SALT LAKE CITY — As the year draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on all the most memorable moments, or most impactful moments, from the year for the University of Utah athletics department.
The 2019 season was good to Utah athletics, which saw a lot of success in nearly every sport. From the football team being involved in the College Football Playoff discussion to lacrosse playing its first Division I season, there’s a lot too recap.
It would be easy to make a top 10 list for many of these programs, but I’ve tried to make it as diverse as possible since there’s a lot that happened over the year, so let’s waste no time in getting to the list.
In no particular order, here are the top 10 moments from the season:
College Football Playoff
No, Utah football didn’t get into the College Football Playoff, but it was arguably the single most interesting storyline to the 2019 season for the football team. The football team did everything it needed to to be a part of the national narrative, and had several national media members stumping for the program.
It even had SEC apologist Paul Finebaum causing a stir nationally as he went on ESPN and told the nation that nobody wanted to see Utah in the playoff. Utah helped him out by losing to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Had Utah beat Oregon, it’s hard to see them being left out of the playoff and matching up with LSU in the Peach Bowl.
Regardless of the result, it raised the platform of a Utah program looking to consistently be in the playoff discussion.
Men’s basketball (finally) beats Kentucky
It only took 43 years, but the men’s basketball team exorcised some demons and finally got its revenge against then-No. 6 Kentucky in a win earlier this month. Many Utah teams have tried over the years, but Kentucky always came out on top. And it took Utah’s youngest team ever to finally claim the win.
The 1997-98 team can sleep just a little better now, even if the result ultimately doesn’t make up for the National Championship game.
Skinner named to World Championship Team
MyKayla Skinner was one of the most athletic individuals to call the University of Utah home. Earlier this year she chose to defer her senior season with the program to pursue her dreams of being named to the Olympics team to represent the United States. Skinner was named to the World Championship Team earlier this year and will have a shot to make one of the coveted spots for the Olympics in June 2020.
Division I lacrosse in the west
Utah lacrosse started its inaugural season on Feb. 1, making it the furthest program out west to be included at the Division I level. And though Utah couldn’t claim a winning season — the team finished 5-10 on the year — it was a monumental step for the sport, particularly out west.
Whittingham signs contract extension
On the surface, this doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, particularly in the realm of the top 10 moments for the year. But keeping the 15-year head coach at Utah does more for the program than arguably anything else, particularly in terms of consistency for the university’s most high profile sport. It’s the first contract to include language about his potential retirement, so there’s a high likelihood it’s his last.
That leads to an important sub-point, which is the agreement by the university to keep defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley with the university long term. Scalley is seen as the predecessor to Whittingham and could lead Utah through a rather seamless transition for whenever Whittingham decides to call it quits.
Megan Marsden retires from gymnastics
After 35 years on the gymnastics staff, Megan Marsden decided to hang it up and join her husband, Greg Marsden, in retirement earlier this year. The Marsden name has been synonymous with Utah gymnastics since it started at the university. The consistency and winning ways set the program up for sustained success and a winning culture.
A more low key retirement in terms of outward facing people on staff was that of senior associate athletic director Liz Abel, who was with the university for 36 years. Abel wasn’t one to put herself in the spotlight, but she was nonetheless integral in helping take Utah to new heights.
Basketball, football sign best-ever recruiting classes
In November, the men’s basketball program signed a top 20 recruiting class and the No. 1 recruiting class in the Pac-12, according to 247 Sports. Utah signed four recruits to its 2020 recruiting class, which was headlined by four-star shooting guard Ian Martinez. The 6-foot-3, 170-pound guard will add to a young Utah team that’s already having some early success.
A month later, the football program signed 22 recruits to its 2020 recruiting class as part of the NCAA’s early signing day period. The class was highlighted by Clark Phillips III, a four-star cornerback, flipping his long-term commitment from Ohio State to Utah in the last week. Utah is currently ranked No. 32 in the country and fifth in the Pac-12.
Volleyball sweeps BYU, reaches Sweet 16
The volleyball program drew a difficult hand when it was paired up with in-state rival BYU in the round of 32. The Cougars, on paper, were the better team and had all the momentum coming into the match. But Utah swept the Cougars and reached their fourth Sweet 16 appearance in program history, where they would narrowly fall in five sets to Stanford.
Football program wins South Division title
For the first time in program history, Utah was picked in the preseason to win the Pac-12 South Division and beat Oregon in the championship game. After an 11-1 regular season, Utah did indeed clinch the South Division title, its second consecutive division title, but fell to the Ducks in the championship game. Utah dominated the season and beat Pac-12 opponents by an average of 29.1 points per game.
Garff family donates to athletics department
The Ken Garff family pledged $17.5 million to the university’s Rice-Eccles Stadium expansion program in the spring. The donation, which is the program’s largest-ever single donation, helped the university fund a nearly $80 million project to close the stadium, upgrade the south facilities and add more than 5,600 seats to the football stadium.
Honorable mention: Rick Majerus inducted in the College Basketball Hall of Fame
The former men’s basketball coach took the program to great heights and made the University of Utah a basketball school. His impact at the university and to the sport is immeasurable, which makes a Hall of Fame addition a no brainer for the now deceased coach.