85 Utah football players given truck leases in new NIL deal

In the latest escalation of the college athletics arms race, the University of Utah booster group Crimson Collective makes a splash designed to grab national attention and bolster recruiting efforts.

Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham had a straightforward message for a group of donors assembled at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Wednesday afternoon: “Everybody in the country is in this arms race.”

Of course, the event they were gathered for was indication enough of that.

As part of a Name, Image, and Likeness deal, the Utah Crimson Collective booster group presented every Utah scholarship football player with a one-year lease for a 2024 Ram Big Horn 1500 Truck.

In order to qualify for the truck, the 85 players must be willing to promote the Crimson Collective to help other student-athletes benefit from their own name, image and likeness; they must have a good driving record; and they will be encouraged to participate in a community service project.

Naturally, the players were ecstatic at the announcement, which was made to them at the stadium by former Utes linebacker Steven “Sly” Sylvester.

“Honestly, I can’t even believe it. It still seems unreal, man,” said defensive tackle Junior Tafuna. “But just grateful for the opportunity that we’re able to get one.”

As part of the launch, the Crimson Collective also announced a partnership with For The Win 360° (FTW360), a “premier video platform made expressly for NIL NCAA Collectives.” The “For The Win 360°-Utah” app/ platform “promises fans, students, alums, donors, and sponsors a transformative way to engage with their beloved collegiate teams,” according to a news release issued by the school.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah football players react at Rice Eccles Stadium after being given pickup trucks by the Crimson Collective name, image and likeness organization in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.

The dignitaries who spoke at the event — Whittingham, Stevenson, Crimson Collective Board Chair Matt Garff, University of Utah President Taylor Randall, and Athletic Director Mark Harlan — all drew upon one common theme:

This is the direction of college athletics now, and boosters who want to see their programs succeed need to get on board.

“I know we can all do more. So my challenge to everyone here and then outside of this room is we all need to lean into NIL. It is here,” said Harlan. “… So let it not be said that it’s not a huge priority of this athletic department, and this athletic director.”

Randall added that behind a successful athletic department are three key components: talented student-athletes, dedicated coaches and staff, and generous alumni and boosters willing to say, “‘Look, the University of Utah is not going to get left behind.’”

To that point, Garff mentioned that the Crimson Collective had thus far raised $3.5 million, but was looking to get to $6 million before the end of the year.

Whittingham mentioned that events such as the one that happened Wednesday will be huge for recruiting, as the promotion will garner national attention.

But he urged those assembled to ensure it’s not a one-off, that Utah athletics is able to maintain a stockpile in the arms race that’s occurring.

“This is huge for our players, it’s huge for recruiting going forward. This is going to … give us a leg up on recruiting, which is what it’s all about,” said Whittingham. “… We can’t thank everybody enough that has donated. If you haven’t yet, please do, because every dollar counts and it is directly related to our success going forward.”

The football players who got to rush the field and check out the vehicles that will be coming their way couldn’t deny that if they were recruits again, seeing such a promotion would undoubtedly have some sway on their decision.

“Yeah, definitely. If I saw, as a [high school] senior coming into college, every scholarship player just got a truck, I mean, I’m not sure if many other programs are doing that,” said defensive end Jonah Elliss. “So it would definitely be a step up for that school.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah football players react at Rice Eccles Stadium after being given pickup trucks by the Crimson Collective name, image and likeness organization in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.

Tafuna, a junior, acknowledged that the collegiate sports landscape has changed dramatically in the few years he’s been on campus.

When he was being recruited, he said, he couldn’t have conceived of a day like this.

“I don’t feel lucky — more so blessed,” Tafuna said. “Two years ago, three years ago, if people would have asked me [about something like this], I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Offensive tackle Spencer Fano was not as concerned in the moment with the big-picture implications of the announcement, though.

He was instead envisioning chaotic ends of practices when everyone departs the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center, only to be confused about whose truck is whose.

“Honestly, I was thinking about that,” said Fano. “I was listening to what everyone wanted to get. Most people are saying black, so as long as I get a different color than that, I should be fine.”