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Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

'An extraordinary human being': BYU coach Mark Pope excited for future of Utah Jazz under Cougar alum, benefactor Ryan Smith

By Sean Walker, | Posted - Oct. 30, 2020 at 2:01 p.m.

PROVO — As the new owner of the Utah Jazz, Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith will keep a close eye on the basketball assets of the state's NBA franchise as he tries to build them into a championship contender.

It won't be the only basketball team on which he keeps an eye, though.

Two years ago, Smith played a key role in bringing then-Utah Valley coach Mark Pope to BYU. The 42-year-old tech guru was one of a handful of non-media members who attended Pope's introductory press conference in Provo, huddled in the back of a few rows set up for visitors in the BYU broadcasting building, with Pope's wife Lee Anne and the couple's daughters seated on the front row.

The two have developed something of a friendship — or at least, a kinship — in their time living near the same neighborhood in Orem. And while he acknowledged and praised the contributions of the Miller family to the Jazz and Utah, Pope believes that the new Jazz owner can take basketball in the state to another level.

"I know that Ryan really cares about this state," Pope told reporters Thursday afternoon, a day after Smith was introduced as the Jazz's new owner. "He's an extraordinary human being, and it's a great day for Utah, for the NBA, and for the Utah Jazz. The franchise has been run epically by the Miller family, and to pass it on to the Smiths is extraordinary."

The Millers sold the franchise to Smith for a reported $1.6 billion, a move that also includes other sporting properties of Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment, including the G-League affiliate SLC Stars, management of Triple-A baseball's Salt Lake Bees, and a separate deal that will sign over the Zone Sports Network radio station to the Qualtrics chief.

Photo: Courtesy of Utah Jazz

"It's really extraordinary what the Millers have done for the Jazz over the last 35 years," Pope said. "I can't imagine anybody doing it better for the state of Utah than Gail and Larry did. As a distant fan, I got to watch it, appreciate it and love it.

"I think Gail said that she would not have sold the team to anybody, but Ryan and Ashley were the people who were supposed to take it over. I know Ryan and Ashley, and how blessed are we in the state of Utah to have a legendary family like the Millers and then to have Ryan and Ashley Smith to take over. They're going to blow this up to epic proportions, and they're going to represent the state in extraordinary ways.

Smith's connection to Utah is important to him, but so, too, is his connection to BYU. A graduate of BYU's Marriott School of Business who started Qualtrics in his basement while attending classes in Provo, Smith helped found the school's entrepreneurship center and is a frequent guest lecturer with the institution. His company, which is headquartered in Provo, provides jobs to hundreds of BYU graduates — several of them former athletes — every year and he is frequently spotted in the front three rows of the Marriott Center, cheering on the BYU basketball team from his courtside seats.

His father Scott is a former faculty member in the Marriott School, and his mother received a doctorate from the college — graduating with five children in tow.

"BYU is a special place," Ryan Smith told Marriott School graduates during convocation ceremonies in April 2019. "I go to a lot of universities, and there is nowhere on Earth like this. I grew up here; I literally grew up in the Tanner Building.

"This is where I met my amazing and extremely funny wife Ashley. I have hundreds of stories from this campus. This has always been a constant, safe place for me to come back."

Smith, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that owns and operates BYU, has also spoken about the impact of his faith in his life. While living in South Korea shortly after high school, the teenage Smith met a pair of American missionaries for the church at a time when he was hardly practicing the religion.

That was the beginning of his return back to full activity. The start of that journey? Playing basketball with the elders and few members.

"My family likes to say that I found God in Korea. In some ways, it's totally true," said Smith, who later served a two-year mission for the church in Mexico City. "But I like to think more accurately that I found out what happens when you're all-in — when you fight through doubts or loneliness or despair, we actually push ourselves to the greatness found on the other side."

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