Kurt Kragthorpe: A football coach’s kid who wound up as a sportswriter would never happen now, but it worked out all right for me

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Staff photos of the Salt Lake Tribune staff. Kurt Kragthorpe.

On the second-to-last day of my full-time work in the newspaper business, Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham publicly, and graciously, mentioned our slice of shared history as teenagers whose fathers coached together. That's when it hit me again: This whole thing never should have happened.

In what universe could a college football coach's son become a sportswriter, chronicling and critiquing the performances of … coaches?

Whatever minor distinction I may have carved out in 42 years and eight months of having stories appear in four daily papers in Utah, my family background forever will make me the youngest member of an unusual group. It consists of two people.

The only person who matches my description is Terry Frei, a longtime sports columnist and author. His father, Jerry, was Oregon's football coach from 1967-71.

My father, Dave, coached Oregon State's football team in the late '80s. Terry and I happily would accept new members, but we're not expecting anyone to apply. In the modern climate of relationships between coaches and the media, there's absolutely no way a coach's kid would go to the other side.

Somehow, in a bygone era, our dads allowed it to happen.

Good thing for me, because I never imagined doing anything else during a career that ended with Tuesday’s Alamo Bowl — except for occasional Utah golf coverage I’ll continue to do for The Salt Lake Tribune and Fairways Media.

Being a coach’s kid in this business has created a weird dynamic, considering I would end up covering my dad’s former boss (LaVell Edwards), a player he recruited to OSU (Bronco Mendenhall) and my high school baseball teammate (Whittingham). More on them later. Back to my story.

Kyle Whittingham is second row, far right. Kurt Kragthorpe is first row, third from left.

In the University of Montana’s kindergarten lab school, I remember being assigned to draw a picture and dictate a story to a student teacher. Other kids were creating tales of fire trucks responding to calls; I was drawing a scoreboard and previewing the Grizzlies’ basketball game.

And then in high school, due to my father’s friendship with the sports editor — again, a strange phenomenon, looking back — I got a job in The Daily Herald newsroom, taking wire copy off the teletype every morning and regularly writing stories. After being sent to cover a Provo-Orem high school soccer game (2-0, Tigers) and seeing the story in print, I was hooked.

What other job could provide such immediate results of your efforts? Other than, you know, coaching?

And so it continued for four-plus decades, in Provo, Logan and two stops in Salt Lake City, ending with 29 years at The Tribune, the publication I was pictured reading in my high school yearbook. After I posted that photo recently, someone suggested my life would have been altered if I had been reading The New York Times.

It also crossed my mind that I could have worn a green jacket in the golf team picture. I'm just happy to have walked Augusta National, from outside the ropes.

In any case, none of those Utah newspapers’ headquarters is in the location where I started working, as just one example of an evolving business. I often joke that I wish I had been born much later into a coaching family, considering Gary Andersen made about 25 times more money as Oregon State’s coach than my father did, with fewer wins. But I’m lucky to have lasted this long in my own profession, blessed to have a wife (Sandra) who took care of everything while all I thought about was the next story, and to have done it all in Utah.

That's how I came to cover Edwards, Mendenhall and Whittingham, with every case resulting in what I would describe as very professional dealings. Working with Whittingham has been especially interesting.

He was quite angry for a few months about my criticism of his famous onside kick in 2007 with a 43-0 lead over Wyoming, accusing me of using a “Bully Pulpit” as a columnist. He eventually got over that grudge; it helped that Utah went 13-0 the following season.

I never did explain to him that he was misusing “bully” in that context, but I've helped him the past two seasons while being assigned to the Utah athletics beat. Our dozens of interactions have consisted almost strictly of formal questions and answers, with hardly any joking or small talk. Somehow, though, I became his “vocabulary guy.” About every other week, he would say something in a news conference and immediately check with me, out loud: “Is that the right word?” Or sometimes, “Is that a word?”

I always nodded in approval, until the day in November when he tried to use “immersement.” No. Not a word.

The weirdest part of my career, then, is the nine years I spent as The Tribune's sports editor. That experience ultimately helped me in many ways, yet the job description meant that I was in the office on many nights when cool stuff was happening elsewhere. While I covered some unforgettable Jazz playoff games, none of them involved Michael Jordan. I attended seven Olympics, but Salt Lake City's Winter Games were not included.

I also missed Utah's trip to the NCAA Final Four in San Antonio. So even though Ute fans would rather not remember what happened against Texas, I liked being in the Alamodome for my last event.

I'm realizing why these farewell columns always include a disclaimer about having too many people to thank. I'll mention one person. My first Jazz trip as the Deseret News' beat writer was to San Antonio in 1985, when I was 24 years old and feeling overwhelmed by the assignment. Jerry Sloan, then an assistant coach, offered this advice: Just take it a week at a time.

That suggestion has stuck with me during the demanding weeks of the Olympics, the too-short weeks of the Masters and everything else I've done.

Even some events of the last two or three years seem to me like they happened long ago. So I won't say these 42 years and eight months since that soccer game have flown by, as most columns like this conclude. But I've loved the nature of newspaper work. Being part of a daily product meant there always was the hope of doing it better the next day.

That’s what I’ll miss, besides Whittingham’s word checks.