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SALT LAKE CITY — On the day the University of Utah introduced women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts, administration officials confirmed to KSL that women’s track and field assistant coach Tapio Kuusela would be let go.
Originally from Finland, Kuusela has coached Utah throwers for the last 14 years.
“I feel sad to leave right now because the athletics program is going through big changes as a result of joining the Pac-12,” Kuusela wrote to KSL. “This was my first full-time coaching job and I was really proud to be a Ute. I always felt like I belonged to something here and I was proud to be a part of it.”
Several standout performers under Kussela included Danish hammer throw national record holder Vanessa Mortensen and 2000 Olympian Amy Palmer. Mortensen was a three-time NCAA qualifier while Palmer finished eighth at the Athens Games and in 2005 was the first-ever female track athlete inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame.
Kussela's athletes hold every school record in the shot put, hammer throw, weight throw, discus and javelin.
“I coached with Tapio for 10 years,” head coach Kyle Kepner said. “He recruited and helped develop many very high quality people over his years here. I’ll remember Tapio’s dry sense of humor — that, and how he related with the athletes. He really cared about the athletes.”
‘People would pay for these secrets’
Becky Riddle was Kuusela’s first college recruit. After she signed her national letter of intent, a packet arrived in the mail.
“He’d basically written everything down about how to throw the hammer,” Riddle said. “He started it out with, ‘People would pay for these secrets. Don’t tell anybody. Don’t show this to anybody.’ I kind of just laughed at it. As the years progressed I learned people really would pay for his secrets.”
Especially around the hammer ring, it didn’t take long for Riddle to see firsthand the interest people had in hearing what Kuusela had to say. “When we’d compete against BYU you could kind of see all the coaches trying to listen in,” Riddle said. “His knowledge and depth of understanding about how to throw the hammer, it’s superior.”
Coming out of high school, Mortensen Stout had several collegiate suitors. Kuusela was Utah’s difference.
“I came to Utah because Tapio had the best coaching experience,” Stout said. “He wasn’t a coach to change who I was. He was one that helped and supported what I could already do. Then we built upon that.” While at Utah, Stout went to three NCAA championships and the 2006 European championships.
Deputy AD: Utes have altitude advantage over Pac-12 in sprints, distance
Deputy athletic director Kyle Brennan said Utah’s “shifting focus” away from the throwing events will lead to Kuusela’s ouster after the 2015 NCAA championships to be held June 10-13 in Eugene, Oregon.
“Being at altitude, we have this advantage in developing our distance runners and sprinters,” Brennan said.
Ute track and field, cross-country not going anywhere
In 2004, Utah axed the men’s track and field and cross-country programs. The next season Kussela served as interim head coach, leading the Utes to the school’s then-best fourth-place finish at the Mountain West Conference indoor championships.
Unlike the men’s program, women’s track and field and cross-country aren't going anywhere. In 2014, Utah’s two programs received 18 full scholarships, the maximum allowed under NCAA rules. Both Brennan and Kepner said the women’s program will remain fully funded going forward.
Utah says there still will be Ute javelin, shot put, discus and hammer throwers. The university could even recruit more throwers. There just won’t be a paid throwing coach.
“If we have an accomplished student-athlete that wants to come here as a thrower, we have a spot on the team,” Brennan said. “We would welcome them.”
Former all-conference performers Riddle and Stout had a hard time buying this. “You’re not getting rid of the throwing program — but you’re getting rid of your throwing coach?” Riddle said. “That’s a hard sell.”
‘It’s not about what we’re going to lose’
Utah has five throwers on the team, led by 2014 NCAA championship qualifier Aoife Hickey. Hickey and another senior will graduate out of the program this year. The Utes also have three sophomore throwers. According to Kepner, one athlete will stay. The other two are undecided.
Even with a decrease in scoring from the five throwing events — shot put, javelin, discus, weight and hammer throw — Kepner says the Utes look to fare better both in the Pac-12 and nationally.
At last year’s Pac-12 championships, the Utes finished 11th with 23 points. Utah scored seven points in the throw events.
“Arkansas won the women’s championship last year without throwers,” Kepner said about the Razorbacks winning the 2015 NCAA indoor title. “With 21 events in track and field, you have to pick and choose which areas you’re going to be competitive in.”
Added Brennan: “It’s not about what we’re going to lose by not having (Kuusela) here, it’s what we’re going to gain. We’re going to be more competitive in the distance (events), just as we’re going to be more competitive with the sprints.”
Stout said Kuusela’s impact on track and field performers extends beyond throwers.
“He had a way of connecting our entire team,” Stout said. “He was the throws coach but he had a way somehow of making sure we were all part of one big team. I guess he touched many of our runners and jumpers, which you wouldn’t expect from him being just the throws coach.”