Gordon Monson: The Utah Utes’ best sports year ever has hidden reasons behind it

In 2022-23, the Utes have garnered seven league championships.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utes hold up the PAC-12 trophy, as they celebrate the Utes 84-78 win over the Stanford Cardinals, in PAC-12 action, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023.

What in the world is going on in the University of Utah’s athletics department?

Normally a question like that automatically brings to mind some sort of negative connotation, as though something awful is happening. But no, in this [trophy] case, it’s the opposite.

Winning is happening. Championships are happening.

That assemblage of trophies this past competitive year, the combined 2022-23 season, has exceeded anything Utah sports has done before. Together with what happened the combined previous season, that double-shot has marked the best two-season run since the Utes entered the Pac-12.

Across all sports programs at Utah in 2022-23, the Utes have garnered seven league championships, five in the Pac-12, one in the RIMSA (skiing), one in the ASUN (lacrosse), topping last year’s high of four league titles.

Utah football took the Pac-12 championship and went to the Rose Bowl. Skiing won the RIMSA regular-season title and the league’s championship meet and nationals, too. Women’s basketball tied with Stanford for the Pac-12 regular-season title, and made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Utah gymnastics won a share of the regular season title, and went on to win the Pac-12 Championship meet. Utah men’s tennis was the conference’s regular-season co-champions. Utah lacrosse took the ASUN regular-season title. And Utah softball won the Pac-12 tournament. And a side note: Utah cross-country tied for first at the Pac-12 championship meet, but technically finished second on account of a tie-breaker.

Again, the question is asked: What the …?

Utah athletics director Mark Harlan gives his happy explanation.

“It starts with being around great coaches, amazing professionals who have recruited amazing talent in many of our sports. not just the high-profile ones.”

But there’s more, he says.

Mainly the school’s creation of what Harlan calls the “high performance team” and the “sports science team.”

Those teams consist of smart people — it is a university, after all — who have made a study of what many fans never think about. They are a bunch of eggheads who tackle and embrace the important geeky rudiments of peak performance, folks like directors of strength and training and nutrition and sports medicine and mental health and data collection and analytics application.

These folks dig into numbers and indicators regarding what leads to high levels of success among individuals and teams, and then they pass that information on to athletes and coaches, answering questions about what to eat, how to think, how to prepare physically and mentally, how much work to put in, how much recovery time is required, at what point an abundance of practice and training reaches a level of diminishing returns.

“It all runs together,” Harlan says.

He adds and emphasizes: “You can work too hard.”

It’s science.

(Don’t you wish some of your old coaches who had you ridiculously retching and puking on the field had figured that out back in the day? Of course you do.)

If that kind of background work sounds like a real snoozer, athletes and even hardcore coaches don’t see it that way.

It’s easy to imagine a tough football coach like Kyle Whittingham — and a whole lot of others at other schools — scoffing at notions like giving his players days to recover from their work, in so many words allowing them breaks during prep weeks throughout the season and beyond. That is not the [trophy] case at Utah, and, again, that space is filling up with clusters of new hardware. Anyone who’s paid attention knows the Utes have made the Pac-12 championship game in four of the past five football seasons, winning that title the past two seasons.

A couple of fistfuls of years ago, when Utah first entered the Pac-12, league experts were predicting it would take the Utes two or three decades to have that kind of success.

The takeaway there is that not only has Whittingham made a steep climb in his acumen and abilities to coach and recruit, he’s given an approving nod to what the guys and gals with the big brains on the performance and science teams are telling him.

“All the coaches have bought into it,” says Harlan.

It’s clear that what the nerds say isn’t enough in every instance, evidenced by the teams at Utah, such as men’s basketball, that have been properly guided but continued to fall short. Those outfits need, in addition, better coaching, better recruiting, maybe more NIL money. Ceilings on talent definitely expose limitations.

Still, the overall effect across the department, according to Harlan, is a collective thirst to observe what the school’s championship teams are doing, to grasp how they are doing it, to witness the increased success they are having, to conceive, believe, achieve it, to copy it, get caught up in it.

“It’s contagious,” he says. “Everybody wants a piece of it.”

Everybody wants a trophy.

And at Utah, more and more athletes and teams, even competing in a league like the Pac-12 that emphasizes a wide range of sports, are getting a shiny piece of what they want.

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