team president.

At the same time, Checketts was acquiring the St. Louis Blues and restoring the once-proud NHL team, which he subsequently sold. The trouble with Checketts’ ownership ambitions, having also pursued the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Rams at various times, is his dreams are funded by other people’s money.

In Sandy, after all the effort involved in building the stadium, he absorbed a major blow when his No. 1 partner, Lehman Brothers, went bankrupt a month before Rio Tinto opened in October 2008. He’s been searching for solutions ever since, leading to Hansen’s initial investment in ’09 and then full ownership, as of Thursday.

There’s some favorable symbolism in Hansen’s increased involvement, considering he officially came aboard just in time for the MLS Cup victory. It’s his money and his team, but he would do well to just let Manning and his staff keep doing what they’re doing.

Hansen is buying into what RSL has going for itself, which is a very good thing.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.comTwitter: @tribkurt