The word influential is an interesting one, with multiple meanings. Merriam-Webster defines it primarily as “one who has great influence,” and as “the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways.”
I can’t stand the trend in our world, or at least inside the realm and reach of social media, in which folks rather presumably assign themselves the honor of being “influencers.”
Who the hell designates themselves as that?
But I can feel good calling these 25 people true influencers when it comes to those direct or intangible things that define sports fandom in Utah.
All right. Here we go, in inverse order …
25. Amy Hogue
What this Utah coach has accomplished in 2023 is remarkable, having led her softball team to new heights. Hogue’s team reached the College World Series this year, which hasn’t been achieved since … since … nobody can remember. If winning brings influence, she certainly has it right now.
24. Lindsey Vonn
One of the United States’ most successful and highly-acclaimed and famous Olympic skiers, Vonn has garnered much attention for all kinds of reasons through her competitive career, which ended a few years back. Now she’s part of the Salt Lake group seeking the Winter Olympics again, lending her star power in various ways, including meeting directly with IOC president Thomas Bach.
23. Grace McCallum
A Utah gymnast who also happens to be the winner of a team silver medal, having represented the United States at the Tokyo Olympics, McCallum is a multiple-time member of the U.S. national team. She’s been an individual all-around champion in a number of international events.
22. David Blitzer
Blitzer is a mega-sports owner, with franchises and venues around the globe, including his part ownership of Real Salt Lake, the Utah Royals, and all the facilities that go with them. When he bought his share of Real, he was named the team’s governor.
21. Lynne Roberts
Roberts’ team not only tied for the Pac-12 regular-season title, it also came within a couple of made free throws of knocking off eventual NCAA champion LSU in the NCAA Tournament. The Utes should have won that game and if they had … who knows? Maybe we’ll find out next year.
20. Morgan Scalley
The defensive coordinator for Utah football — and the guy who many presume will be Kyle Whittingham’s replacement when he retires — has a huge sway on the success of the Utes, and, as the leader of that almost-always-tough defense, he’s the mind making the calls, pulling the levers.
19. Andy Ludwig
Ludwig, Utah’s offensive coordinator, could have left the Utes for a program whose name lists higher up on the marquee, but he’s stayed at Utah and settled down an offense that until Ludwig came back for another go here was unsettled and unpredictable. It holds neither of those liabilities now.
18. Tom Farden
Utah gymnastics puts more fans into the seats at the Huntsman Center than any other sport, regularly darn near filling the place. And Farden, as the Utes head coach, has continued a proud tradition that draws them in. Utah gymnasts regularly finish among the top women’s teams nationally. No more words or explanations are needed.
17. Jordan Clarkson
It can be argued that Clarkson is and has been the most engaging Jazz player over his time in Salt Lake City, and, at times, the most scintillating. He’s like a homemade piece of cherry pie a la mode — when he’s hot, he’s oh-so good, melting everything around him, when he’s cold, he ruins the meal. It’s an old story now, but how can anybody not enjoy an NBA player who was once asked during a man-on-the-street interview by a clueless TV reporter if he went to any Jazz games. His answer: “Yeah, a lot.” She then asked him to give his name and to spell it: “J-o-r-d-a-n C-l-a-r-k-s-o-n,” he humbly said. Can anyone imagine James Harden or Draymond Green doing that?
16. Spence Eccles
Money still not only talks, it shouts. Generosity, as well. And Eccles, the fan whose name is on Utah’s football stadium and the football facility, has both. Clumped together with other boosters not on this list, he’s had and continues to have a heavy impact not just on the overall purpose and presence of the U.’s sports, but on the winning.
15. Mark Pope
BYU’s basketball coach got off to a hot start with the Cougars and has since cooled, which is to say his teams have cooled. But as BYU enters the Big 12, the country’s top college basketball league, his influence — for better or worse — will be significant. Not only will he have to recruit better, he’ll have to make better in-game decisions against a whole lot of teams that have more talent than he has.
14. Patrick Manning
Manning is the managing partner of the Black Desert Resort in southern Utah. They’ve announced an LPGA event for 2025 and, a bird has told me, they soon will announce a PGA Tour event in 2024. It will have been more than 60 years since either tour has come to Utah.
13. Fraser Bullock
Bullock is the former COO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee of the 2002 Winter Olympics and is now the president and CEO of the Salt Lake committee bidding for the games again, this time in 2030. In-between, he’s managed many of the facilities used in the Olympics the first time around. If Salt Lake gets the games again, Bullock will have played an important role in that process.
12. Tom Holmoe
The man’s seen BYU through from independence to the Big 12, making decisions that have enabled the Cougars to become notable in major sports and so-called minor ones. If football and basketball can win — or survive — as they transition to the competitive environs of a P5 conference, then Holmoe will bound on up the ranking.
11. Taylor Randall
The U. of U. president has more than just academics in his upward-turned palms, he’s got the future of Utah sports there, too. Big-time decisions are being made as we speak regarding the Pac-12 and Utah’s place in it, the wisdom of remaining where the Utes are. By mid-summer, everyone will know what Utah and other schools will be doing over the immediate future, those directions determined as they so often are by … cash. If the Pac-12 can scratch up enough TV money in negotiations for its individual institutions, after the departures of USC and UCLA, things will calm down. But trust is in short supply, what with Oregon and Washington wanting to be lured elsewhere and other schools eyeing relief options if they are needed. What Utah should do in the midst of so much fog is stacked up on Randall’s desk.
10. Mark Harlan
Harlan is a key player in everything that was mentioned under Randall’s ranking. Moreover, the Utah athletic director has led his teams to an increase of success, so much so that the school has won more conference titles in the past year (seven) than it ever had before. Somebody’s doing something right in Utah sports and Harlan’s name is written on the front door.
9. Cam Rising
This might be a shaky selection positioned as high as it is. But the quarterback has been so important to Utah football and its rise to prominence in the Pac-12, he’s earned this spot. Everyone knows the Utes have made it to the Rose Bowl in consecutive seasons. There’s nothing to do now but lounge back and see how well he heals up in his renewed charge to lead the Utes to whatever comes next.
8. Gail Miller
She no longer has a majority ownership in the Jazz, just in half the real estate in Utah. But her efforts to land a Major League Baseball team in Salt Lake City floats her right back into the top 10, where she’s been for a long, long time. The credibility — along with the money — she brings to the table as a seasoned franchise owner speaks loudly to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and to other baseball owners. She remains the queen of Utah sports.
7. Will Hardy
The Jazz coach must feel like he’s hanging onto a lamppost in a hurricane as the team for which he works maneuvers from a playoff team to a gutted, desperate one, eager to find ways to secure the kinds of players necessary to do more in the future than has been done in the past. Regardless of the front office’s every attempt to blow a hole in the bottom of the Jazz’s boat, Hardy gave his players, whichever ones he was left with, enough spackle to plug some of their leaks, making themselves competitive nearly every night. All of which slightly messed up management’s plan to rebuild through the draft, but those are mere details. Hardy has impressed darn near everyone around the NBA as a fine young coach, a coach the Jazz are fortunate to have despite his determination to ruin their best-laid plans.
6. Kalani Sitake
The football coach says he’s eager to get started on BYU’s trip into the Big 12, but maybe anxious is the better word. If he’s not feeling some anxiety, not feeling nervous, he’s whistling in the dark. It’s going to be a difficult journey, one that will require him to recruit better than he’s done in the past. The straight truth is, the Cougars need more frontline talent, more depth. And given their restrictions with the Honor Code, etc., it will be compelling theater to see if entrance into the Big 12 will help bring that infusion of talent. Either way, BYU football is a major force in this state and it sits now on the precipice of something either exciting or excruciating, or perhaps both.
5. Jeff Robbins
Robbins has long headed the Utah Sports Commission, an outfit that, among other pursuits, attracts national and international sports events — and many of the dollars that come with them — to the state. He’s part of the Salt Lake Olympic bid group.
4. Danny Ainge
The Jazz executive might be at the stage of his life where deciding whether to hit a hybrid-6 or a 7-iron into a faraway green protected by sand to the left and right, with water in front and a wheat field behind, is a big, big deal, but he’s still got the Jazz to fix. He has a thousand first-round draft picks to use, needing to make decisions not just on who to draft and who not to draft, but also on whether to unload some of those future picks for veteran help right now. There’s a lot to get done. And Ainge’s acumen will determine the success or failure of the Jazz for many seasons ahead.
3. Kyle Whittingham
The Utah football coach has etched his face onto the Mount Rushmore of coaches, not just of football and college coaches, but coaches of any kind in any sport around these parts. He’s taken what Ron McBride and Urban Meyer elevated and he’s sustained it, crafted it into a football program with lasting national respect. No one questions whether the Utes “belong” anymore. They do belong and Whittingham has made it so. Utah football and its fans now hope he’ll stick with the Utes a bit longer before he floats off to Maui to play with his grandkids at the beach and slam tennis balls across a palm-tree-lined court.
2. Tony Finau
Winning tournaments, doing it with happiness, dignity and class. If others emulate him, we’ll all be better off for it. Name one person on God’s green earth — maybe in heaven and hell, too — who doesn’t love this guy. Go ahead … we’ll wait … still waiting … and waiting. Uh-huh. It’s beyond admirable and adorable that Finau grew up on the west side of Salt Lake, hitting golf balls into a mattress hung against a wall in his garage because he and his family couldn’t afford to live the lifestyle that would have permitted him to practice with the country clubbers, with the fully indulged. Finau not only has influenced the golf world with his skill, personality, demeanor and backstory, he’s also influenced an entire generation of Pacific Islanders who can look at him and see not just the possibilities, but see … themselves.
1. Ryan Smith
He owns the Jazz. He owns part of Real Salt Lake. He wants to own an NHL franchise. He possesses billions of dollars. What’s left for the 40-something to acquire? Championships. Money isn’t everything. Money and titles and a good family life combined comes pretty close. He’s two-for-three. When Smith walks into a room in Utah, wherever it is, with his backward baseball cap on his bean, the alpha dog arrives.
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