SALT LAKE CITY — The argument is split in half, really, with two guarantees out of the four who belong on Utah’s coaching Mount Rushmore.
Only partisan fools wouldn’t include LaVell Edwards and Jerry Sloan, the two standard-bearers in their respective sports. But the other two faces are wide open for debate.
Edwards is unquestionably the state’s best football coach, having amassed a 257-101-3 record at BYU from 1972 to 2000. The former Utah State offensive lineman built a powerhouse out of basically nothing in Provo.
Sloan, who died last week at age 78, took what Frank Layden started to build with the Utah Jazz and raised it to incredible levels. He is one of two coaches in NBA history to win at least 1,000 games with the same team.
Now comes the hard part, selecting the other two coaches to join the immortals. Who you got?
At least a partial list of the nominees are Layden; Utah football’s Kyle Whittingham and Ike Armstrong; Utah basketball’s Vadal Peterson, Jack Gardner and Rick Majerus; Utah women’s gymnastics Greg Mardsen; BYU’s Stan Watts (basketball). Gary Pullins (baseball), Karl Tucker (golf) and Carl McGowan (volleyball); Weber State’s Dick Motta; and Utah State basketball’s Stew Morrill. No doubt other coaches deserve consideration, but there’s got to be a cut-off list at some point.
It’s easy to overlook the distant past in favor of the more recent list of coaches, whose accomplishments are fresher. But some of the aforementioned coaches from long-ago eras posted impressive resumes during long reigns in their sports.
For overall impact on the sporting landscape, Layden has earned as much recognition as any player or coach in the state’s history. For many years, under the era of John Stockton and Karl Malone blossomed, Layden was the face of the Jazz franchise and provided it a national identity.
But the point here strictly is to identify the top four coaches in the state’s history. Despite being named NBA Coach of the Year in 1984, Layden finished with a losing record in seven-plus seasons before turning over the team to Sloan.
For one of the spots, the choice here comes down to between Armstrong and Whittingham. The two coaches rank first and second, respectively, on Utah’s all-time wins list.
Armstrong, who coached at Utah for 25 years, posted a record of 141-55-15, with a winning percentage of .704. Utah won 13 conference championships under Armstrong, including six consecutive in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
In addition, his teams didn’t lose a game in five seasons. The 1930 team allowed only 20 points all season for an average of 2.5 points a game.
Whittingham, who is entering his 16th season as the head coach, is only 10 wins behind Armstrong. His accomplishments include an undefeated season in 2008 that culminated with a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, developing a consistent contender in the Pac-12 South Division and turning the heated rivalry with BYU into one-sided dominance.
Assuming Whittingham coaches at least another two seasons, as expected, he will become the program’s all-time winningest coach. For all of these reasons, Whittingham’s mug belongs next to Edwards and Sloan.
Perhaps the toughest decision, another basketball coach is going to get the last spot. The finalists are Watts, Majerus and Gardner.
Watts, who coached from 1949-72, guided the Cougars to eight conference titles and twice won the prestigious National Invitation Tournament (1951 and 1966). His 371 wins are the best in program history.
Gardner led Utah to six appearances in the NCAA Tournament and made the Final Four twice during his 18 years. The Hall of Fame inductee also coached Kansas State to the Final Four before coming to Utah.
The eccentric Majerus was a brilliant coach, elevating Utah to a national level during a glorious run in the 1990s. His teams won nine division or conference titles and made 10 NCAA Tournament appearances, highlighted by a run to the national championship game in 1998.
Any of the three are worthy selections. The choice here is Watts.