Lisa Wilson, a die-hard University of Utah football fan her entire life, was annoyed, then angry, then a little bit terrified.
The mother of six walked into her Draper home last December and learned that her husband Mike, a defensive tackle on Utah’s football teams from 1992-95 under head coach Ron McBride, had just talked to BYU head coach Kalani Sitake.
Mike told Lisa the Cougars were wondering if their son, standout Corner Canyon senior quarterback Zach Wilson, was interested in making a recruiting visit to BYU. The school had just hired offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, and he was intrigued by Zach’s film, although Zach had committed to Boise State in June and had stuck with the Broncos despite getting nearly 20 other offers from around the country.
“I said ’no way, no way. Nope, not a chance. We are not going down there. That’s not an option,’” Lisa said. “We had written them off because they hadn’t recruited Zach at all. They hadn’t even sent him a form letter.”
She had a change of heart, however, and reluctantly agreed to take a visit after Sitake explained that previous BYU offensive coordinator Ty Detmer, who had been released in November, didn’t bother contacting the Wilsons because he had a commitment from his nephew, Zadock Dinkelmann, and most programs sign only one quarterback a year.
So the Wilsons made the 40-minute drive to Provo “and were treated like kings,” Lisa said. They stayed for nearly five hours, met with several coaches, players, professors and school administrators and learned that “these people aren’t anything like we’ve been led to believe. They’re great people."
Sitake apologized for not recruiting Zach earlier, and said the 5A MVP in 2017 should have been given more respect.
“We were pleasantly surprised by all of it,” she said.
Then the Cougars showed the family a video of BYU fans from all over the world expressing why they loved BYU that the school produced for a “best fans” contest.
“Fans at the Eiffel Tower, fans in Africa, in China, everywhere, screaming I love BYU,” Lisa said. “I just knew right then. I said, ‘Zach is a great kid, and he needs to be a role model for all these kids.’ That minute was a real emotional time for me. That did it for me.”
Utes go a different direction
Of course, none of the above would have happened if Utah had offered Zach a scholarship. He had dreamed of playing for the Utes since he began attending coach Kyle Whittingham’s summer football camps in the second grade.
But the Utes got an early commitment from Jack Tuttle, the highly recruited quarterback from San Marcos, Calif., who has since left the program.
“They just said, look, we have this Tuttle guy, and he doesn’t want us to even talk to another quarterback, or else he is going to back out,” Lisa said.
Without naming Tuttle, Whittingham confirmed in his press briefing Monday as the Utes prepared to host BYU — which will start Zach Wilson at quarterback on Saturday — that he never offered Zach a scholarship.
“We had all our eggs in the basket of the quarterback who we signed. Typically, you only sign one a year. … We had an early commitment from our guy, so that really was a dead issue from that point on,” Whittingham said.
From Red to (almost) Blue
Shortly after the Wilsons visited the campus in Provo, they went to a Christmas party that included 60 or so die-hard Utah fans from Lisa’s side of the family. Her brother, JetBlue Airways founder David Neeleman, recently funded and set up the new lacrosse program at Utah.
“They are as hardcore Utah fans as you can get,” she said. “I have seven siblings, and they all bleed red.”
One brother in particular begged Zach to sign with the Cal Bears, who had left their offer on the table to the last minute, along with Iowa and Hawaii.
“David and Steve [another brother] both have kids that go to BYU,” Mike Wilson said. “So they aren’t BYU haters. But they were a little horrified, like, ‘Are you kidding? You are not sending him to BYU.’”
However, after the family completed its traditional Christmas nativity ceremony and was singing “Jingle Bells,” they surprised the Wilsons by passing around words to the BYU fight song and sang it.
“That was them saying, ‘we are good with it. We are OK with Zach going to BYU. We have your back,’” Lisa said. “That was very reassuring.”
David Neeleman said it was disappointing that his alma mater and benefactor “dropped the ball” and didn’t recruit his nephew, didn’t even make the short drive to Draper to watch him throw. He would rather Zach play for BYU than Boise State, however, because he’s closer to home.
“Zach would have done anything to go to Utah,” Neeleman said. “But Utah wouldn’t even take a look at him. It is really aggravating.”
Big Mike likes it
The basement of the Wilsons’ spacious home in Draper is filled with Utah memorabilia, most of it from Mike’s playing days on the Hill. There are stadium seats, pennants, stickers, his U. letterman jacket and three framed jerseys from bowl games he played in, among other items.
Whittingham’s father, Fred, was Mike’s defensive coordinator at Utah for two seasons. Kyle Whittingham was Mike’s defensive line coach in 1994 and his DC in 1995. He has remained close to the Whittingham family, but understands why no offer came his son’s way.
“Zach didn’t want to be anybody’s second choice,” Mike said.
Mike said when word got out that his son was headed to BYU, his former U. teammates reached out in support, guys such as Lewis Powell, Luther Elliss and Sharrieff Shaw.
“Nobody has given me any flak for it at all,” he said. “They all understand.”
Saturday, the Wilsons will sit behind the BYU bench using tickets provided by a neighbor who is a Utah fan, while the Neelemans and other family members will be across the field in the seats that Mike, Lisa and Zach sat in when the Utes played USC last month and the Cougars had a bye weekend. Zach wore a black T-shirt with a BYU logo that day.
Youngest brother Isaac Wilson, 13, said he will wear black and cheer for “Team Wilson” on Saturday night, having not quite made the total jump to blue. Mike and Lisa Wilson aren’t as conflicted.
“We are Team Zach. We are Team BYU now,” Mike said. “We are all in.”
THE WILSON FAMILY’S TIES TO UTAH FOOTBALL
• Zach Wilson, from Draper, attended Utah’s summer football camps from age 7 to age 16.
• His father, Mike Wilson, played defensive tackle for the Utes from 1992-95.
• His mother, Lisa Neeleman Wilson, attended Utah and her family has had season tickets for more than 40 years.
• His uncle, Jet Blue airline founder David Neeleman, helped fund and start the lacrosse program at Utah.
• His family has had season tickets to Utah football games the past 20 years and has sat next to coach Kyle Whittingham’s family most of those years.