SALT LAKE CITY — In probably the worst possible time, given the current situation in this country, the University of Utah athletic and football leadership handled the delicate situation involving Morgan Scalley about as well as it could under such trying circumstances.
Fueled by an external investigation, athletic director Mark Harlan and coach Kyle Whittingham decided to retain Scalley as the program’s defensive coordinator in spite of a text he sent to a recruit seven years ago that contained a racial slur. The university released its verdict Wednesday and then held a teleconference with reporters along with Harlan, Whittingham and Scalley.
“I own up to my past conduct and fully accept the consequences,” said Scalley, overcome by emotions multiple times during the 20-minute teleconference.
For the first time ever, Utah football was portrayed in a negative light nationally beyond individual games. Most times the program gets publicity outside the state and conference, it is usually portrayed as overachieving with tough-minded coaches and players.
The Utes were media darlings going undefeated in 2004 and 2008, respectively. Led by the ever-charismatic Urban Meyer, they were the toast of college football making the Fiesta Bowl as the original BCS busters in 2004.
The precursor to Power Five conferences, the BCS bowls had only taken teams from conferences known as Automatic Qualifiers. Utah beat three AQ teams — Texas A&M, Arizona and North Carolina — and dominated the Mountain West before blowing out Pittsburgh before an estimated 50,000 delirious red-clad fans in Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.
Four years later, with Whittingham having been elevated from defensive coordinator to head coach after Meyer’s drive-by two years, the Utes again were allowed to compete against the big boys. This time, they stomped Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Along the way, Scalley went from being the co-Mountain West defensive MVP during the Fiesta Bowl season to joining Whittingham’s staff as an assistant coach. In 2013, then the safeties coach, Scalley mistakenly sent the racially charged text to a recruit instead of a coaching colleague as intended.
Seven years later, after the tweet came to light, Scalley was suspended and immediately apologized. This would have been national news under any circumstances, but it drew even more attention given the Black Lives Matter movement that was heightened by the death of George Floyd by police in Minnesota.
“A man is not judged solely by moments in time,” Harlan said. “A man is judged by the body of his entire work, and this does not take away anything of the seriousness of what we’re talking about here.”
Ultimately, Scalley deserves a shot at redemption even given his indefensible actions. To the benefit of the current and future players, he will come back a better man and coach.
Bottom line, to quote a favorite phrase of Whittingham, the bosses made the right call.
Harlan and Whittingham faced a no-win situation in this case. Criticism awaited whatever decision, which included cutting Scalley’s pay roughly in half to $525,000 for the upcoming season and, among other things, rescinding his coach-in-waiting status to take over when the 60-year-old Whittingham retires.
Sure enough, shortly after the announcement, Sports Illustrated’s website published a story titled “Did Utah DC escape real punishment?” The writer, Jerry Kostecka, asked if the punishment was enough.
He wrote: “It’s not up to me to decide if Harlan and Whittingham made the correct decision or not to keep Scalley. My personal/professional experience with Scalley has been nothing but polite, respectful and real — but as a person of color who has experienced racism in the state of Utah and beyond, it’s difficult to forgive and even harder to forget.”
Kostecka mentioned the tweet by former Utah player Ryan Lacy claiming Scalley called him a racial slur as a freshman in 2008. In an interview with The Zone Sports Network after results of the investigation basically refutes his claim, Lacy maintained his original stance.
“I’m highly upset by the denial of the claim. It’s not a claim, it’s the truth,” said Lacy, who was interviewed as part of the investigation.
In contrast, several former players have gone on record as saying they don’t believe Scalley is a racist and have no instances of any impropriety. And for that, the true Utah Man keeps his job.
“It would have killed me to walk away,” Scalley said. “This is the place I love.”