The years at the end of a decade, at the end of a century supposedly increase urgency for new invention and better performance, the natural calendar deadlines drawing a finish line that calls for a proper cap to everything that’s gone before.
Sports in the state of Utah in 2019 were in a hurry and, in some cases, the rush helped. In others, as the old grammatically challenged saying goes, the hurrier things went, the behinder they got.
The year launched with a positive — when Kyle Whittingham put the garbled hurry behind him at Utah’s offensive coordinator position by, at long last, hiring the right mind for that role: Andy Ludwig.
At that hiring, Whittingham issued a statement that read: It’s great to have Andy back on our staff. He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience as a collegiate offensive coordinator, as well as being an outstanding quarterbacks coach and recruiter. Andy is obviously very familiar with our program, which should make for a seamless transition.”
Seamless, as it turned out, wasn’t even the word. Stupendous was. The Utes’ offense went on later in the year to perform in a manner that Utah football hadn’t seen since the last time Ludwig was the coordinator.
The Jazz did their usual thing after the All-Star break — came on strong after a slow start. But before they did, and even as they did, they still suffered from a lack of offensive firepower. As the February trade deadline loomed, there were myriad rumors about which player would be swapped out for whom. Among the potential trade-able assets were Derrick Favors and Ricky Rubio, possible incomers were Mike Conley, Otto Porter, Nikola Mirotic, among others.
Jae Crowder gave his unsettled teammates sound advice when he said: “We have no control over it, and you’re just gonna stress yourself out looking at it, reading into it, stuff like that. So, just focus on your teammates, focus on the task at hand.”
The Jazz made no moves at the deadline, saving that for the offseason, when Crowder himself, along with players such as Favors, Rubio and Raul Neto moved, one way or another, to other teams.
All the speculation, though, was a big story, and it was big for the guys on the team, too, who directly after the deadline passed, went out and crushed the San Antonio Spurs, shooting 52 percent.
Shortly after that, Joe and Renae Ingles reminded everybody that pro athletes are human beings, too. They posted a blog that revealed that their young son, Jacob, is autistic. And that they love him, would care for him, had every intention of facing the challenges ahead, doing everything they could to help him and to help other human beings whose families faced similar challenges.
“There are no words to describe the unconditional love we have for our two beautiful children, Jacob and Milla. Nothing does, or ever will, come before them,” was the way they put it.
“Parenthood is by far the greatest challenge either of us has ever faced — a constant challenge that gives more reward than imaginable. We are learning each day, and continue to strive for the absolute best for our kids, our family.”
They added: “We take the good days with the bad days and will continue to give both Jacob and Milla every possible opportunity to grow, learn and develop. If you are a parent of a child who has recently been diagnosed with autism, you are not alone.”
Rudy Gobert, who eventually was named for the second straight time as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, was snubbed as an All-Star. With the way the All-Star game has gone in recent times, it’s almost unimaginable to picture a player who has made his name and built his game around not just blocking shots, but dissuading them from being taken at all, messing up the showboating that now dominates the event.
Vivint Smart Home Arena was named by GQ as “the most baller place to watch an NBA game.” That designation was awarded on account of the arena’s four luxurious “bunker suites,” built under the stands, which feature all kinds of cool design and technology. Even NBA commissioner Adam Silver was impressed, calling the suites “as cool as anything I’ve seen anywhere.”
BYU athletes and former athletes often have complained privately not so much about the school’s Honor Code, but about the way it is enforced. In 2019, though, many of them started speaking out about that enforcement, joining other students in their complaints on social media and in other ways, saying the code should be helpful, not punitive. Some said they did whatever they could to hide their struggles while playing for the school to avoid harsh discipline that could have put their attendance and eligibility at risk.
Former BYU great Luke Staley, one of many concerned parties, even asked for his name and retired number to be taken down from its honored place at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
A month before the end of the NBA regular season, a Jazz fan got into a verbal dispute with then-OKC guard Russell Westbrook during a game, launching a string of events that led to much discussion — including reflection in this community and around the league — about where the parameters should be on fan behavior.
In this particular case, the fan was banned from the arena, later filing a lawsuit for the trouble that ban had caused him, and team owner Gail Miller subsequently stood in front of a Jazz crowd at the arena and reminded everyone to watch how they act and what they say. She was widely applauded for her strong stance, and, with any good fortune, the small percentage of Jazz fans who needed that direct counsel took it to mind and heart.
March Madness, the most important part of it, went dark for all of the instate schools except for Utah State, which impressively won the Mountain West, as the rest of the local teams did not make the field. But the Tournament itself arrived at Vivint Arena.
Teams such as Gonzaga and Kansas, Syracuse and Auburn came to Salt Lake City for the Tournament’s first two rounds. Cinderella wannabes showed up, too, including outfits like New Mexico State and Fairleigh Dickinson and Northeastern.
At Vivint Arena, the ugly step sisters won, and the Cinderellas were sent packing — Gonzaga beat FDU by 38 points, Kansas beat Northeastern by 35 points. Said one Northeastern player: “I don’t think we capitalized on the opportunity we had.” New Mexico State had chances against Auburn, but fell just short.
Professional football briefly bounced into Utah and then, after eight games, bounced back out, with the Salt Lake Stallions giving it a go here in something called the Alliance of American Football. It lasted two months and then died in April. Few noticed.
Kyle Korver made a bigger impact off the court than on it, when he wrote a thoughtful, powerful piece posted at The Players’ Tribune called “Privileged.” The article examined race issues, racism, in and around the NBA and in America.
All the way back in spring football, Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley said “the sky’s the limit” for Utah football, and, as it came to happen, the sky’s boundary was found at USC and against Oregon.
Through a strange mix of happenings at the close of the NBA regular season, the Jazz got matched up against … who else? … the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, and were promptly eliminated, again.
That loss, though, stirred impetus for change, setting up a Jazz offseason unlike any anyone had seen around here in a long, long time. So many of the aforementioned rumors before the trade deadline were made real during the summer, when Favors, Rubio, Crowder, Neto, Korver left and Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Emmanuel Mudiay were brought in.
That set in place a stack of high expectations the Jazz, at year’s end, are still attempting to live up to. Whether they can do so is the question that has lingered for a couple of months now and will grow to even larger proportions in the months, the year, ahead.
Donovan Mitchell played for Team USA in the World Cup, Gobert played for France, Ingles played for Australia, and while Mitchell made progress, benefiting personally from the experience, Team USA stunk. Gobert’s team beat Mitchell’s and the U.S. proved, again, that it cannot simply send any young group to China and beat the world.
But Mitchell was seen as a leader on that team, and that leadership has been evident through the early part of the Jazz’s current season.
As college football approached, some of BYU’s players made comments about the importance of beating Utah for the first time in memory, as the two rivals lifted the lid on the season against each other.
Nothing changed. The Utes won, triggering an exceptional season that saw them beat all their Pac-12 opponents, except for the Trojans at the Coliseum and the Ducks in the conference’s title game. There had been an authentic chance for the Utes to qualify for the Rose Bowl, with some overzealous fans thinking the Granddaddy wasn’t good enough for Utah, wanting instead an invite to the college football playoff. And then … the lopsided loss to Oregon happened, and Utah will play now on New Year’s Eve in the Alamo Bowl.
BYU football had moments of exhilaration and moments of absolute confusion, beating teams like USC and Tennessee and losing to Toledo and South Florida. All told, after Tuesday’s loss in the Hawaii Bowl to Hawaii, a game in which the Cougars could not avoid turning the ball over, they finished at just 7-6, facing next season the most difficult schedule the school has ever experienced.
Kalani Sitake’s contract was extended, which seemed a major priority for the players in the program, but there are questions hovering, all of them dealing with how well the Cougars can compete against the opponents they are playing, some of them institutional, regarding the way BYU does its business. Independence, as long as it lasts, will be a hot topic at the school.
Once again, the Utah-BYU rivalry was put into a bit of flux, when the Utes announced they will skip the game against their traditional rival in 2022 and 2023.
Utah State had a so-so football season, coming back to the planet’s surface after flying through its 2018 campaign. The Aggies finished at 7-6 following their loss to Kent State in the Frisco Bowl.
Weber State, under Jay Hill, had another exceptional season, but fell short of its goal of winning an FCS championship, falling in the semifinals. One thing Hill has proved is that he is a stellar coach who knows how to direct a program and has mastered the most significant part of success in college football — he can recruit the right players for his system.
Real Salt Lake finished its season at 16-13-5, losing in the MLS playoffs to the Seattle Sounders. After years of minding the nets through RSL’s glory years and well beyond, legendary goalkeeper Nick Rimando called it a career.
The Utah Royals had six players participate in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, including stars Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelley O’Hara, and Christen Press for the United States. The Real Monarchs won the USL championship.
BYU’s women’s soccer team had a remarkable season, losing just one game. That loss came in the NCAA Tournament, through which the Cougars had been storming, until Stanford crushed them, 5-1.
Utah volleyball went 24-10, and the Ute women made a hefty move in the postseason, beating Illinois and BYU, before falling, 3-2, to eventual national champion Stanford in the Tournament.
Utah football revealed its plan for the future when it amended, extended, enhanced defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley’s contract, showing that it not only wanted to prevent Scalley, who was a finalist for the Broyles Award, given annually to the best assistant coach in college football, from heading to another program, but set him in position to take over for Whittingham when the head coach decides to move on to full-time improvement of his golf game.
The Beehive Classic, an event meant to bring the state’s college basketball teams together for a night of thrilling hoops, enabling them to play each other, ended after its third and final installment on the Jazz’s home floor, when Utah beat Weber State and BYU beat Utah State. Attendance at the event had been underwhelming.
And, finally, the Jazz punctuated 2019 by trading Dante Exum, the fifth-overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, to Cleveland for Jordan Clarkson. It marked the end of a long journey trying to develop the Australian guard into a player with meaningful impact on games. Injuries and lack of specific skills, such as shooting and ball-handling, prevented that from happening.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.