Team Work

Not far down the hill from the University of Utah on a cool October evening, a doctor doing his fellowship at University of Utah Health Care (UUHC) and two graduate students in the U’s athletic training program attentively scan the field at a Judge Memorial Catholic High School football game for signs of players in distress. Earlier the same day, the three sports medicine specialists were in Judge’s training room treating athletes with an IT band injury and a sprained ankle. From a sports medicine standpoint, you could say that UUHC and Judge are joined at the hip.

UUHC’s presence at Judge is part of one of the first off-campus partnerships between UUHC and an increasingly long list of athletics organizations, high schools, and community sporting events. “We really wanted to connect at the community level,” says Bart Adams, University Orthopaedic Center (UOC) executive director.

It was Adams who hired Blake Johnson BS’04 MS’06 in 2008 as an athletic trainer for U athletes and, in what has proved to be an even bigger deal, to be U Sports Medicine’s outreach coordinator (and eventually, become its business operations director). It is under Johnson’s leadership that UUHC has grown its presence beyond the U’s campus and brick-and-mortar healthcare network. And it’s paying off—for everyone involved. UUHC now provides a wide range of athletes with emergency medical services and support in areas such as injury evaluation, management, and prevention. In return, UUHC receives valuable exposure in the community, generating growing interest in its award-winning health care services. In addition, Johnson says the partnerships allow fellows in the U’s Sports Medicine program access to a variety of patients and to travel abroad, providing coveted experience in their fields. “That’s what separates us here,” Johnson says. “I think the opportunities are limitless.”

A RANGE OF PARTNERS

The larger-than-life photo of Utah Jazz guard Danté Exum in the south-facing windows of the UOC isn’t there only because people inside really like the six foot six Aussie. He’s pictured there because of a partnership UUHC struck with the Jazz in 2014 to provide world-class medical services to its athletes.

Exum used those services after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in August 2015. More than a year later, Exum is better and back to playing with the Jazz. “Dr. [David] Petron, Dr. [Travis] Maak, and the entire University of Utah Health Care staff do a great job of taking care of us,”says Exum. “They were an integral part of my recovery process, and I am very thankful to them for that.”

And the number of renowned athletes in UUHC’s care grew substantially in 2016 when the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) added UUHC as a designated national medical provider. Paralympic athlete and gold-medalist Muffy Davis, a former University of Utah Rehabilitation Center development officer who also took classes at the U, was a patient multiple times with UOC while training for and competing in the 2012 Paralympics in London.

Ortho Center.web

When the Olympic committee announced adding UUHC to its National Medical Network, Davis expressed enthusiasm over the partnership and praised the care she received. “It’s that amazing quality of care that I experienced—they took me under their wing,” Davis says. “I am so excited that future Olympians and Paralympians are going to get the same opportunities to see the same medical professionals.”

The U’s now 20-plus partners also include organizations such as the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah bicycle race and the Salt Lake Bees Minor League Baseball team (a Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim). Over just the past year, UUHC also teamed up with Salt Lake Community College, the NBA D-League team Salt Lake City Stars, and two more high schools. Johnson, Adams, and others at UUHC are continually looking for and evaluating more partnership opportunities, careful not to grow its volume of collaborations too quickly or dilute the quality of service being offered on and off the U campus. Locally, UUHC’s highest-profile partnership has been with the Utah Jazz.

“Our partnership with University of Utah Health Care has tremendous value because of the access to world-class sports medicine and clinical care expertise,” says Steve Starks, president of Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment and a UUHC Board of Trustees member. “The Utah Jazz, Salt Lake Bees, and Tour of Utah cyclists receive the very highest level of care from best-in-class physicians, hospitals, and clinics.” (Miller Sports owns the three sport entities.) Starks explains that the affiliation between UUHC and Miller Sports works so well because of their shared commitment to fitness, health, and wellness. “We both believe we can make a lasting contribution to the quality of life in our community,” he adds.

Team Players Timeline.web

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THE LOCAL MODEL

When Judge’s star cross-country runner Eric Heideman sprained his ankle this past fall, it was U sports medicine graduate student Travis Nolan, a certified athletic trainer, who helped the senior get back to his winning pace. “Travis really knew what he was doing and helped me recover really fast,” says Eric, whose father also coaches the team.

Travis Nolan assists Eric Heideman after a practice.

Travis Nolan assists Eric Heideman after a practice.

Judge cross country and track and field coach Jason Heideman has now seen the collaboration that began in 2009 benefit multiple sports at his high school, including recently when his distance runners received a free gait analysis from UOC for the purposes of correcting running mechanics and injury prevention. “This was the first season I was approached about doing something preventive,” says Jason. “The whole analysis is designed to keep our kids healthy and also for the running experts up at the UOC to teach the trainers and other PTs what to look for.”

Judge’s George Angelo, director of sports medicine at the school and an associate instructor in health promotion and education at the U, was on the ground floor of collaborating with UUHC. “We met many times to see how we wanted to make this a model program,” Angelo says. “Two aspects began to emerge: how to bring in graduate assistant students to work at Judge, and how I could help improve the athletic trainer program at the U with a more comprehensive first aid class for students entering the program.”

In the training room at Judge, Nolan teams up with UOC physical therapist and athletic trainer Alison Merritt DPT’09 and first-year U master’s student Jenny Zehner to care for about 300 athletes. “Since we are contracted out by the University Orthopaedic Center, we have amazing connections with well-known orthopaedic specialists in the area,” says Nolan. “This allows us to provide a continuum of health care services for our athletes if they need to go through the referral process.” Ultimately, he explains, these connections mean more efficient and effective health care for their athletes. He adds, “This allows them to return to their sport in the fastest manner possible while still protecting their body and long-term health.”

Dr. David Petron—an associate professor in the U’s Department of Orthopaedics, chief medical officer for the Jazz, a primary care orthopaedic/sports medicine specialist for UUHC, and team physician for both the U’s athletic teams and the U.S. Ski Team— was one of the doctors who paved the way so that the UOC would provide oversight with placing U students in high schools. While it’s “fun” taking care of Jazz players and professional athletes, Petron says, “It’s just as important to return athletes to a marathon race or a high school kid to a soccer game. It’s just as important that we use the same skills we use for elite athletes to take care of the general population, which is most of what we do.”

UUHC now partners with more than a half dozen high schools. And as they signed on, so did major sporting events such as the Salt Lake City Marathon and the Tour of Utah, as well as athletic organizations such as the Jazz and Bees, which each signed a multi-year contract to have UUHC as their official medical provider.

A PROVEN TRACK RECORD

In conversations about partnerships, Dr. Stuart Willick—a UUHC sports medicine physician who has experience working with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, US Speedskating, and the International Olympic and Paralympic medical committees—hits on the research being conducted before and during collaborations.

114 USOC & U of U Press Conference May 11, 2016.web

Stuart Willick speaks at the USOC news conference. Photo courtesy UUHC

In the booming sport of mountain bike racing, for example, Willick talks about a comprehensive system to track and characterize injuries in great detail to understand what types of injuries are occurring and how to treat or possibly prevent them. “There has been particular success in decreasing injury rates in Paralympic athletes,” Willick adds.

Willick explains that the UUHC’s excellent local and international reputation for clinical care, event coverage through partnerships, and sports science research improves its recruiting ability for physicians and researchers. Just one example of this reputation is UUHC’s recent first-place ranking in quality, safety, and accountability out of 100 of the nation’s most distinguished academic medical centers studied by the health care performance company Vizient.

“Our sports medicine fellowship is one of the most highly sought after fellowship programs in the country,” notes Willick. “We get the cream of the crop.”

Dr. Patrick Greis is another one of the reasons for UUHC’s stellar reputation and why its draw as a partner has grown over the years. Greis joined the U’s orthopaedics department in 1997, specializing in sports medicine as a surgeon focusing on knee and shoulder injuries. Greis says that UUHC has a cache of such specialists who might have done 500 of the same kind of surgeries on U athletes and the general public that doctors elsewhere with a broader approach to treating patients might do only a handful of times.

It’s that depth of experience and expertise that Greis says makes UUHC attractive both as a partner and as a medical services provider to the community. “Our track record put us in the position of taking care of the Jazz,” Greis says. “We’re seeing the benefits of a consistently high-quality product we’ve put out there for a long time.”

Patrick Greis consults with a colleague.

Patrick Greis consults with a colleague.

Outside of Utah’s border, the partnership UUHC has with Ski Utah has its CEO Nathan Rafferty seeing the marketing impacts on people’s vacation choices and beyond. Two UUHC staffers recently led a skier-specific workout class with Ski Utah at a public relations event in New York for journalists who cover skiing and fitness. “You’d be surprised who wants to come and vacation here and wants to know if there is excellent medical care nearby,” Rafferty says. “You have some of the best medical options in the world literally a half hour away from a ski facility. You can’t say that about all the major ski destinations in the U.S.”

Back at the Judge football game, it’s Dr. Adam Harrold, a Kansas native working on a one-year fellowship at the U under Petron’s direction, who patrols the sidelines with Nolan and Zehner. Taking turns treating cuts and wrapping minor injuries, they watch for and talk about possible signs of concussion. Tonight it’s football injuries, but in the nine months or so that Harrold has left in his fellowship, he’ll see patients from college and high school sports in rugby, lacrosse, hockey, basketball, and gymnastics.

“The training I’m receiving here is second to none,” says Harrold, who chose the U for a fellowship over others around the country because of the multiple disciplines being covered. “I’m getting really well-rounded training, and the opportunities to be involved at athletic events are an added benefit.”

For the Judge Bulldogs, it ends up being an emotionally painful night on the gridiron as they close the season with a loss. But at least they have a relatively healthy team, thanks in part to UUHC, and can regroup as they start training for next year with a strong partner by their side.

—Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

Providing a Home

Amid the bitter cold of New Year’s Eve 2015, Donald Roberts searches on his cell phone for a photo of his nine-year-old daughter, Natasha, as he stands outside Palmer Court, a converted Holiday Inn now used to house chronically homeless individuals and families near downtown Salt Lake City. His goals for 2016 are to patch things up with the girl’s mother, get a new job, quit smoking, and bring his severely autistic daughter back home to his small apartment inside Palmer Court. “I’ve slept under bridges and everything,” Roberts says. “It’s not something I’d recommend.”

Palmer CourtRoberts is one of hundreds of chronically homeless people in Utah no longer living on the streets, thanks to the state’s highly successful decade-old Housing First program, which involves many Utah faculty, alumni, and students. Mother Jones, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, NPR, NBC, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, among many other media outlets, have all featured Utah’s Housing First initiative for its huge strides toward solving chronic homelessness in the state. This seems like a lot of attention when other housing programs in more populous areas were already under way. But consider the math. Utah has reduced the numbers of chronically homeless from about 2,000 ten years ago to less than 200 in 2015 and is on track to a very noteworthy zero as more housing units come online in the next few years.

“Chronically” homeless are defined as those who have lived on the streets consistently for a year or have had four episodes of homelessness over a three-year period. They also have a mental or physical disability and need for (though are not required to access) supportive services. And therein lies a key component of Housing First—the belief that the chronically homeless all deserve housing, regardless of circumstances in their lives that might otherwise prevent them from accessing permanent housing through other programs. The initiative essentially bypasses the long-prevailing idea of various “levels” to progress through. Instead, individuals go straight to stable housing and then work on addressing their other needs and issues, such as drug use or mental illness.

Palmer Court resident Richard Williamson and his dog Lucky take care of business on laundry day.

Palmer Court resident Richard Williamson and his dog Lucky take care of business on laundry day.

The theory, which research is proving true, is that by taking care of basic housing needs first, the impact of a homeless person on hospitals, jails, shelters, and other services is greatly reduced. The chronically homeless stay off the streets, and ultimately states save millions of dollars in the process. To be clear, no one with Housing First is getting a free ride. At Palmer Court and other places, the cost of housing varies. Clients can pay rent at a rate of 30 percent of their income or $25 per month, whichever is more and depending on which housing agency they use (in some cases it’s $50 per month). The rest of the cost is covered by federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds.

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Matt Minkevitch BA’91 MBA’13 is director at The Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City, where the impact of Housing First is felt on a nightly basis. On a cold day in January, Minkevitch estimates that more than 1,100 people—200 of whom are children—will be sleeping in three shelters, including The Road Home. Add to that number more than 1,700 people—or the former chronically homeless in permanent housing at that time—and the shelters would be overrun. “There’s no way on this green earth we could handle all of that demand at three facilities without Housing First,” Minkevitch says.

(Matt Minkevitch)

Matt Minkevitch

Housing First was spearheaded in 2005 by Lloyd Pendleton, director of the State of Utah’s Homeless Task Force. He is the man behind the vision to functionally eliminate chronic homelessness across Utah within 10 years. A year into the initiative, Minkevitch got the opportunity to join forces with Claudia O’Grady with the Utah Housing Corporation and fellow alum Jonathan Hardy BS’02, then director of the Utah State Community Services Office, and others to negotiate acquisition of the Holiday Inn at 999 S. Main Street in Salt Lake City. The old hotel was purchased and renovated for about $21 million in public and private funds to create 201 studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments. But, as Minkevitch points out, there’s more to the success of the program than just getting people off the streets.

Minkevitch credits two of his U professors, Mark Strand and Phillip Edward Sullivan (both of whom died in 2014), for teaching him how to listen and create a safe environment for people to speak their minds. These lessons have served him well while working with the homeless at St. Vincent de Paul and now The Road Home. “ ‘I’m worth listening to. I’m important. I’m not just trying to get something from you. There was a time I was somebody.’ These are recurring themes in countless conversations I’ve had with people,” he says. “There’s a beautiful thing going on here. It’s a conversation and a dance, and this is where I listen. In the course of listening, they know it’s safe to talk to me—about using drugs, alcohol, etc.” One of the beauties of Housing First, he says, is that people can be who they are and know that they’re welcome here. Treating people with compassion, respect, and a sense of empathy are elements common among those on the front lines battling chronic homelessness.

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While the numbers are proof Housing First is working, it’s people like Michelle Tschetter and Makyla Ordonez who embody the more empathic, compassionate elements of why “permanent supportive housing” works in Utah. Ordonez is a 23-year-old U student working toward her master’s degree in social work. An intern at The Road Home, she says her passion for social work developed while going to Catholic schools and using social services, to help her cope first with her parents’ divorce and then, a few years later, with the death of her stepfather. “I think it’s just having that do-good attitude,” Ordonez says. “I’ve had a lot of help, and I’m ready to give back.” Ordonez has worked with many families and gets a little emotional thinking about a particular single mother, a construction worker who had never been homeless. “Initially, she seemed very determined but scared,” Ordonez recalls. “She would call me multiple times a day just to talk to me.” Finally, after moving out of the shelter, she called Ordonez to say, “I can’t wait to show you my new house.”

U intern Makyla Ordonez (left) enjoys getting to know residents at The Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City.

U intern Makyla Ordonez (left) enjoys getting to know residents at The Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City.

As director of services at The Road Home, Tschetter works with interns like Ordonez every year and says she has watched Ordonez “blossom” while learning the ropes. “We’ve been really lucky to get some great students from the U,” Tschetter says. “They’re bright, curious, open to new experiences, and passionate about social work.”

Kelli Bowers

Kelli Bowers

Tschetter, too, believes Housing First is working. “It’s a smart thing to do—it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “Everyone deserves a stable place to live.” Like most people involved with helping the homeless, Tschetter has memories of clients who desperately needed help or who seemed hopeless. One, she recalls, was a prostitute who was also a drug addict and in and out of jail, but she eventually cleaned up her life, got into housing, and now works with other agencies for ongoing issues. “Sometimes as a social worker, you don’t feel like you make a difference,” Tschetter admits. “But we care about our people. I think about her. I ask about her. You don’t just turn that off because they’re working with someone else.”

Tschetter oversees Ordonez, who is patient, methodical, and soothing while talking to another female shelter resident on a typical day as a case manager at The Road Home. They talk about goals and plans, how Ordonez can help, and then she heads to the on-site food pantry to secure a few items for her client.

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Some of the clients Ordonez helps end up at Palmer Court, where her classmate Samantha Pehrson, also an intern from the U’s social work program, and her team take over.

Born and raised in Provo, Utah, Pehrson recalls that she rarely saw homeless people growing up and didn’t need social services for herself. She says that, like a lot of people, she used to think most homeless people were just lazy drug addicts who preferred handouts. She didn’t consider the trauma in people’s lives or the intergenerational poverty that can lead to a cycle of homelessness. “My perceptions have changed drastically as I have learned more about the flaws in our community when it comes to assisting people with housing,” Pehrson says. “It kind of made me frustrated at first—we don’t provide enough services.” In the classroom at the U, she’s taught to imagine herself in the shoes of a homeless person, and at Palmer Court she sees it firsthand. “How would I feel if I didn’t have a place to sleep every night or money for food or my family?” she says. “I’ve definitely developed more compassion working at Palmer Court.”

Pehrson benefits from working alongside Kelli Bowers BS’92 MSW’99, director of support services at Palmer Court; Cerise Nord MSW’12, a case manager; and Alesia Wilson MSW’99, clinical director of housing. Wilson, like Minkevitch, has an answer for naysayers who believe so-called “handouts” are enabling certain behaviors or that Housing First will attract more homeless to Utah. She points to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, wherein homeless people, like anyone else, need to satisfy their physical requirements and feel a sense of well-being and safety before they can move on to areas of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. “You can’t find fulfillment in life if you’re camping by a river and can’t find warm clothes,” Wilson says. “And when I explain that it’s fiscally responsible for taxpayers to support Housing First, people are extremely receptive.”

Lunch is served outside The Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City, the state’s largest homeless shelter.

Lunch is served outside The Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City, the state’s largest homeless shelter.

Bowers grew up poor in Chicago and pursued social work as a career after receiving “life-changing” help for depression. She recently turned over organizing a biannual resources fair to Pehrson, who ran with the task of gathering agencies in one place at Palmer Court to help residents with employment, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and more. “If you expect people to be clean and sober, on their medications, and have their medical situations taken care of, you’re really setting them up for failure to get into housing,” Bowers says. “Permanent supportive housing gives them wraparound services to overcome barriers. It works. Sometimes it takes a long time to work. But we don’t kick people out just because they don’t use their medications or because they use drugs.”

In 2011, The Road Home used a grant for its Homeless Services and Housing project, which was tied to Housing First. U Senior Research Analyst Christian Marie Sarver MSW’10 was on the team that evaluated that project over a three-year period, producing a final report in September 2014. One “remarkable” finding was that incidents involving mental health or substance abuse issues that would typically have landed clients using permanent supportive housing back on the street instead did not result in evictions. Sarver points out that, in fact, 77 percent of people placed during the project period remained in housing. “This is a very labor-intensive service thing,” she says. The report also notes that 22 percent of the housed clients did so well in the program that they were successfully discharged, while still housed, to a lower level of case management.

U intern Samantha Pehrson (holding the clipboard) learns on the job as she oversees a resource fair at Palmer Court.

U intern Samantha Pehrson (holding the clipboard) learns on the job as she oversees a resource fair at Palmer Court.

At Palmer Court, Nord is one of several case managers handling more than 40 clients (it’s recommended each handle about 12 to 15). Nord grew up in a small town in Alaska, sometimes seeing homeless people in Anchorage. “I was always curious about why that is even happening,” Nord recalls. She has been with The Road Home for nine years and at Palmer Court (which it manages) since 2009. “The advantage of Housing First is that I get to build a relationship with people,” she says. “If you have to define my job, it’s first to build a relationship of trust. ‘Your value to me is not your sobriety or mental health. Housing is a right. You deserve this’ is the message I try to convey.”

Supportive services such as mental health and substance abuse counseling or employment assistance isn’t mandated to qualify for placement with Housing First. But clients at places like Palmer Court, Grace Gary Manor in South Salt Lake, and Kelly Benson Apartments in West Valley City at least have access to those services.

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On January 11, Donald Roberts and his ex-wife were sitting in the lobby of Palmer Court, surveying the services offered during the resources fair Pehrson organized.

Roberts, now 48, was a “hyperactive” child, put on Ritalin and in special education classes. He recalls graduating from high school, joining the Navy, receiving an honorable discharge for his arthritis, and eventually working for a carnival in Arizona for six years. He got married and divorced, had a child in that time, lived in a shelter in Las Vegas, found his way to Salt Lake City, had an apartment but then lost it, and ended up relying on The Road Home to house him and his daughter. Roberts also battles depression and says he has twice tried to end his own life.

But over the past three years, he has been living at Palmer Court, paying $50 per month rent for a two-bedroom apartment. He has held a job on site, has sought help for his depression, and is working with an agency to learn how to deal with his autistic daughter while getting her help at a separate facility. He finds a photo on his phone of the two of them. “She knows me—she’s been asking for me left and right,” he says. “She’s my number-one priority. There’s no one more important than her.”

Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

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Young, Scrappy, and Hungry

 

As a girl growing up in rural Shasta County, California, a scrappy Lynne Roberts had to earn her first points in basketball by shooting high-arcing jumpers over her father and two older, taller brothers. She recalls dejectedly watching her shot attempts being blocked into a nearby cow pasture. A girl on a street full of boys who let her humbly hike the ball during pickup football games, she used the omnipresent good-natured sibling ribbing—that she wasn’t big, strong, or fast enough—as motivation to relentlessly work on her many games, earning 12 varsity letters in high school sports. Those countless hours of two-on-two in the family’s driveway and always playing “catch-up” with the boys in her life were the seeds of a competitive streak that grew and has propelled her through the arc of her personal and professional trajectory.

Now Roberts, 40, stands in her office as the newly minted head coach of the University of Utah’s women’s basketball team, marveling at how the space is bigger—more than 900 square feet—than her first home as an adult. Her office—like men’s basketball head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s—is in the new 101,000-square-foot Jon M. & Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility, with views of the Wasatch Mountains to the east and the Oquirrh Mountains out west across the Utah campus and Salt Lake Valley. They both have a fireplace, a 60-inch retractable television, and a private bathroom with a shower. Each space is equally impressive and a reminder to Roberts, despite her past successes as a coach in college basketball, that she still needs to earn some respect as a head coach in the Pac-12, where the Utes women’s team so far hasn’t made a lot of noise since joining the conference in 2011. Roberts started making her own noise at Enterprise High School in Redding, California, excelling in tennis, volleyball, softball, track, soccer— “I did them all”—and, of course, basketball. She earned a scholarship to play basketball at Seattle Pacific University, where she admits she cared at first more about sports and socializing. As a senior, she was named to the NCAA West Regional all-tournament team, and by that time she had settled down academically to finish in 1997 with a degree in history, following in the foot-steps of a mother who taught history at a junior high. (Her father was a vice president for berry grower Driscoll’s.) She stayed at Seattle Pacific to get a master’s in athletic administration in 2000. “It was the first time in my life that I was passionate about school,” Roberts says. Her coach, Gordy Presnell (now head coach of the women’s team at Boise State), told Roberts she would be good at coaching, and she became his assistant in Seattle from 1997- 2001, advancing each season to the NCAA Division II tournament.

On her own as a head coach, the 2014-15 West Coast Conference Co-Coach of the Year has proven her mettle, racking up an 86-33 record while head coach at California State University, Chico, from 2002-06, and becoming the California Collegiate Athletic Association Coach of the Year for two years in a row (as well as the 2004-05 WBCA West Region Coach of the Year). From 2006-15, she turned around a losing University of Pacific team in Stockton, Calif., taking it into the first round of the WNIT the past two years, and was also named the conference coach of the year in 2012-13.

Lynne with Team

Photo by Stephen Speckman

Utah Athletics Director Chris Hill MEd’74 PhD’82 is hopeful that Roberts, who signed a six-year, $1.65 million deal, will be the change the Utes need after releasing coach Anthony Levrets last spring. “I think we have a high expectation for our women’s basketball team,” says Hill. “We have a great history, and we weren’t attaining what we thought we could. We’re fortunate enough to have hired someone who we think is going to be really, really good—and we’re excited about it.” He describes Roberts as “smart, personable, and someone who has a lot of connections with recruiting.” Now that his department has set up Roberts in a new basketball facility, which Hill notes is a “tremendous recruiting tool,” he says it’s time to stand aside and let her build the team into a perennial top contender. “It’s going to take a while, because it’s a rebuilding process, just like it was with Coach Krystkowiak on the men’s side,” Hill says. “We anticipate that in five years we will be the type of team that’s in the NCAA tournament quite a bit and having a chance to advance in certain years and get to the Sweet 16 and be a major post-season player. But that’s going to take a couple of years.”

Hill says Utah Athletics has given the financial backing Roberts needs to build her staff. She wasted no time assembling her coaching staff after she was hired last April, bringing on board former Utah State player and coach Danyelle Snelgro, who also coached at Fresno State University and Texas Christian University, and Wesley Brooks, who coached at four schools including the University of North Texas, where he was the past four seasons. She has also brought on new marketing and video production hires to help her amp up excitement. But her first acquisition was Assistant Coach Gavin Petersen, who for the past two seasons had been an assistant to Roberts at Pacific. Petersen says it was an “easy” decision to join Roberts at Utah. “We work really well together,” he says. “We complement each other.”

Lynne Kneeling

Photo by Stephen Speckman

Petersen calls Roberts a “competitor,” someone who “prepares hard” and uses humor to maintain a balance and a kind of “family” atmosphere. Illustrative of the effects of that balance, he points to a game toward the end of last season, with Pacific going into hostile territory on Gonzaga’s home court, on Senior Night, in front of a sold-out audience. The perennial West Coast Conference champions earlier in the season had beat the Tigers on Pacific’s own court and had already sealed a top seed in the playoffs, and Pacific was vying for a second or third seed. “We ended up winning—it was awesome,” Petersen says. “She’s tough, passionate, those type of things we want our kids to take on…. It happens slowly, but it will happen.”

Emily Potter, the talented 6’6” forward from Winnipeg, Canada, who redshirted last season with a knee injury under Levrets, comes back eligible for three more seasons under new coach Roberts. “It’s definitely been an adjustment—I think for all of us,” Potter says. “None of us have gone through anything like this before—so, it’s kind of like uncharted waters. But it’s been going well so far.” Potter says she likes that Roberts was “honest” with her from the start and asked for her trust with regard to the direction she wants to take the team. Potter also describes the team as a family playing in a conference where they haven’t yet gained respect. “It really motivates us all,” she says. “We have a little bit of a chip on our shoulders.”

That “chip” is partly what drew Roberts to Utah. “As a competitor, I want to have a chance to win at the highest level,” she says. “This job just fit my personality. There’s kind of a blue-collar, underdog, chip-on-your-shoulder mentality here with the team that resonates with me. I love coaching that. We’re the new guys in the conference, and people kind of pat you on the head and say, ‘Yeah, yeah, you’ll get there someday.’ I love that. That motivates me like nothing else.” Utah Senior Associate Athletics Director Nona Richardson oversaw the search for a new head coach and likes Roberts’ intensity, “basketball savvy,” the respect she gained at Pacific and Chico State, and that she knows how to surround herself with the right people. “You can’t do it alone,” Richardson says. Roberts, she adds, has her “pedal to the metal; she’s still working her way upward,” and is poised to bring “relevance” back to a program that through 2014 has the 14th best all-time winning percentage in Division 1 women’s college basketball. Comparisons by Richardson and others, of course, lead to former Utes head coach Elaine Elliott, who in 27 seasons at Utah amassed a 582-234 record (Elliott retired from the U and is now an assistant coach at Salt Lake Community College). Their style of play, Richardson says, is more upbeat, faster tempo, and their approach to the game is to recruit the right kids, be disciplined, run hard, and “approach every day as if it’s your last.”

“What she did here is so cool,” says Roberts, who mentions the long line of proud former players who still feel like it’s “their program.” She talks about how the game has changed and how, ironically, the players these days are bigger, stronger, and faster—traits her brothers teased her about as a child. “Recruiting is everything,” she says, pointing to assistants with strong ties to deep reservoirs of talent in Texas and California. “It’s a great time to be at Utah,” she adds, referring in part to the new basketball facility that she calls the best in the country. “All of those things add up,” Roberts says. “That said, we’re going to have to work our tails off as coaches to get some street cred out there.”

Lynne Smiling

Photo by Stephen Speckman

By the end of this past summer, Roberts was settling nicely into Utah. “I’ve been so impressed with the people here. There’s like a familial feel to it.” And with the mountain ranges out both directions from her office, “I’m still blown away by the beauty,” she says. She might even find time in her office to kick back on the new furniture and read a book. Roberts prefers reading about great leaders—not necessarily in sports—like President Harry S. Truman, who she points out faced the difficult task of how to end a world war. “I think his story is a great story of leadership.”

Instead of following her brothers into medicine to become a doctor, her father into the berry business, or her mother into teaching, Roberts has herself become a leader on and off the court, mentoring her players to also focus on academics. In 13 years as a head coach, she’s never had a player be ineligible because of grades, and 100 percent of her players have graduated from college. “I feel like I have a pretty good balance with the academic piece,” she says. “Even if any of these guys go on to play professionally, they’re not going to sign a $90 million contract with Nike. They’re going to have to, at some point, hang up the high tops and do something else to pay the bills. As a coach, I do take that responsibility very seriously.”

One of Roberts’ most important messages to players? “Find something you love, that you’re interested in and think you might want to do, and pursue it—and let basketball be a way that you can really enhance your collegiate experience, and get it paid for. But at the end of the day, get your degree in something you care about.”

Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

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The Mental Game

 

The record crowd of 16,019 grew quiet as All-American gymnast Georgia Dabritz approached the uneven parallel bars. The No. 4 University of Utah gymnastics team was squaring off against No. 5 Michigan in the Utes’ last home meet for 2015. In Section L, Row 7 on the aisle in the Huntsman Center was U sports psychology consultant Nicole Detling, who just days earlier had met with the team to help them mentally prepare for the Michigan meet and beyond. Dabritz had just finished eighth in vault, but when it was her turn at the bars, she smiled and acknowledged the standing-room-only crowd cheering her in her last year competing on the team. She took a deep breath and then went to work. In less than a minute, her routine was complete. A few minutes later, the crowd roared as the judges posted a perfect 10, her third on the bars for the 2015 season.

Detling PhD’07, despite having a pass that allows her quick access to the floor at any moment during a meet, watched from the stands as the Utah team went on to beat Michigan. But what Detling did for Dabritz—and others on the team—prior to the meet with Michigan had an impact on that evening’s results, by dealing with the psychological aspects of their athletic performance. “She really helped me with my mental toughness,” Dabritz says. “We’ve noticed a huge difference in our team over the last few years she’s been here.”

Baseball Player Circle

U infielder Kody Davis. (Photo by Stephen Speckman)

College athletics programs and pro sports teams across the country have increasingly turned to applied sports psychology consultants to give their athletes a mental edge through tools that help them have the extra focus they need when the pressure is on, or the coping skills in the heat of battle when even the smallest setbacks threaten to derail months of preparation. About 80 percent of U athletes across all sports now use sports psychology services provided by the private consulting practices of Detling, who is a full-time U assistant professor of exercise and sport science, and by Keith Henschen, who led the U’s sports psychology efforts for decades and still contracts with the men’s basketball team. The U also offers degree programs to educate people to take on the role that, for the athletes they serve, falls somewhere between Zen master and someone to just talk to about life.

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About 60 to 75 percent of major colleges nationwide now use mental skills coaches for their athletes, and more than 100 institutions, including the University of Utah, offer courses in sports psychology, Henschen says. The number of consultants across the country who have been certified through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology has grown from about 50 in 1992 to more than 500 today. They apply their mental skills coaching not only to athletes but to people working in fields such as medicine, music, the military, law, and business, helping them with their mental focus, confidence, concentration, and attitude.

From left, U track and field team members Beck Sarmiento, Jessica Sams, and Lauren Mills.

From left, track and field team members Beck Sarmiento, Jessica Sams, and Lauren Mills. (Photo by Stephen Speckman)

Among NCAA Division I universities, about half provide their athletes with sports psychology resources, according to an NCAA study by Ian Connole, director of sports psychology at Kansas State University. The offerings include clinical services provided by a psychologist as well as the mental skills coaching that certified consultants such as Detling use to sharpen an athlete’s performance.

Detling began her role with the U Athletics Department in 2013, after Henschen, who had initiated sports psychology work with U teams, retired. Henschen says clinical psychologists were the first to apply the knowledge they had developed for coaching people in the workplace to helping athletes with their performance. Applied sports psychology began to take hold in the late 1960s and early ’70s with bigger universities that were able to afford hiring mental skills coaches. “It just grew since then,” says Henschen, who taught for 39 years at the U, with an expertise in the psychological aspects of sports performance.

Pull Quote 1Henschen, who has also been the sport psychology consultant for the NBA’s Utah Jazz for the past 32 years, still helps the U men’s basketball team, which under Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak this year reached the NCAA Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2005. For both teams, Henschen says he administers tests to athletes that he uses to develop competitive and learning style profiles that help coaches gain insight into why an athlete prefers to avoid failure, how not to overload a team member, or what type of anxiety issues a player might be facing.

“He has been very helpful to our program and players over the years,” says Tommy Connor BS’90, the U’s assistant head coach for men’s basketball. “He has unbelievable credentials, and our coaching staff and team have great respect for him.” Connor says the team plans to work more this year with Henschen on mental imagery, and individuals will continue working with him on confidence issues and implementing positive self-communication practices. “We talk a lot about breathing and relaxation prior to games and while shooting free throws,” Connor says. “In our practices, we try to create drills and situations that improve mental toughness.”

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For about 35 years, Henschen also helped gymnasts at Utah improve their mental skills. Co-head gymnastics coach Megan Marsden BS’84 says Henschen was a big part of her success back in 1981 when she first competed as a gymnast at the U, and he advised the team to use a sort of mental “choreography,” a blend of mental imagery and focus to keep gymnasts from overthinking their routines.

Her husband, outgoing co-head coach Greg Marsden (who in April announced his retirement), at one point worked on a doctorate in sports psychology, studying under Henschen, and also has an acute understanding of where it fits in with gymnastics performance. “Without the mental training part, a big piece of the puzzle would be missing,” he says. “At the very top level for almost all sports, it becomes a mental game—who can handle the anxiety and stress and still compete at their top level when everyone else around you is kind of panicked and losing it.”

U sports psychology consultant Nicole Detling, left, with U golfer Brent Pollock.

U sports psychology consultant Nicole Detling, left, with U golfer Brent Pollock. (Photo by Stephen Speckman)

His point is one Detling pushed in a team meeting a week prior to the Michigan meet this past March. “You should be at a point now where you know what you need before you compete,” she told the gymnasts. “You know what mindset you need. You know what feeling in your body you need in order to compete at your best.”

As part of the coaching leading up to the meet, Detling taught Dabritz to clear her mind for the bars, which Dabritz says is an “easier” event for her, and to use mental imagery to help with focus when performing on the more difficult beam routines. “I tried a few things in previous years like singing and counting,” Dabritz says about being on the beam. “This year, it’s deep breaths. I tell myself to be strong and calm. I’ll take a deep breath and say the word ‘calm’ on the exhale.”

U Athletics Director Chris Hill MEd’74 PhD’82 recognizes that the scope of sports psychology goes beyond wins and losses. “This was and continues to be a critical part of our program,” he says. The sports psychology model led by Henschen introduced the need to look at other support systems, he notes, and his department in the mid-1990s formed a Wellness Team to help student athletes with psychological and nutritional issues, as well as returning to play after injuries. “This is a very comprehensive program,” Hill says.

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Henschen was the reason Detling, a native of tiny Barnesville, Ohio, chose to study sports psychology at the University of Utah back in 2000. She received her doctorate in 2007, and in 2008 she went to work as an assistant professor (lecturer) at the U in Exercise and Sports Science, with an emphasis in sports psychology. In her private practice, she helped the U.S. Ski and Speedskating teams during the Winter Olympics in Sochi and Vancouver, and she also has worked with pro athletes in nearly every sport. Since she started her sports psychology consulting for the U Athletics Department in 2013, the number of U athletes taking advantage of mental skills coaching has grown by about 30 percent. The athletes who have worked with her office say that when it’s game time, most of what determines success and failure in their sport comes down to mental mettle.

Several members of the U’s golf team noted in a spring team meeting that the game is 90 percent or more a matter of mental skills, once competition starts. They credit Detling with being key when Utah tied for second place this past February at the Loyal Golf Invitational in Arizona. “A few weeks before, we did team sessions, and in Arizona, we were talking with her almost every night,” says golfer Brandon Kida, who shot a four under par and tied for fifth individually in that tournament. “After rounds, we would talk about what we were doing on the course and what we were thinking,” he says. “It’s something our team definitely needs to keep doing. It’s helping everyone as individuals and as a team.”

Cover Story Graphic FixThe use of a mental skills coach is a relatively new development for the golf team. “It took us a while to get to the realization that with golf, being as mental of a game as it is, it’s crazy not to use the resources we have up here,” says Andrew Mecham BFA’94, the golf team’s assistant coach. “Most of these kids can hit the shots—they have the physical tools, or they wouldn’t be here in the first place. I feel like if they can have some help thinking around the golf course, it helps them a lot.”

Detling educates athletes about their body’s physiological responses to frustration, anger, and negative thoughts—including chemicals released and muscles tightening—versus what happens when athletes use techniques such as repeating positive sayings to themselves. “Finding those positive moments actually releases serotonin, which is the happy hormone, and serotonin and cortical hormones fight each other,” she told the golf team in that spring meeting. “So, if you’re having that cortical stress reaction, that causes tension, and if you talk positively to yourself, that releases serotonin.”

Like Henschen before her, Detling has taught students who have gone on to accomplished careers in sports psychology. Justin Su’a MS’11 was a pitcher on Brigham Young University’s baseball team and received an undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism. “I realized I wanted to help athletes, not report on them,” Su’a says. So he enrolled in in the U’s sports psychology program, studying under Detling. After getting his master’s degree, he established a private practice. Last December, he was hired to be a mental skills coach with Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox. “The players are responding really well,” he says. “It comes down to language. There might be some bosses or coaches who say you messed up and to go see a mental skills coach. Now they say, ‘We want to take you to the next level.’ ”

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The U baseball and football programs also recently have warmed up to using sports psychology to help their athletes. “It’s huge in baseball right now,” says U baseball head coach Bill Kinneberg. “It really helps players get ready to play.” In baseball, he notes, it’s about helping players be ready for the next pitch, and Detling’s office is helping his players be at their ready best for that.

U tennis player Tereza Bekerova.

University of Utah tennis player Tereza Bekerova. (Photo by Stephen Speckman)

In football, it’s about getting to the next down. “We’re just now starting to explore the benefits of sports psychology,” says U Head Coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’re starting to integrate Detling slowly into what we’re doing. We’re looking for that edge. Anything that can give us a bit of an advantage, we’re going to explore.” The mental part of football is “huge,” he says, and he believes Detling might be able to help his players deal better with adversity. “A defensive back, for example, is going to get beat a certain amount of the time, and the way they react to that is crucial,” Whittingham says. “I have a lot of confidence that she can help us.”

Senior wide receiver Tyler Cooperwood says Detling is a “great listener” who has helped him with life on and off the gridiron. “She gives me tools on how to stay positive,” he says. “In football, she’s helped me with focusing for that moment. A play is usually no longer than six seconds. So for that six seconds, the focus has to be in that moment and doing the best I can in that moment.”

For baseball players Hunter Simmons and Kody Davis, distance runners Jessica Sams and Nicole Rietz, and tennis players Luisa Gerstner Da Rosa and Tereza Bekerova, Detling has introduced a multitude of mental coping tools that range from simply being with their breath to choosing a focal point—Davis uses a foul pole—on which to concentrate and regroup during a stressful moment in competition.

U gymnast Georgia Dabritz (Photo by Russ Isabella)

U gymnast Georgia Dabritz (Photo by Russ Isabella)

U women’s track coach Kyle Kepler last year watched Detling work with an injury-plagued senior on pole vault and help her toward an “amazing” season. “Her ability to catch a student athlete in the moment is unbelievable,” Kepler says.

Every athlete who works with Detling hears the acronym WIN, or “what’s important now,” and she coaches them to quietly repeat it to themselves. “It just brings you back to the moment,” Davis says. “It’s another phrase, reminding you to be where you need to be, when you need to be there. It gets you away from thinking about the past or worrying about the future.”

Dabritz, who plans to graduate next year with two bachelor’s degrees, believes the lessons she has learned from Detling will help her in pursuing a career in health promotion and education. “As I move on from competitive gymnastics, I think there are many techniques that I have learned from Nicole that I can use in job interviews and, from there, as I continue into the workforce,” she says. “One thing we as a team have worked on a lot this year is self-confidence, and that not only applies to gymnastics and competition, but will help us excel in whatever we choose to do after our gymnastics careers are over.”

—Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

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Match Points

Inside the University of Utah’s George S. Eccles Tennis Center on a snowy day in April 2004, senior Roeland Brateanu faced off for his final home tennis match against Air Force’s Shannon Buck, one of the best players in the country. Brateanu had butterflies, but his coach, F.D. Robbins, as usual was calm. Robbins had helped Brateanu put together a strategy for the match, yet even with all that careful planning, the U player was still a bit nervous. Five of the six singles matches, including Brateanu’s, went three sets that day. Playing at No. 1, Brateanu and Buck were tied 6-6 in the final set. Each player had close line calls as they traded point for point, until Brateanu finally handed Buck one of the few losses (4-6, 6-3, 7-6) of Buck’s collegiate career.

Brateanu BS’04 calls it one of his finest matches ever—and one of the keys to winning that day, he recalls now, was Coach Robbins BS’73, who during his 28 years as the U’s head coach led the men’s tennis program to a 364-345 record. “He was always so calm and collected,” Brateanu says. “That helped me out as a player tremendously. Even when the match came down to a tiebreaker, to be that calm and that focused on what needed to be done and sticking to strategy—that was Coach Robbins. He was not a rah-rah kind of guy. He kept things simple, and that’s what really helped me through the match.”

Roeland Brateanu, left, the University of Utah’s head coach for men’s tennis, talks with assistant coach Daniel Pollock and members of the team during a practice session in the U’s Eccles Tennis Center.

Roeland Brateanu, left, the University of Utah’s head coach for men’s tennis, talks with assistant coach Daniel Pollock and members of the team during a practice session in the U’s Eccles Tennis Center. (Photo by August Miller)

Robbins announced his retirement last May, and Brateanu (pronounced brat-ee-AH-new), who had been an assistant coach under Robbins for seven years, took over as head coach of a program with a long, rich history as well as a new and different landscape of competition with the University’s entry into the Pac-12 in 2011. John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Arthur Ashe were all products of the Pac-12, which has produced 55 of 70 NCAA team championships. Today, the U team is well situated to face that competition. The indoor eight-court, 1,500-seat Eccles Tennis Center is considered a premier collegiate facility in the country and recently added a players’ lounge for the men’s and women’s teams. “It allows us to train year-round, and that’s key,” Brateanu says. Entry into the Pac-12 also ushered in a new $2 million outdoor tennis complex with six courts and elevated seating for up to 500 spectators, and it is expected to open this year, giving players top-notch facilities for indoor and outdoor play.

What’s more, Brateanu says, entry into the Pac-12 has brought the University access to athletes who might not have otherwise looked at the U men’s tennis program: players who expect the kind of training and experience that will give them the most opportunities to develop into professionals.

WallaceStegner

Wallace Stegner, right, who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist after graduating from the U, played on the U’s tennis team from 1928 to 1930 and is shown here with Ross Sutton, left, and Harry Gus. (Photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

The current men’s tennis program had its beginnings back in 1910, when the University of Utah Tennis Club was first organized. One of the early notable Utah players was Wallace Stegner BA’30, who would go on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. In black and white photos from 1929 and 1930, he is pictured wearing the team uniform of white pants and a neatly pressed white shirt. David L. Freed BA’31 captained the U team in 1930-31. He went on to captain the U.S. Davis Cup Team in 1960 and 1961 and later was nationally ranked as a seniors’ circuit player, competing until he was 82 years old. Fans of Utah’s Lagoon amusement park might recall that Freed was its chairman for nearly half a century.

During the last century, Utah players have won an NCAA singles championship and 24 team conference championships, including four when Robbins was the team’s coach, and have gone on to set records at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

Since the 1960s, the U men’s tennis program has turned out a small crowd of All-Americans that includes Robbins, who as a U student and team member earned the honor twice, in 1969 and 1970. Utah’s program has seen 43 players earn 70 All-American honors in singles and doubles play since 1981. Jim Osborne BS’69 became Utah’s first All-American in 1965 and repeated in 1966. After his college career, Osborne succeeded on the pro tour as a doubles player, winning five Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) titles, and he was a member of the U.S. Davis Cup team.

Harry James was the head coach of the U men’s tennis team from 1961 to 1986. He is shown here with members of the 1965 team, including Jim Osborne, top left, who was an All-American in 1965 and 1966. Photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

Harry James was the head coach of the U men’s tennis team from 1961 to 1986. He is shown here with
members of the 1965 team, including Jim Osborne, top left, who was an All-American in 1965 and 1966. (Photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

He and two others from the University of Utah—Greg Holmes BS’95 and Harry James BS’55—have been enshrined in the U.S. Tennis Association (ITA – Intermountain Section) Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame in Athens, Georgia. Holmes was the NCAA Singles Champion in 1983, when he was the last player to win the title using a wooden racquet. He went on to a successful professional career that included competing in the U.S. Open, and he reached as high as No. 22 in the world, with wins over Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi. At Wimbledon in 1989, Holmes set the record for the longest match played there, at five hours and 28 minutes. The record held until the John Isner-Nicolas Mahut match in 2010 stretched over 11 hours, five minutes of play during the course of three days.

A graduate of Salt Lake City’s East High School, James had achieved ranked-player status as a promising junior tennis player when he was stricken with polio while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. Thereafter confined to a wheelchair, he went on to obtain a journalism degree at the University of Utah, became the U’s sports information director, and eventually had a stellar career as the head coach of the U men’s tennis team from 1961 to 1986. Under his leadership, the Utes won 10 conference championships and included 11 All-Americans.

James took Robbins under his wing as assistant coach for part of that tenure, and Robbins succeeded James as head coach. Robbins now recalls that James was like a “second dad” to him. After his successful college run as a two-time All-American, Robbins had gone on to a pro career and was once ranked 20th in the nation in singles play, beating well-known names including Dick Stockton and Tom Gorman. In 1970, Robbins earned the unique distinction of playing the longest U.S. Open singles game ever (more than 100 games) to beat Dick Dell. And as the U’s head coach, Robbins twice received the Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year award, in 1989 and 1990.

F.D. Robbins, shown here in the U's Eccles Tennis Center, was the U's head coach for men's tennis for 28 years until he retired in 2014. He twice received the Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year Award. Photo by August MIller

F.D. Robbins, shown here in the U’s Eccles Tennis Center, was the U’s head coach for men’s tennis for 28 years until he retired in 2014. He twice received the Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year Award. (Photo by August Miller)

After the U’s 2011 entry into the Pac-12, Robbins led the Utes to three winning seasons, including coaching current player Slim Hamza of Tunisia to a Pac-12 All-Conference singles award in 2012. (Hamza injured his knee this past fall and took a break from tennis, but he was at “100 percent” by the team’s first practice in early January this year.) “I love to coach,” Robbins says. “The fun part is trying to teach young adults and turn them into men. Athletics is a great training ground for life after athletics. You have to be competitive, to have integrity, and to make good decisions.”

These days, Robbins is still on the court as a teaching pro at the U’s Eccles Tennis Center. As a coach and as a teacher, he relishes helping players practice. “I just love to get out and try to make the guys better,” he says. “The match is the carrot at the end of the stick.” Even so, among his fondest memories is the Utes’ victory over Brigham Young University in 2008 during a three-day stretch on their turf to clinch Utah’s 24th conference title. “How much better does it get than to win the conference championship and beat BYU down in Provo?” he says.

As Robbins mentored Brateanu, that BYU victory would be one of many reminders of a kind of wisdom that comes with time. The 2008 win came during Brateanu’s first year as an assistant under Robbins. Brateanu says that Robbins had so much experience as a player and coach that nothing seemed to rattle him, and his even keel rubbed off on his players. “He’s taught me things on and off the court,” Brateanu says. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. I owe him a lot.”

Brateanu’s path to the head coach job at Utah started in Amsterdam, where he grew up. After soccer, he notes, tennis is the most popular sport in the Netherlands. He started out at about age 3 with a Mickey Mouse racquet, constantly swinging it around the house. His father coached for a tennis club, and the son played several sports before picking his favorite. “Tennis was a sport that stuck out,” he says. “I really love team sports, and for that reason, I love the college tennis environment. It’s challenging. It’s very technical and tactical. I think it has a little bit of everything.”

Brateanu played for two years at University of Arizona near the bottom of the lineup before finding a “great fit” with an offensive-minded coach in Robbins and transferring to Utah. “It was the best move of my life,” Brateanu says. He won multiple awards as a player at Utah, and after graduation, went to work leading strength and conditioning clinics for high school athletes. In 2006, he moved to Guatemala to privately coach two junior tennis players to No. 1 positions in their age groups. He also was on the coaching staff for the Guatemala Fed Cup team while advising the Guatemalan Tennis Federation and Guatemalan Olympic Committee. He moved back to Utah in 2008 to be assistant coach under Robbins.

The current crop of Utah players has seen the head coaching position change from experience that predates their births to a leader who not that long ago was in their shoes. “He’s young,” says Cedric Willems, a Dutch national who transferred to Utah from Clemson University and started at the U under Robbins. “And he understands the game very well.” Willems was recruited by other schools, but Brateanu gave him a “good feeling” about the way the then assistant coach approached tennis and wanted to help players reach their goals, which for some like Willems is to continue competitively after college.

From left, Dan Bleckinger, a U All-American in 1969 and 1970; F.D. Robbins, also an All-American in 1969 and 1970; Jim Osborne, All-American in 1965 and 1966; and Dave Harmon, at the net in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy Special Collections, U J. Willard Marriott Library

From left, Dan Bleckinger, a U All-American in 1969 and 1970; F.D. Robbins, also an All-American in 1969 and 1970; Jim Osborne, All-American in 1965 and 1966; and Dave Harmon, at the net in the early 1970s. (Photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

Willems says he likes how the coaching staff tries to emulate the current successful practice and training techniques of top pro players. Those techniques involve a more “scientific” approach to strength and conditioning, focusing on muscle groups and areas such as the shoulders, ankles, and knees that are challenged in tennis. Willems says the team has all the resources it needs to be “great,” including access to the 17,000-squarefoot Alex Smith Strength and Conditioning Center, which opened in 2009 at a cost of $1.5 million, as well as the Eccles Tennis Center and the new outdoor tennis complex opening this year. Brateanu notes that the outdoor facility will provide the team with the options of both indoor and outdoor play, “an advantage we have over other schools in the Pac-12.” Only Washington and Oregon have both indoor and outdoor courts. Robbins says that no longer having to play outdoor matches off campus is key to moving forward. “I think the outdoor courts will make a big impact as far as the ability to recruit,” he says. “It has already made a difference in the guys signed for next year.”

Brateanu says Utah will continue recruiting within state first and then will expand its reach nationally and internationally as the U and other teams in the Pac-12 compete for the best of the best. “Players have gotten fitter, stronger, and faster,” he says. Being in the Pac-12 and landing successful recruits also means focusing more than ever on the latest research and techniques in athletic training, injury prevention, peak nutrition, and sports psychology, along with constant monitoring of players’ academic progress.

One of Brateanu’s goals as a new head coach is to draw bigger audiences to matches at the University of Utah. “The number one thing is winning,” he says. “When you’re playing better teams and you have good players, you will draw bigger crowds.” Beyond that, it takes getting the team and the brand out into the community more, serving others, and spreading the word about men’s tennis at Utah, he says. “The future is bright. That’s what we keep telling our recruits.” Robbins, his mentor and the U’s longtime coach, helped lay the foundation for just such a future, Brateanu says. “I can only hope that I am going to be here as long as he was and be as successful.”

Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

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Remember Me

University of Utah alumni John and Marci Stevens were quite happy raising their four children in Palo Alto, California, in 2007 when they visited Ghana to research the possibility of financing construction of an orphanage there. They wanted to see examples of orphanages already up and running, and during their first visit to one, they walked into an open area filled with children. Some of them couldn’t walk. Some were almost naked. The building was filthy, with babies sharing cribs lined up in rows, and some of the children didn’t want to be picked up and held. Piles of donations were stacked nearby, going unused. “It was heartbreaking,” John recalls. “Depressing.”

Among the children was a girl who appeared to be about 6 years old. Her name was Perpetua, and no one at the orphanage had a record of her last name. “She had so much exuberance, so much enthusiasm,” Marci says. “She seemed so different.” Within the year, the Stevenses adopted her and brought her back to Palo Alto. The couple also resolved to try to help children like the others they had seen at the orphanage. In 2008, they became leaders of a nonprofit group, the Kaeme Foundation, which provides staff and logistical support to help the Ghana Department of Social Welfare survey orphanages countrywide and gather information about each child’s history, health, and welfare. The department then uses that information to reunite children with their families or place them in other family-based care—and to help keep the children from falling prey to human traffickers. The word kaeme in the Twi dialect of Ghana means “remember me.” “Kaeme is truly a labor of love for us” John Stevens says. “It never feels like real work.”

The Stevenses’ initial trip to Ghana traces back to a 2006 article that John read in The New York Times Magazine, about child trafficking. It was the photo of a little boy forced to work on a small leaky fishing boat on Lake Volta that caught his eye. In the article, “Africa’s World of Forced Labor, in a 6-Year-Old’s Eyes,” Sharon LaFraniere wrote that the boy, Mark Kwadwo, was one of thousands of children in west and central Africa who are sold into servitude and forced to work in horrifying labor camps. “It was just moving to me,” John Stevens recalls, and after he had Marci read the article, they both agreed they wanted to try to help. But their experience in assisting others then related mainly to donating time and money to local charities and fundraisers at their children’s schools in the Palo Alto area.

University of Utah alum Marci Kirk Stevens, left, and her husband, John, adopted their daughter Perpetua in Ghana in 2007.

John had met Marci Kirk when he was a student at East High School and she was attending Highland High in Salt Lake City. Their first date was attending a University of Utah football game. They both graduated from the U in 1982, he with a magna cum laude bachelor’s degree in psychology, and she cum laude in university studies with a social and behavioral science emphasis. They married two days after graduation and moved to Palo Alto, where John began medical school at Stanford University and Marci had an internship with a commercial design company. She eventually became chief executive officer of an architectural design firm in the Bay Area for a decade while John finished his medical training and went on to work as an adult and pediatric cardiac surgeon at Stanford University Hospital and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Stanford, California. He also co-founded three technology-focused companies: Heartport, Amp Resources, and Sundrop Fuels. In 1998, the U Alumni Association’s Young Alumni Board awarded him its Par Excellence Award, when he was working with Heartport in creating technology for minimally invasive cardiac surgery. He is currently chairman and chief executive officer of Silicon Valley-based HeartFlow, Inc., which provides physicians with a noninvasive test that produces functional and anatomical data to assist in the diagnosis of coronary artery disease.

Along came that article on child trafficking in Africa, and soon after the Stevenses read it, a friend told them about two Ghanaians, Stephen Abu and his son Stephen Abu, Jr., who had been working with Helena Obeng Asamoah, an official with the Ghana Department of Social Welfare, to reform the orphanage situation in their country. Ghana’s government had been taking steps to reduce child trafficking, by making it easier for children to attend and stay in school and by giving small loans to poor women to reduce the incentive to “lease” out their children. The government also had created a system, through an endeavor called the Care Reform Initiative, to maintain a more accurate and complete paper trail of children’s identities, in hopes that fewer of them would become lost in the shadows of the slave trade. Asamoah had created a Ghanaian-based nongovernmental organization called Kaeme in 2007, with the aim of better record keeping on children and reuniting them with their families, if possible, or finding them good alternative homes with families in Ghana, but the group was still in the planning phase and hadn’t yet begun any work. She had run a few government orphanages and helped formulate the Care Reform Initiative, and the Abus were helping her seek funding in the United States for a new orphanage.

John and Marci Stevens’ friend told them the Abus would be in Salt Lake City, so the couple flew from California to meet with them. “If I hadn’t read the article, I’m not sure we would have been drawn to the request,” John says now. The Abus invited them to Ghana, and John and Marci made their first trip there in January 2007, and met Perpetua. Early in 2008, Asamoah and the Stevenses decided that rather than building a new orphanage, they would incorporate Kaeme as a U.S. nonprofit organization, with John and Marci as its new leaders, and begin a more complicated endeavor.

“The first time they came to Ghana, they fell in love with the people, especially the orphans and the vulnerable children in the country,” says Stephen Abu, Jr., who is currently chairman of the Kaeme board in Ghana. “Their belief is that every child deserves and should be in a home with good, caring parents.”

John and Marci visited more orphanages on that trip, and more trips followed. As they began to profile the children in these places, they found that hundreds of children had been abandoned or taken in by orphanages after their parents or caretakers had died, but not all of the children in orphanages were orphans. Some had been given up because they were disabled or had behavioral problems. Others had been abused and taken from families, and still more were placed in orphanages in hopes they would receive a better education.

Kaeme_orphans

Children in an orphanage in Ghana’s Greater Accra Region gather to meet Kaeme Foundation interns who will be working with them.

By 2009, Kaeme and the Stevenses had begun working with the Ghanaian Department of Social Welfare on Ghana’s Care Reform Initiative. They were immediately up against staggering odds that Kaeme would be able to make an impact, with 1.1 million children living in orphanages in Ghana, along with thousands of “vulnerable” children, according to UNICEF. But Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare believed that 80 percent of those children, many handed over to orphanages ultimately because of poverty, could be reunited with families if support was available to help them. The consensus was that rather than building more orphanages, a database was needed that would have profiles on each child in every orphanage in the 10 regions of Ghana. Over the years, Kaeme has helped implement that work. “This has helped the government to identify— and shut down—many orphanages that abused children for their personal gains,” Stephen Abu, Jr., says.

As Kaeme’s involvement in Ghana grew, the Stevenses were trying to comprehend the problems there. John recalls finding an orphanage funded by sources in the United States and run by a Ghanaian, a pedophile who was using the facility to sell kids as “sex slaves.” Other orphanages would “recruit” children from their families with the promise of a better home, but the proprietors’ only interest was to use the operating budgets from government and private sources to line their own pockets. And still more orphanages were selling children as “slaves” to work in the Lake Volta area and elsewhere for paltry sums that were collected by their families.

With the help of volunteers from the United States and paid staffers in Ghana, Kaeme has been visiting orphanages in all but one of Ghana’s 10 districts to create and store records on each child. To help coordinate that work, John Stevens has been to Ghana 16 times, and Marci has made 10 visits. Nearly 60 student volunteers, mostly from Stanford University, have logged almost 13,000 hours to gather as much information as possible on the children.

At home in Palo Alto, California, John Stevens, left, says his daughter Perpetua helped motivate him and his wife, Marci, to lead Kaeme. Perpetua, now a teenager, is an A student who enjoys playing volleyball.

One of those students, a Stanford freshman named Kava Abu, spent a summer in Ghana with Kaeme. A “major” issue in Ghana’s orphanages, he says, is that they don’t prepare children for life after institutionalization.

“For the most part, orphanages are raising kids that have trouble finding jobs, living independently, and establishing long-term relationships,” he says. “Most of the directors of orphanages in Ghana know this, but their financial interests are best served by perpetuating the existence of the orphanage system. Kaeme is helping the Ghanaian government to combat this type of child exploitation.”

Kaeme’s work has helped lead to the closure of seven of the most egregious orphanages in Ghana, and as of this past October, database records had been created for about 2,460 orphans. The government now knows who these children are and how they landed in orphanages, and can take the first steps toward possibly reuniting them with their families or getting them placed with other families in Ghana.

“Kaeme is a model for an NGO/ governmental partnership that seems to be working, solving a problem that is very common in the developing world,” John Stevens says. “We have heard from several international experts that this model would be of great benefit in many, many countries.”

The work of Kaeme also has become the subject of research by a Brigham Young University professor of social work, Jini Roby, who in recent years has been conducting a study to compare outcomes on several well-being indicators between the Ghanaian children who have been returned to a home and those who remain in orphanages. This past spring, Roby, along with colleagues and students from BYU, spent several weeks in Ghana, collecting data on children in orphanages and homes. “Kaeme is one of the few organizations that understand the importance of keeping children in their families, with support when necessary, rather than in an institutional setting,” Roby says. “The evidence is overwhelming that family is the best environment for raising children who will be emotionally and socially healthy in the long run. Kaeme works to support the government’s stated policy on care reform, which is very commendable. Many NGOs do their own thing, regardless of government policy or overall direction that has been laid out. Kaeme, in many ways, is coaching and mentoring government actors in carrying out their policies.”

John and Marci Stevens now talk about closing that “last mile” in Kaeme’s work, which is to gather better numbers on exactly how many children, as a result of creating accurate data, are transferring out of orphanages and into homes. Today, the government in Ghana is at least able to connect first and last names to the faces of many more children in orphanages, thanks to the efforts of Kaeme. “One child at a time, we’re making a difference,” John Stevens says.

—Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.


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A Book for Life

The University of Utah’s Einar Nielsen Field House was packed for the final game of the 1962 season as the men’s basketball team pounded the floor against Wyoming. Six-foot-nine-inch U center Billy McGill was in the zone, and his signature jump hook shot was, as usual, impeccable. He finished with 51 points that evening to lead his team to a 94-75 win. Long after the final seconds of the game had ticked away, the crowd continued to cheer, and McGill heard U President A. Ray Olpin start talking about him over the loudspeaker. All-time leading scorer and rebounder at the U. School record for most points per game. The highest-scoring center in NCAA history. One of the “greatest players” the school has ever known. “Today we are retiring the number 12 in honor of Billy McGill!” the president said, and a jersey bearing McGill’s number was raised to the rafters.

“It’s the highlight of my career,” McGill ex’62 writes in his new memoir, Billy “the Hill” and the Jump Hook: The Autobiography of a Forgotten Basketball Legend, published in November by the University of Nebraska Press. “I shake the president’s hand, and I hug my coach. I wave to the crowd. And just like that, it’s all over.”

But McGill’s pro career was just on the horizon. As a college player, he was a two-time All American, and in the 1961-62 season, he led the nation in scoring with an average 38.8 points per game, including a 60-point performance against archrival Brigham Young University. At the end of that season, he decided to leave school and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1962 NBA Draft by the Chicago Zephyrs. But a knee injury plagued him, and after just three years in the NBA, he trailed over to the ABA for two seasons. He found himself back in his native Los Angeles, eventually sleeping in abandoned houses and washing up in a Laundromat.

Billy McGill leaps for a basket during a U game. He was a two-time All-American and a top NBA pick. Photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

Billy McGill leaps for a basket during a U game. He was a two-time All-American and a top NBA pick. (Photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

McGill, now 74, recounts those highs and lows, and what came after them, in his new book, co-written with Eric Brach. “I wrote it for my beloved [Utah] coach, Jack Gardner, and the many Ute fans,” McGill says. “I wrote it for them. I wrote it for Utah. …I wanted people to know exactly what happened.”

McGill about four years ago had dusted off an old manuscript at the bottom of a closet in his Los Angeles home. They were words he had written three decades earlier about the twists and turns of his life. With assistance from Brach, who was finishing up a graduate degree in creative writing at the University of Southern California, McGill turned those memories into the book.

The story begins in San Angelo, Texas, where McGill was born, and where his mother left him in the care of relatives until he was five years old. She eventually returned to bring him to Los Angeles. Growing up in the hardscrabble streets of LA, he found solace in pickup basketball games, as well as the local YMCA gym and its staff. At eleven, he was dunking. Legend has it that during one pickup game with him and Bill Russell against Wilt Chamberlain and Guy Rogers when McGill was still in high school, McGill leapt into the air and threw the ball in a sideways arc over his head to nail the first-ever jump hook, later emulated by many top players.

As a freshman at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, he had made the varsity squad, and the team that year won the city title. McGill was named to the All-Southern League first team and to the All-City squad. His high-school grades were bad, and he didn’t have good study habits. But his game kept improving, and his popularity was growing.

McGill, shown here in 1958, is credited with inventing the jump hook shot, later emulated by many players. (Photo courtesy Billy McGill)

McGill, shown here in 1958, is credited with inventing the jump hook shot, later emulated by many players. (Photo courtesy Billy McGill)

At his high school team’s appearance in the city championship game, McGill went airborne for a shot during the game and then heard a “pop.” He fell like a “sack of rice” to the floor, he recalls in his book. A doctor called it the worst knee injury he’d ever seen and suggested an operation to insert an “iron” knee. McGill was told he’d never play basketball again. “As soon as I hear these words, I feel my brain start to dissolve,” McGill writes.

McGill declined the operation. He rested. And then he worked hard, coming back his senior year to become an “unencumbered scoring machine,” he writes, despite a knee that hurt and swelled after each game.

When colleges came calling, McGill met a man named Rich Ruffel, who talked about the University of Utah campus, a place that McGill would later describe as “overwhelming,” “beautiful,” and “breathtaking.” McGill also met legendary U coach Jack Gardner, now a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, and instantly liked Gardner’s blend of sincerity, authority, and kindness. With a four-year scholarship on the table, McGill chose Utah and became one of the first African Americans to play basketball for the U.

McGill was a second-team All-American during the 1960-61 season and then earned first-team honors during the 1961-62 season. He became the 11th player in all-time collegiate history to record 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds during his career. He still ranks No. 2 all-time at Utah for career scoring (2,321 points) and No. 1 in career rebounding (1,106). McGill also owns the Utah single-season (1,009) and single-game (60) records for scoring, as well as the single-season (430) and single-game (24) records for rebounding. In sum, he was great, but he quickly began to live life “by the needle,” requiring his knee to be drained by a doctor several times a week. He also encountered racism in Utah and on the road like he had never known growing up in California. His 60 points in that famous game against BYU came after a racial slur there, he says.

McGillHis academic work still wasn’t a priority for him in college, he writes, and when the NBA knocked on his door, that was it for caring about classes. He dropped out in 1962 and purchased a brand new Austin Healey convertible with the $17,000 starting salary he received from the Chicago Zephyrs. “Deep down I know dropping out is dumb, even as I’m doing it,” McGill writes. “But it’s so easy to rationalize to myself.” McGill was introduced to a cutthroat world in the NBA, one he says is full of “sharks” and where a hurt black player is “easily discarded.” As his Chicago Zephyrs teammate Woody Sauldsberry told him, “Nobody’s got your back.”

McGill was no longer the dominant force he was in high school and college, though he still had plenty of talent and an unstoppable jump hook. But his knee kept getting worse. He saw his playing time drop dramatically. After one game, future NBA Hall of Fame inductee Oscar Robertson told him, “It’s a shame… that they don’t play you more, especially after how you tore it up in Utah,” McGill writes.

By the time McGill was 30, he had retired from pro ball and began a slide into an oblivion that included depression, living with his parents, and eventually homelessness, which he details in the book with candor. But he crawled out of the rabbit hole of despair and slowly began to rebuild his life. Without a college degree, McGill writes, it was hard to get a good paying job. After two years of sleeping in Laundromats and bus stops, sports editor Brad Pye, Jr., of the Los Angeles Sentinel— who had first called him “Billy the Hill” back in his high school days—helped him find a job in general procurement at Hughes Aircraft in 1972. McGill eventually met and married Gwendolyn Willie, whose children from another marriage he adopted. (His grandson Ryan Watkins, who also stands at six feet nine inches, is now a senior forward for Boise State.)

McGill stands outside his home in Los Angeles. He eventually worked for Hughes Aircraft after leaving the NBA. (Photo by Ed Carreón)

McGill stands outside his home in Los Angeles. He eventually worked for Hughes Aircraft after leaving the NBA. (Photo by Ed Carreón)

University of Utah Athletics Director Chris Hill MEd’74 PhD’82 says McGill was one of the U’s most “fantastic” players ever, a “pioneer” as one of the team’s first black players, and a star remembered even today for his “unique” style of play and his “enthusiastic approach” to the game. McGill’s jersey still hangs high in the rafters at the U’s Jon M. Huntsman Center, one of only seven to have been retired, and he was honored in 2008 as a member of the U’s All-Century Team. This past February, he came to Salt Lake City to be honored at the U men’s basketball game against Arizona and two nights later was recognized during a pre-game segment by the NBA’s Utah Jazz. In March, McGill is being inducted into the Pac-12 Hall of Honor.

Times have changed, Hill says, in terms of the support offered to athletes to encourage them to graduate. “We can say very seriously that we provide every single opportunity for a kid to graduate. If they leave for the pros in good standing, many, many times we help them after they’re done, if things haven’t gone well for them. It’s a case-by-case basis, but the support is so different now, and it’s so important.”

Most college players, he adds, think they’re going to play in the NBA someday. “So you’re wasting your energy telling people they can’t play professional basketball,” Hill says.

“Somewhere along the line, they come to that realization. But the most important thing for us is to make sure we continue to hammer home the importance of having an education and supporting them in every way.”

McGill holds a basketball from his University of Utah days, signed by many of his teammates at the U. (Photo by Ed Carreón)

McGill holds a basketball from his University of Utah days, signed by many of his teammates at the U. (Photo by Ed Carreón)

After his pro career ended, McGill was mostly forgotten beyond LA until the 1990s, when the NBA called on him to speak with incoming players as part of its Rookie Transition Program, which the NBA didn’t have back when McGill played in the league. He spoke to young pros about how the lives of NBA players can take a turn for the worse, to groups that included Chris Webber, Shawn Bradley, Vin Baker, and Sam Cassell, as well as Isaiah Rider and Penny Hardaway, who, McGill writes, refused to heed his warning and even took pot shots at him.

But former NBA star Bill Walton says it would be shortsighted to say McGill’s book is merely a cautionary tale for cocky young NBA hopefuls. “This is a book for life,” says Walton, who emulated McGill’s jump hook shot in his pro career and now calls McGill his “hero.”

“To be able to always exhibit such class, dignity, pride, and professionalism in the face of extreme adversity, incredible obstacles—this is the stuff that legends are made of,” Walton says. “We all have so much to learn from Billy McGill. I just hope that people are brave and bold enough to give [the book] a try.”

Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

Ed. note: Billy McGill died in June 2014. Read a memoriam of him here.


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Editor’s note: This video has no audio. Footage from the BYU game begins at 23:43. Footage of McGill’s jersey being retired begins at 26:46.

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The Mushers Savidis

Justin Savidis was one of the frontrunners about 300 miles into the 2010 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, his first attempt at the grueling trek, when he pulled into McGrath minus one sled dog, Whitey-Lance. It was about minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit at 4 a.m. on that March day when something had spooked the dog. Whitey had backed out of his harness amid a tangle of dogs and had taken off into the harsh wintry Alaskan outback. One by one, other mushers passed Savidis who, bound by race rules and fueled by his wife’s clear directive, was to stay in McGrath until he found Whitey. “I told him, ‘Don’t come back without my dog,’ ” Rebecca Savidis recollects. It had long been her dream to be a musher in the Iditarod, but injury forced her to permanently change course. Her dream instead became manifested in Justin’s first race. The dogs were their children then, as they are now, and when Whitey went missing, there was no question Justin had to find him.

Justin and Rebecca (both BA’02) had met in a French class their senior year at the University of Utah. He was majoring in parks, recreation, and tourism, and she was studying communications. Their first date was climbing rocks up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Less than two weeks later, they were engaged. “You know when you know,” Justin says about meeting Rebecca. “It’s hard to describe.”

A year later, they married at Bridal Veil Falls near Provo, surrounded by mountain bikers, climbers, friends, and dogs. “It was very simple, very much like us,” Rebecca says of the short ceremony.

Until late summer of 2004, they lived in a tiny log cabin in a small mountain community nestled in Tollgate Canyon outside of Park City. They used a snow machine to access their home in the deep winter, occasionally employing their first two dogs, Tenzing and Luna, to haul groceries on a sled to the cabin.

Justin worked as an instructor for at-risk youth at a residential treatment center, teaching photography, whitewater kayaking, and snowboarding. Rebecca was in charge of developing a human resources function for a startup company. “It was a lot of work, long hours, and a blast,” Rebecca recalls. But it was a means toward a goal, a dream in the mind’s eye that had the couple moving to Alaska and Rebecca someday competing in the Iditarod. It was all part of Rebecca’s “master plan,” one that had germinated for years.

Childhood letters to Santa and school reports Rebecca wrote, which her parents saved, are early evidence of her love of dogs and her unexplainable fixation on the Iditarod, a race that starts the first weekend of March and has been run every year since 1973. The race’s ceremonial start is in Anchorage. The next day, dozens of mushers and their teams of 16 dogs take off from Willow for a roughly 1,000-mile trek to Nome, Alaska. The race, which celebrates the state’s long history of dog mushing, follows a trail once used as a sort of highway in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Justin Savidis guides his team of dogs as they run up Front Street to the 2012 Iditarod finish line in Nome, Alaska. (All photos courtesy Rebecca and Justin Savidis)

Justin Savidis guides his team of dogs as they run up Front Street to the 2012 Iditarod finish line in Nome, Alaska.

Although no musher has ever died during the Iditarod, the terrain is often treacherous. Racers and dogs trek over mountain passes, through open water, in between ice jams with blocks as big as houses, through blizzards and whiteout conditions, and across remote landscapes that last for miles without signs of human life between small towns and settlements of Eskimo, Athabaskan, and other Alaskan Natives. The dangers are balanced somewhat by the course’s beauty, particularly at night under crystalline skies without any light pollution, paired with a stunning quiet and calm.

During the years when Rebecca was growing up, women were winning the Iditarod. Libby Riddles was the first woman to win it, in 1985. Susan Butcher then won the race in 1986 and three more times over the next four years.

While Rebecca was a freshman at Idaho’s Ricks College, where her father Ron Haun was the football coach, she was cross-country skiing with a friend one winter day when they met two recreational dogsled teams on a trail near the Montana border. One of the mushers stopped and taught Rebecca a bit about mushing. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s what I’m going to do someday,’ ” she says.

After meeting and marrying Justin, also known as AJ (after the so-called angry Jesus he resembles with a full beard when he’s mad), Step One of her master plan was moving to Alaska. “I called AJ one day and asked him what he thought about applying for jobs in Alaska,” she says. “His response was simple, ‘Yeah, sure, whatever.’ I don’t think he took me seriously.” But Rebecca sent out résumés for both of them, and after a long search, they both received job offers on the same day. They followed Justin’s offer to Anchorage, where he took a job working for the Great Alaska Council of the Boy Scouts of America as a camp administration director.

“We made the decision, then told our families,” Rebecca says. “We are ‘all-in’ type of people. Once the decision was made, we went full force into making the move.” On August 13, 2004, they loaded up a 14-foot trailer with the few belongings they had left after selling stuff they didn’t need, and they drove for six days, living on beef jerky and Snickers bars. Among their first furnishings after moving to Anchorage were a bookshelf, coffee table, and desk that Justin made out of wood from downed trees. (He had once made a promise to Rebecca that he would give her everything he was able to make with his hands.)

Justin and Rebecca Savidis

Justin and Rebecca Savidis

But Willow was where they wanted to be for a run at the Iditarod. Within a year of moving to Anchorage, they found and purchased an old 20-acre fixer-upper homestead in Willow (population less than 3,000), across the street from where the Iditarod officially starts. The house is surrounded by lakes, and in the thawing of a spring “break-up,” their half-mile driveway turns to a sea of mud. In the winter, a resident cow moose at the property has been known to charge and try to stomp on the dogs.

Located about 80 miles north of Anchorage, Willow has two gas stations, one video/liquor store, one restaurant/ bar, and an elementary school. Summers are short in Willow, with lots of mosquitoes, and winters are long, with sustained temperatures of minus 20 to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. “Give me a minus 40 any day over mosquitoes,” says Rebecca, who travels all over Alaska in her job as director of human resources for The Foraker Group, which works to increase the leadership and management skills of professionals and volunteers in Alaska’s nonprofit and tribal organizations.

Once Rebecca and Justin were settled in at the homestead, she befriended a mushing mentor in Willow and began training, learning about the nuances of racing and how to care for and train the dogs. She and Justin accumulated more and more dogs, many of them rescued, and laid the foundation for their thriving Snowhook Kennel outfit, which today has 52 Alaskan Huskies, “which is a nice way of saying that they are mutts,” Rebecca notes. The one thing the dogs all have in common, she adds, is that “they are loved.”

The dogs each have their own houses that Justin maintains. They all get daily hugs. And they’re all fed a stew that includes thawed blocks of meat, chicken, lard, and supplements from a feed store 20 miles away. During winter, the dogs get fresh straw for bedding, and in the weeks before the big race in March, the canine race team consumes upwards of 10,000 calories a day, while Justin increases his own caloric intake by eating more ice cream.

“They put their dogs first,” says Philip Walters, a middle-school band teacher who in 2004 moved from Maryland to Alaska. Walters has used the Savidises’ dogs in qualifying races to pursue his own Iditarod dreams for 2015. “They’re incredible with their dog care,” he says. “They love their dogs. They’re basically sacrificing everything for their dogs. I don’t know how they make ends meet.”

The couple take it in stride as part of achieving their larger goals. But along the path of her master plan, Rebecca’s Iditarod dream literally shattered when she fractured several vertebrae in her back in 2004 after falling off a four-wheeler while training dogs. By 2008, after several more “dog-related” back injuries, she could no longer gut it out, needing emergency back surgery to address a shattered lumbar vertebra. “I have very expensive hardware holding me up,” she says. The sport, she notes, is not “gentle” on the mushers, and the learning curve is “straight up.”

Luna & Belle Starr

Belle Starr, left, keeps watch with Luna, the matriarch and mascot of the Savidises’ Snowhook Kennel.

After the surgery, an even more painful reality set in. “I had to have an honest conversation with myself,” Rebecca says. “If something happened [during a race], I could be paralyzed and put the dogs at risk. That’s not fair to the dogs.” Rebecca and her husband decided to switch roles, and the Iditarod became a “shared dream,” with Justin taking over as musher, while she continues to manage logistics behind the scenes.

Justin came to the intimidating Iditarod start line equipped with a figurative spine of steel. He had grown up with three sisters in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Their family worked in cattle ranching and construction. Justin was handling horses, herding cows, and working with tools by middle school. Meanwhile, his interest in challenging outdoor sports such as rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and snowboarding grew and grew. “You name it, I’ve done it,” he says. During college, he worked for a University of Utah-run camp for at-risk youths, leading them into the Uinta and Wasatch mountains, among other wilderness locations in Utah.

All those experiences had prepared him for that first try at the Iditarod in 2010, namely by helping him develop the coping skills that go with getting out of jams on your own. “He is the toughest person I know, mentally and physically,” Rebecca says. The 6-foot 3-inch Justin cuts wood all summer for the long winters in Willow. He keeps the homestead humming in the harshest conditions. His expressed attitude toward everyday life in Willow is, “No matter what, you’re going to get through and continue on,” an approach that has served him well during the Iditarod.

Working his way toward that shared dream, he began by competing in qualifying races. He continued to work his full-time job, knowing he’d be competing in the 2010 Iditarod against people who do nothing but train for it the entire year.

Then, when that first Iditarod came, Whitey disappeared, about a third of the way into the race. Craig Medred, a reporter with the Alaska Dispatch, wrote on March 12, 2010, “No sadder sight can be found in this Kuskokwim River community than Justin Savidis wandering into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race checkpoint to check for word on ‘Whitey.’ ”

Justin had been one of the leaders in the race when Whitey went missing. For five days, Justin searched on foot, by snow machine, and in a plane provided by the Alaska State Police. Two trappers in the area found Whitey’s tracks, which were paired with paw prints of a lynx and wolves. Eventually, the last musher passed through McGrath.

Justin Savidis plays with the dogs at home in Willow, a town that is also the Iditarod’s starting point.

Justin Savidis plays with the dogs at home in Willow, a town that is also the Iditarod’s starting point.

Meanwhile, word had spread among Iditarod watchers all over the world of Whitey’s disappearance, and even prayer groups in New York and West Virginia were asking for the dog’s safe return. “Whatever they did worked,” Rebecca says. Justin received a call that a resident in McGrath had spotted a very “skittish” Whitey on the edge of town. Justin borrowed a snow machine and raced to find Whitey cornered by searchers and about to bolt. But a little salmon and patience helped coax Whitey into Justin’s arms, which is right where he stayed, next to the pilot of a small plane as they headed back to Willow to join the rest of the team that had flown home the previous day.

It had been too late to continue the race. “Not finishing haunted us,” Rebecca says. As soon as the scratch was made, there was no question they would make another Iditarod attempt.

Justin competed the following year and finished in 12 days, six hours, eight minutes, and three seconds. Musher John Baker won that race in what would become the fastest-ever winning time, at just under eight days and 19 hours. Justin went on to win another race, the 300-mile Don Bowers Memorial Dog Race, in both 2011 and 2012. One of his two humanitarian awards came from that 2011 race. In the 2013 Northern Lights 300, Justin also took home the equivalent humanitarian award called “For the Love of Dogs.” Justin and Rebecca consider those awards to be bigger honors than winning the races, because they recognize team owners for their exemplary treatment of their dogs.

Justin also finished the Iditarod in 2012, and in 2013, he completed the course in just a little over 11 days. The Savidises’ total prize earnings to date amount to $3,147, which means they’ll again rely on sponsors to get them to the starting line of the next Iditarod.

And Rebecca may have found a way to get herself back on a sled. On February 13, 2014, as a training run leading up to Iditarod, she will be the second musher in the Denali Doubles Invitational Sled Dog Race, a 265-mile race from Cantwell to Paxson. She’ll be tethered on a second sled behind Justin, being pulled by a 20-dog team. “I can’t wait,” Rebecca says. “We want to be as competitive as possible in this race—it’s not our way to do anything less.”

Stephen Speckman is a journalist and photographer based in Salt Lake City and a frequent contributor to Continuum.


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Building a Team

The San Diego team opted to forgo the double-team defense that March evening at the Huntsman Center, and essentially took on University of Utah women’s basketball stars Taryn Wicijowski and Michelle Plouffe one-on-one. Wicijowski hustled to lead the team scoring with 23 points, Plouffe achieved her 10th doubledouble of the season with 21 points and 15 rebounds, and the Utes defeated San Diego 61-50 in that second round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

Of the five games the Utah team played to reach the WNIT championship last spring, the game against San Diego was the only one on home ground. Yet the 15,000-capacity Huntsman Center had many empty seats that night: Only about 900 people showed up to watch.

It’s a symptom University of Utah Coach Anthony Levrets and Athletics Director Chris Hill MEd’74 PhD’82 hope to change over the next few years as they take steps to continue growing the U women’s basketball program. Their plan includes not just intensified recruiting efforts, but also using strategic marketing efforts to boost awareness of the team and its successes.

Toward that end, Levrets has hired Kim Smith BA’06, a former All-American and U player from Canada, to be the team’s new community development director. Her task includes presenting U players as “ambassadors” of the sport, in an effort to promote the U team, and the University, to the community and groups such as the Girl Scouts and United Way. The result hopefully will include filling more seats at the Huntsman Center.

“We have to put more funding into it, that’s for sure,” Hill says about plans to grow the visibility of the U women’s basketball program, and it’s “very, very high” on the list of priorities for the University.

Levrets says two of the biggest challenges he faces are recruiting local talent and repeatedly engaging a community of potential fans who are more likely to be drawn to U football, gymnastics, or men’s basketball. Yet the U women’s basketball team has a long history of success, even if it hasn’t always attracted big crowds and noisy media attention.

Since the team’s inaugural 1974-75 season, it has been one of the top 10 all-time most successful NCAA women’s basketball programs in terms of its win/ loss percentage. This past season, the team had a 23-14 record and won enough games in the WNIT rounds to make it all the way to the championship game, against Drexel in Philadelphia. It was a suspenseful matchup: Drexel led by five points with four minutes remaining, before back-to-back three-pointers by the Utes from Cheyenne Wilson and Iwalani Rodrigues gave the team a one-point lead, 43-42, with three minutes left in the game. A Drexel layup gave the Dragons a onepoint lead with 21 seconds left, and after a last-ditch Utah foul, Drexel scored on both free throws to win the game, 46-43. Even so, forwards Plouffe and Wicijowski were both named to the WNIT All-Tournament team. Plouffe also set a WNIT record with 83 rebounds during the tournament.

Traveling the country for the WNIT was a stark reminder to the U players what they had been missing at home: noise. “We played at Kansas State, and they have a big arena like we do, and they filled up the place pretty well,” says Wicijowski (who pronounces her last name witch-OW-ski). “We went to Drexel, and they had a really small arena, but they packed as many people in there as they possibly could.”

Wicijowski, now a senior premedical student, says the last time she remembers when more than 2,000 people showed up to a U women’s home game was when she was a sophomore and the team played top-ranked Stanford. The U—and its enthusiastic home crowd—almost upset Stanford in a game that was heavily marketed to the community, something that until recently the U has not done on a consistent basis.

 

The U team huddles for a cheer during a game last March against San Diego during the WNIT. The U won , 61-50, and advanced to the championship game. (Photo courtesy University of Utah Athletics Department)

The U team huddles for a cheer during a game last March against San Diego during the WNIT. The U won , 61-50, and advanced to the championship game. (Photo courtesy U Athletics Department)

“It was the most fun atmosphere I’ve had since I’ve played here,” the six-foot, three-inch Wicijowski says. “If we could recreate that, we could get some upsets.”

Despite the team’s strong history, it’s rarely been able to draw such crowds. The U women’s team was ranked ninth by the NCAA in 2012 for its all-time winning percentage, with 802 victories and 331 losses for a .708 percentage over a 38-year history. That’s thanks in large part to former coach Elaine Elliott, who guided the team for 27 seasons. Elliott also was responsible for establishing the U’s recruiting pipeline to Canada, which has brought in not just Smith, Wicijowski, and Plouffe, but other excellent players, as well. After Elliott retired, she moved on to Westminster College in Salt Lake City, where she is now an assistant coach for the women’s team.

Levrets was an assistant under Elliott and became coach of the U team when Elliott left in 2010. Elliott’s former players at the U say she brought out the best in her team and made them believe in themselves, which resulted in wins, though still no stellar audience numbers.

Now that the U is in the Pac -12, however, the pressure has intensified to increase attendance, says Athletics Director Hill. Collectively, Pac-12 teams average 1,872 people in attendance at home and neutral-site games, according to the NCAA. “Obviously, it’s a very tough league,” Hill says. “I think women’s basketball in general has fallen a bit in attendance, except in specific places and, you know, we just have to work at it. … It’s hard work, and it’s got to catch fire.”

More NCAA women’s college basketball games will be televised this season (about 100) and next (about 150), compared to fewer than 70 last season, and some games will be aired on ESPN. The U women will be on TV about a dozen times this season, with half of those games played at home. Levrets says that’s a “double-edged sword” because it will also show a national audience how few people attend U games, which could hurt recruiting efforts.

Utah has made some strides in increasing its average home attendance, which last season was 914. For Pac-12 games, that average jumped to 940, nearly 200 more than the average home attendance for the previous season.

U Athletics Assistant Director of Marketing Matt Thomas for the past two seasons has been targeting any organization supporting female youth basketball leagues, offering those girls and their families opportunities to meet the U team, have a pre-game party, and then scrimmage on the court during halftime. That strategy, formally known as the “Youth Team of the Game” program, will be repeated for 2013-14.

Kim Smith, right, shown here in 2006, is the U team’s new community development director. (Photo courtesy University of Utah Athletics Department)

Kim Smith, right, shown here in 2006, is the U team’s new community development director. (Photo courtesy U Athletics Department)

“That brought in a significant amount of individuals,” says Thomas. “It was a big hit last year.”

Auburn University’s former head coach, Nell Fortner, who is a friend of Levrets, faced similar challenges in attendance when she signed on in 2004 to lead a team that was drawing 200 to 300 people per game. But she says she “heavily” marketed players to the community while volunteering their time, and she spoke to every civic group she could, each year until she left in 2012. By the 2008-09 season, when Auburn won the Southeastern Conference title, the team had posted the biggest attendance increase in the NCAA, averaging more than 4,000 people per game. Her starting five that year, she notes, were all “local” women from Alabama. Winning was a big help, she says, but it took building attendance a little each year by constantly immersing the team in the community. “You have to do it,” she says. “You have to let people know who you are and who your players are.”

No one understands that more than Levrets and Hill, who agreed to provide funds to hire Smith, a WNBA Sacramento Monarchs 2006 first-round draft pick, to lead the community outreach charge. The U also is currently raising money to fund construction of a $24 million practice facility for the men’s and women’s teams, which Hill predicts will help with recruiting. The new facility is expected to be complete in 2015.

“We’re going to continue to graduate our players,” Levrets says. “That’s the number one priority.” That goal of his is followed closely by increasing attendance and, some day, winning a championship.

Levrets made trips to Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, Illinois, and Georgia over the summer, in search of players who are great on and off the court. Recruiting the best might help attendance, but only if the community knows who they are. That’s where Smith—the only U women’s basketball player to have her number retired and hanging from the Huntsman Center rafters—is Levrets’ ace in the hole.

Smith says one of the first things she wants to do when she starts her new job this month is to take a closer look at how Coach Greg Marsden and others have grown the U women’s gymnastics program over the years and brought it to the national spotlight. Marsden’s team has won 10 national titles, and he’s been named national coach of the year seven times. “They have been so unbelievably good at a national level for so long, it’s incredible,” Smith says. “That culture has been in Utah longer than we have as a program.”

Smith plans to start her large task close to home. “She will be a grassroots member in the community, building relationships with anybody who will let us in the door,” says Levrets, whose goal is to reach an average attendance of at least 2,500 to 3,000 at home games, with big games drawing upwards of 6,000.

Kevin Dustin, assistant director for the Utah High School Activities Association, notes that five Division I programs in Utah currently draw from a growing but small pool of local talent. Women’s collegiate basketball is still a relatively young sport, with women allowed to play only after Congress enacted Title IX in 1972. Dustin says that may mean it may take another generation before the number of great recruit-worthy female high school players significantly increases. But following the national trend, women’s basketball continues to gain traction in Utah, with more high school girls playing year-round in clubs and high schools and sometimes at out-of-state tournaments. The skill level, Dustin says, is getting better in Utah.

 

Coach Anthony Levrets says televised games in the Pac-12 have thrown a spotlight on attendance. (Photo courtesy University of Utah Athletics Department)

Coach Anthony Levrets says televised games in the Pac-12 have thrown a spotlight on attendance. (Photo courtesy U Athletics Department)

Smith says the U is still attracting talent both locally and from abroad under Levrets. He has coached All-Americans Morgan Warburton BSW’09, Kalee Whipple BS’10, and Leilani Mitchell BS’08, who is still playing in the WNBA’s New York Liberty. One of Levrets’ current stars is six-foot, four-inch forward Plouffe, who, based on her skill level, stats, and intentions, appears to be headed for one of the WNBA’s 12 pro teams after graduation next year.

Plouffe says the poor attendance at U games has weighed on her. “Emotionally, during the game, I think having a crowd can really change the momentum of the game,” she says. “And we’ve never had that here.” A big factor, she says, might be trying to get more U students, most of whom commute and don’t live on campus, to come back for women’s basketball games. She’s hopeful Smith will help with that.

Levrets agrees. “The energy in the building is what matters,” he says. “It’s fun to play in a building or atmosphere that provides energy.” He, Smith, and Hill, along with the Athletics Department’s marketing team, aim to find just the right combination of fan-building, community engagement, recruiting, financial support, and continued focus on academics to take the U women’s program to the next level—and fill more and more seats along the way.

Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.


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Fighting for the Wild

To reach the Colorado River from Ken Sleight’s Pack Creek Ranch south of Moab, you first take a right off of the dirt and gravel Abbey Road, named after Sleight’s longtime friend Edward Abbey, the author who tapped away at a typewriter for a few years in a tiny cabin at Sleight’s ranch.

Pack Creek Ranch is a peaceful place, nestled in the foothills of the La Sal Mountains and surrounded by cottonwood, oak, and evergreen trees. A creek near the sprawling cabin that is Sleight’s home winds its way down the expanse of high desert below the ranch, flowing toward the Colorado River and its network of side canyons that Sleight explored for nearly 30 years as a pioneering river guide. He and Abbey became friends after meeting in July 1967, when Abbey, then a ranger with the U.S. National Park Service, offered to help him put in at Lees Ferry on the Colorado.

The roads and trails through the desert around the river have multiplied over the years. On a recent drive down State Route 128 for a stroll along the banks of the Colorado, Sleight was taken aback by all of the heavy equipment along the river where workers were putting in a paved trail and building two more footbridges to connect the two shores. It’s a scene that in the old days would have moved him to action, the kind that compelled Abbey to use him as the model for the character Seldom Seen Smith in the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang.

“They keep coming and coming. You can’t stop it,” Sleight says.

Ken Sleight, who majored in business at the University of Utah, enjoys a cup of coffee at the Moab Diner. (Photo by Stephen Speckman)

Ken Sleight, who majored in business at the University of Utah, enjoys a cup of coffee at the Moab Diner. (Photo by Stephen Speckman)

The wild vastness of Utah’s red rock canyons and the Colorado first beckoned to him in the 1950s, when he began his river-running business and started steering his path away from his accounting department job at Firestone Tire and Rubber in Salt Lake City and toward the desert, which he would eventually wage fierce fights for as an environmental activist.

Sleight BS’55 landed the job at Firestone soon after graduating in business from the University of Utah. Born in Paris, Idaho, he and his five siblings had grown up on farms in Idaho and northern Utah, hanging around in general stores run by their father and uncles. He headed to the U after high school, on track to become a businessman like his father.

Sleight recollects that he was timid when he first came to the University. Stuttering didn’t help. “I was very shy all the time,” he says. “That was an albatross. It hurt, because you can’t speak out when you want to.” He credits speech classes at the U with helping him to gain confidence and overcome not only his stuttering but his shyness. “I had some great teachers at the University,” he says.

But even during college, the outdoors beckoned him away from the classroom. “I kept sloughing,” Sleight recollects. “I always wanted to go hiking and so forth, and I did that.” He also took his first river trip, in 1951 with guide and friend Malcom “Moki Mac” Ellingson. The trip was through Lodore Canyon on the Green River, and Sleight loved all of it—the desert, the water, the time in the rafts.

The Korean War interrupted college for him. He was drafted in 1951 and served in Korea with the U.S. Army’s 48th Field Artillery Battalion, 7th Infantry Division, from June 1952 until September 1953, including a month on the front line near Chuncheon firing Howitzer rounds. He served another year in the Army Reserves after his discharge. Sleight, who reached the rank of sergeant, remembers that even during the war, he and a friend somehow managed to make an impromptu trip on a raft they fashioned out of a tree trunk, branches, and “derelict” boards, using a few of those boards for oars. The two Army buddies floated for an hour or so on the Bukhan River, in the northern Gangwon Province.

When he came back to Utah, he had changed. “I was getting damn good grades,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t get a good job without going to school.” Firestone recruited him as he graduated. He would occasionally attend John Birch Society meetings, though he never officially joined. Sometimes he’d wear a bowtie to work.

But the outdoors kept calling him. So he began turning his daydreams into plans, and saved money from his Firestone job to purchase eight neoprene Army surplus rafts for $35 to $50 each. He wanted to start a business that would allow him to guide people on the adventure of running rivers through canyons, and on horseback trips through the mountains. Back then, he recollects, you didn’t need the “rigmarole” of dealing with permits and approval from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management or the National Forest Service before you could embark on such endeavors. You just went. He began with guiding Boy Scouts down the Green and Colorado rivers. “I didn’t want to sell tires all my life,” Sleight says. “I saw more of a future in the river business than I did with Firestone.”

Officers escort Ken Sleight, second from left, away during a protest near Moab in the early 1990s. (Photo courtesy The Canyon Country Zephyr, www.canyoncountryzephyr.com)

Officers escort Ken Sleight, second from left, away during a protest near Moab in the early 1990s. (Photo courtesy The Canyon Country Zephyr, www.canyoncountryzephyr.com)

He used a mimeograph machine to churn out brochures to promote his new line of work, and after a few years of guiding river trips, he quit his Firestone job in 1957, took on odd jobs, and began substitute teaching to help finance his new river-running business. Eventually he moved with his first wife and children to southern Utah, living in Escalante and then Green River. His Wonderland Expeditions, incorporated on April 1, 1957, soon became Ken Sleight Expeditions as he gained a stellar reputation.

“Dad thought I gave up all that schooling to be on the river,” Sleight says now. “But it was seventh heaven, and I made the right decision. I did what I wanted—I’ve always done that. It was an adventure. It was freedom. It was not only the places you’d go, it was the people—people with great ideas. I enjoyed that.”

Sleight guided epic river trips throughout the Colorado River system, through Cataract, Grand, Desolation, and Glen canyons, for three decades. In 1990, he began dismantling his business, transferring operations in Grand and Glen canyons to his son Mark. He sold the Cataract, Lodore, and Desolation canyon operations to separate buyers. “My last commercial river trip was down the Grand Canyon,” he says. So storied was his career that last year, Sleight was inducted into the River Runners Hall of Fame at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah.

Glen Canyon was Sleight’s favorite place as a river runner, and he loved the stops along the way, such as Music Temple and Rainbow Bridge. Construction on the Glen Canyon Dam began in late 1956, much to his dismay. But he continued to take passengers on float trips through the canyon, from 1957 to 1963, when the floodgates of the dam were closed and Lake Powell began to form.

In The Monkey Wrench Gang, published in 1975, Abbey wrote that the character Seldom Seen Smith, a lapsed Mormon and river runner, called the newly created Lake Powell “the blue death.” In the book, Smith kneels atop the dam and prays “for a little pre-cision earthquake right here.” He also helps a friend drive a road grader off a cliff and into the reservoir, and helps dynamite a coal train, among other exploits.

Sleight today still demurs on how much of the monkey-wrenching in the book was based on reality. “Your conscience tells you what you can do if you feel like paying the price, but don’t tell others what you did—that’s where you get them into the picture [as a witness in court],” Sleight says. “So, you do things on your own, but you don’t tell anyone about it.”

At one point, Sleight and others started a Sierra Club chapter in Moab, hopeful it would help push the agenda of one day getting rid of the Glen Canyon Dam and what he still calls “Lake Foul,” instead of Lake Powell. But they didn’t get the backing they needed, so Sleight and others quit, calling the Sierra Club back then a “milquetoast” operation.

The rivers, Sleight says, had talked the timidity out of him as he told stories to his clients along the way. And the more time he spent outdoors, exploring Utah’s red rock country, the more he and his political views shifted from the conservatism of his youth. He eventually served for eight years as chairman of the local Democratic Party Club in San Juan County. He protested and marched for various causes alongside Navajo and Ute Indians and environmental groups.

Dams. Roads. Overgrazing. Bridges. Drilling for oil in wilderness areas. Sleight had the “guts,” as he puts it, to speak up over the years. After the Glen Canyon Dam was completed in the late 1960s, he helped fight a proposed highway that would have bridged across the Escalante River near Stevens Arch, and won. “That effort was my greatest environmental accomplishment,” he says now.

Sometimes he lost. He and David Brower, then head of the Sierra Club, sued the federal government in order to preserve Rainbow Bridge National Monument, which was being flooded by the Glen Canyon Dam, and won the battle in federal district court, but were overruled in the federal Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the early 1990s, Sleight, then in his early 60s, saddled his horse Knothead and rode to Amasa Back Mesa near Moab, standing down bulldozers before they began to take down several hundred acres of juniper forest. The Caterpillar advanced right up to him and his horse, but Sleight didn’t back down, and his audacity helped prompt a moratorium on the forest’s destruction, according to the local bimonthly newspaper, The Canyon Country Zephyr. He made a similar stand against a road grader in another nearby area, but there, the people and machines won. He and Jim Stiles, publisher of the Zephyr, also more formally protested a proposed highway through the Book Cliffs region of Utah, and prevailed.

From left, Ken Sleight, tourist Carol Grohe, and author Edward Abbey pause for a photo during a 1988 horseback trip through Grand Gulch in Utah. Abbey died the following year, in 1989, in Arizona. (Photo courtesy Ken Sleight)

From left, Ken Sleight, tourist Carol Grohe, and author Edward Abbey pause for a photo during a 1988 horseback trip through Grand Gulch in Utah. Abbey died the following year, in Arizona. (Photo courtesy Ken Sleight)

Stiles says Sleight has waged plenty of quixotic crusades over the years, and yet played a real role in preserving some key areas and raising awareness about the need for conservation. “A lot of us see overwhelming odds and give up,” Stiles says. “Ken seems to thrive on fighting those kinds of odds. I think that’s something missing these days and a lesson from Ken that’s so important. It’s the integrity that you bring to the fight that counts.”

Sleight in 1999 received the David R. Brower Conservation Award, which honors individuals for their “dramatic, positive impact on conservation efforts in the Colorado Plateau region.” Sleight’s love of Utah’s rivers also has moved him to help others who were similarly enamored, including SPLORE founder Martha Ham MS’77 MSW’90. Sleight mentored her more than 30 years ago, to help her start her own river-running business, with its own unique twist of taking people of all abilities, notably the disabled, on river trips.

Most recently, Sleight has been a supporter of activist and fellow U alum Tim DeChristopher BS’09, who served a two-year prison term until this past April for monkey-wrenching a 2008 federal oil and gas lease auction in Salt Lake City by offering fake bids, which resulted in the auction being called off. Sleight met DeChristopher at a rally in Salt Lake to show his support and visited with the younger man before, during, and after the trial and prison term. “I think he’s done great,” Sleight says. “He’s got guts.”

DeChristopher says he read Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang when he was 17 or 18 years old, long before he learned the model for Seldom Seen was very real and living in Utah. “I think he is an example of principled courage,” says DeChristopher, who has been working in recent months at a bookstore in Salt Lake City.

These days, Sleight spends most of his time at the Pack Creek Ranch, raising horses and tending alfalfa with his second wife, Jane, whom he married in 1983. Jane recalls that when they first met—on a river trip, of course—Sleight had a quart of milk, a Slim Jim sausage, and a dictionary in the front of his pickup. “I said, ‘So, what’s with the dictionary,’ ” she says with a laugh. “He said, ‘I’m writing a book.’ So, he’s been writing a book for as long as I’ve known him, and for about 20 years before that.”

Sleight admits he’s still writing that book, inside his office on the ranch. Instead of sipping Jim Beam from his omnipresent coffee mug, he’s switched to actual coffee these days. He and Jane have also been busy in recent months with packing boxes, preparing to move out of the sprawling cabin on the ranch that they’ve long called home and into a trailer near Sleight’s office.

At the kitchen table in the cabin, Sleight produces a box of old photographs, many depicting in black and white a man gripping oars on a wild river or the reins of a horse as he rides through the mountains. The plan is maybe to finish that book, take Spot and Apache for rides on dirt roads and trails, and to give presentations inside a large room inside the old cabin—the same room where Abbey once spoke to a group as part of Ken and Jane’s “Conversation at Pack Creek Ranch” reading program. Sleight now wants to use that room to show people slides and movies from the old days—times spent running rivers, guiding horse trips, tilting at windmills.

Stephen Speckman is a journalist and photographer based in Salt Lake City and a frequent contributor to Continuum.


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Building to Foster Excellence

On Guardsman Way, just east of Rice-Eccles Stadium and across the street, construction workers have been laying brick and hanging drywall on a new Football and Sports Medicine Center at the University of Utah. Take a tour through virtual video renderings that the U’s Athletics Department has created to show what the facility will look like, and you’ll see the grain and warm hues of smooth wood accents and floor-to-ceiling windows that let sunlight flood some of the building’s glittering gathering spaces. Stay a little longer, and you’ll see giant flat-screen TVs inside slick meeting rooms and offices, inviting hydrotherapy pools in another room, and a seemingly endless array of training equipment in a 21,000-square-foot weight room.

Athletics Director Chris Hill says the new facilities will help the U stay competitive in the Pac-12. (Photo by August Miller)

When the $30 million facility opens this summer, it’s expected to serve more than 400 student athletes, including 100 or so football players, who make up 18 varsity teams from various sports at the U. And it’s just one step in a larger, five-year plan to improve the quality of the U’s practice facilities and playing fields.

In the real world of the Pac-12, which the University of Utah joined in 2011, the Utes are playing in the first period of a game of catch-up in a league where the U’s comparatively meager athletics operating budget of $36.8 million for 2010-2011 was the lowest in the conference. In comparison, the average athletics operating budget in the Pac-12 during 2010-2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, was $63.5 million. Given those numbers, it’s no surprise that athletics facilities at the University also lag behind those of many of its Pac-12 peers.

The U aims to even the score with or surpass competing Pac-12 schools through a $150-million, five-year athletics resource and facilities plan that, by 2016, will usher in new training, practice, and playing areas on the U campus for basketball, softball, tennis, swimming, and football. By building the new facilities, the University intends to ensure a level playing field when it comes to recruiting top athletes, who in theory will help the U stay competitive in one of the nation’s most talent-rich athletics leagues.

 

 

Football and Sports Medicine Center

600 South Guardsman Way
$30 million

The floor plan for the street level of this cornerstone effort to improve athletics facilities at the U starts with a 10,200-square-foot outdoor patio and a 6,614-square-foot Hall of Fame area. Athlete-specific nutrition services will be dispensed in an 11,457-square-foot cafeteria.

The building, slated to open in summer of 2013, also features a 15,164-square-foot training room on the lower level, along with hydrotherapy pools to aid in rehabilitating injured athletes, more than 15,000 square feet of meeting rooms, a 160-seat auditorium, a locker room, a player lounge, and an impressive 21,000-square-foot weight room.

In early 2011, U Athletics Director Chris Hill and a few staffers visited a handful of cities around the country to view football facilities at other universities before they began plans for the U’s center. The new building, Hill says, will be “excellent.”

As part of the design, architects included energy-efficient equipment, windows, and insulation with the hope of achieving a coveted LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold building certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Funding to cover the $30 million price tag is split about evenly between money from the athletics budget (mainly TV revenue) and donations.

For U Athletics Director Chris Hill MEd’74 PhD’82, the reality of needing an ambitious five-year plan crystallized upon hearing that the Utes would be in the Pac-12. “It quickly became apparent that we need to support our student athletes and our coaches with operating expenses and facilities that put us in the game with the rest of the league,” Hill now says.

The strategy behind the U’s building plan is to create facilities that will dazzle, delight, and, of course, serve student athletes for decades. In addition to the football center, plans are under way to build a softball complex, outdoor tennis courts, a Basketball Training and Sport Performance Center, and a swimming and diving complex. The Athletics Department also intends to improve its soccer field and expand the Burbidge Academic Center for providing academic support to student athletes.

Indeed, the U is currently the only Pac-12 school without a 50-meter pool or outdoor tennis courts. Hill says all of the facilities upgrades are needed—and soon—to compete. “We’re moving this as fast as we can,” he says.

Doug Knuth, U senior associate athletics director for external relations, is leading the fundraising. (Photo by August Miller)

Other Pac-12 universities, meanwhile, are spending large amounts on new facilities of their own. The University of Washington is building a new football stadium, to be completed in 2013, at a cost of $300 million. Arizona State University is planning a football stadium renovation that will run at least $150 million, probably more. The University of California at Los Angeles has more than $280 million invested in renovations to Pauley Pavilion and the Rose Bowl. The University of California at Berkeley is renovating its football arena to the tune of $321 million. In 2009, Stanford University completed its $90 million football stadium.

In other sports, the University of Arizona has a new $20 million gymnastics practice facility. The University of Oregon put down $227 million for a new basketball arena. And Oregon State University is spending more than $18 million to improve its basketball facilities.

Hill says that eventually he’d like to see the U’s sports facilities and budget land somewhere in the middle of the Pac-12. Achieving that goal, he says, will require the $150 million. One-third of that amount, $50 million, will come from Pac-12 television revenues. The Athletics Department launched a capital campaign last spring with the aim of raising the remaining $100 million from private donors. So far, the U has received $7 million from the Pac-12 television revenues and raised $22 million from private donors.

As part of the Pac-12 revenues, the U will see its annual share of the Pac-12 television 12-year contract go from $8 million this year to $12 million next year and, upon being fully vested, about $16 million a year by 2015. Brisk ticket sales, which generated nearly $10.4 million last year, have planners talking about how to squeeze more seats into the south end of Rice-Eccles Stadium. Corporate sponsorships, expansion of merchandise sales, and licensing revenues also are expected to help the U generate more money to stay in the game.

 

 

Softball Complex

North of the McCarthey Family Track and Field on Wasatch Drive
$4.5 million

In the spring of 2013, the U will begin hosting home softball games at its new 500-seat stadium, day or night, with the addition of a lighted field. The entire complex includes a press box, athletic training room, outdoor batting cages, and an indoor hitting and pitching facility.

While football, basketball, and gymnastics may attract the most attention of Ute sports, softball is one area that is no less competitive in a league where the Pac-12 is consistently one of the top conferences in the nation. U Athletics Director Chris Hill anticipates that the new digs will begin to turn the recruiting tables and eventually make the women’s softball team a Pac-12 powerhouse.

Welch Suggs, a former associate director and now a consultant for the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, says the U’s plans are all “doable.” But it won’t be easy, he says: “How much wealth is there, and how much competition does Utah face in its home territory?”

Suggs now studies college sports issues as an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, which is among only a handful of schools in the country that year after year are able to cover their athletics expenses with the revenue brought in by sports programs. The universities of Alabama, Florida, and Iowa, as well as Ohio State University, are a few others.

The norm is that athletics departments end up relying on their universities’ institutional support to cover athletics expenditures. Whether that will happen to the U, Suggs says, may depend in part on whether worst-case scenarios unfold, such as another economic recession or chronically losing teams, which hurt ticket and merchandise sales.

Hill, however, believes the U Athletics Department will be able to prevail, and balance its budget, with its fundraising through private donors. And the projects outlined in the five-year plan don’t require tapping into University institutional funds or public monies. “It’s all athletics, all our funding,” he says. “We want that to be clear.” There is “zero” competition between athletics and academics for public funding, Hill says.

 

 

Basketball Training and Sport Performance Center

West Side of the HPER Complex Off Campus Center Drive 
$24 million

Planning is still under way for this facility, expected to open for the 2014-2015 academic year. An artist’s rendering depicts two full-sized men’s and women’s practice gymnasiums on either side of a large area that features a weight room, video-viewing rooms for the women’s and men’s teams, and a training room. Plans also include offices, meeting rooms, and a revamped basketball Hall of Fame, as well as a hydrotherapy area and facilities to support strength and conditioning for athletes in various sports, including basketball.

U Athletics Director Chris Hill is confident that the basketball program will continue to improve and live up to its proud history, and donors already have stepped up to help. “They understand the vision,” Hill says. One donor for this $24 million project has already committed a seven-figure gift that provides a jumpstart for the committee formed to raise $10 million in donations for the building. The U will bond for the project, which also will be backed by dollars from the U’s Pac-12 television contract.

Doug Knuth, the U’s senior associate athletics director for external relations, is spearheading the Athletics Department’s private fundraising efforts. His challenge is to find potential donors who are passionate about a particular sport to see if they’re ready to support a specific Utah team. He believes a strong athletics program at the U helps build an inviting “front porch” to engender support for the rest of campus. “When athletics wins, we all win,” he says.

For the new Football and Sports Medicine Center, about half the cost, roughly $15 million, is coming from donations, and the rest will be funded through television revenues. At least 20 donors gave more than $100,000 for the project. U football alum Alex Smith BS’04 donated $500,000, and his name will appear on a new strength and training room in the building.

Hill says the glittering new center is a cornerstone for the U’s overall effort to improve its resources for athletes. “It puts us in the game to provide our student athletes with support.”

—Stephen Speckman is a freelance writer and photographer based in Salt Lake City, and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

 

 

Tennis – Swimming – Soccer – Burbidge Academic Center

$12 million-plus

The U is the only Pac-12 institution without an outdoor tennis facility or 50-meter swimming pool. That will soon change.

By fall of 2013, the men’s and women’s tennis teams will have six new courts with an elevated spectator viewing area next to the Eccles Tennis Center on Guardsman Way. The existing indoor tennis center is also getting upgrades that include electronic scoreboards, a spruced-up locker room, and a revitalized Hall of Fame. The tab for all of the new construction and improvements is about $2 million and is being funded mostly by donations.

In 2016, building will begin on a $9 million pool and diving facility, bringing the U at least up to par with the rest of the Pac-12 programs. Construction is expected to take about a year.

U Athletics Director Chris Hill says several smaller projects also are in the works to improve U athletics facilities, including plans to spend $750,000 on providing better drainage for the soccer field. A 4,000-square-foot, $1.2 million expansion of the Burbidge Academic Center is expected to be complete by fall 2014 and is being funded entirely by donations. The expansion will include areas for academic support services, more meeting rooms, and study spaces.


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The Heartbeat of the People

For generations, the men in A.J. Kanip’s family have led Ute Indians in song during social gatherings and sacred ceremonies, marking the rhythm of births and deaths and the occasions in between. At the official powwow grounds in Fort Duchesne, on the tribe’s Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah, Kanip is at first reluctant to provide a sample of song in lieu of an actual ceremony. Then, in the quiet of the empty grounds on a hot summer day, a soulful song emerges from Kanip and his drum.

When asked later what it might signify to attach a feather to that drum, Kanip says: “It’s complicated.” It would take an afternoon to explain the meaning and significance in American Indian culture, he says, but the short version is that feathers help “complete” a ceremony, during which dancers wearing them are expressing themselves to the “creator,” who uses birds as a means of carrying songs and prayers between heaven and earth.

Kanip heads over to his car at the powwow grounds and retrieves an eagle feather someone once gave him. He keeps it pressed between two pieces of cardboard. He offers to tie the feather to his round hand drum. When he has finished, the feather hangs over the left side of the drum. “A drum is considered the heartbeat of the people,” Kanip says. “The sound it makes is the sound of the heart.”

As he stands back from the drum and feather, the resemblance to a certain logo becomes uncanny. The University of Utah in 1975 patterned its popular drum and feather logo after just that sort of Ute drum.  The logo, along with the Ute nickname used by U athletics teams, is among the last of Native American names, traditions, and imagery being used, at least so prominently, by colleges across the country.  Now that the U is a member of the Pac-12, even more focus has been aimed on all aspects of Utah’s flagship institution and has revived the question of whether the U should retire its Ute name and logo.

Rumors of an imminent logo and name change at the end of last year flared up in local media reports but were quickly doused by U administrators, including Chris Hill, who has been the U’s athletics director for the past 25 years. “At the end of the day, none of us wants to be in a position where we’re causing harm or a lack of respect to the American Indian population—that’s first and foremost,” says Hill.

The Athletics Department is open to change “for what is right,” he says, and the logo in particular has been more of a “lightning rod” issue than he ever imagined, with strong opinions on both sides. Personally, he is “somewhat uncomfortable” with the present logo, given the sensitivity to all tribes. “I feel comfortable making sure the Block U is in many places also,” he says of the Athletics Department’s other logo. People can see both logos as fixtures around campus, including at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

A Utah football fan wears the drum and feather logo. (Photo courtesy University of Utah Athletics Department)

Those who believe the Ute name and drum and feather logo are a gateway to abuse by non-Native Americans say change is overdue. In 2005, the NCAA called for 18 colleges nationwide to abandon their long-held practices of using American Indian names and imagery to promote athletics. Institutions that failed to comply risked NCAA penalties that would prevent them from playing host to postseason tournaments and would forbid them from wearing Indian logos or nicknames during postseason play. Many institutions complied with the NCAA’s request. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s dancing Chief Illiniwek took a permanent seat in 2007 after an 81-year-old tradition at that school. The Arkansas State University Indians became the Red Wolves in 2008. Indiana University of Pennsylvania traded its Indians nickname for Crimson Hawks.

But other institutions persisted. Bradley University convinced the NCAA to allow it to continue using the Braves nickname. The University of North Dakota sued the NCAA in 2006 to keep the controversial Fighting Sioux nickname after the association threatened sanctions. After more legal action and even a voter referendum, the university now plans to dump the nickname. The fight rages on, though, as the supporters say they’re working to gather signatures to petition for a state constitutional amendment to keep it.

Tribal Permission

The University of Utah, meanwhile, was among three institutions that quickly persuaded the NCAA back in 2005 to allow them to keep their Indian nicknames. Central Michigan University, Florida State University, and the University of Utah convinced the NCAA to remove them from the list by showing that their namesake tribes—the Chippewa, Seminoles, and Utes—supported their nicknames. So the Ute name and image of a drum with eagle feathers attached to it live on at the University of Utah. Reverence for the name and the symbol doesn’t always translate across cultures, though. Incidents when abuse rears its ugly head might be rare, according to those who support the Ute name and logo, but those incidents also are evidence to others who feel justified in saying the U needs to change.

Forrest Cuch, current chief executive officer of Ute Tribal Enterprises, and the state’s Indian Affairs director until last year, talks to Carrie Dallas of the Indian Walk-In Center in the U’s Olpin Union Building. (Photo by Stephen Speckman)

U Associate Vice President of Equity and Diversity Octavio Villalpando tells a story of a young Native American student who last year spotted a teepee in a tailgate lot on a day the Utah football team was playing. Villalpando says she stopped to check it out, believing it might be a new location for a Native American blessing that she was on her way to witness at the campus American Indian Resource Center, where she thought she was supposed to go. But her accidental detour was anything but a blessing. She instead saw a “completely, completely inebriated man” who was dressed as a Native American, marching around and doing his “Indian holler,” says Villalpando.

The woman approached the man. “He told her that he wanted to make sure that the University better understood its native roots and that he was doing this to bring attention to that,” Villalpando says. The scene brought tears to the woman’s eyes. She complained that day to a gate official at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but the man’s First Amendment rights prevailed, according to Villalpando.

Offensive Symbols?

It’s not just one incident that has Villalpando concerned about the nickname and logo. “I would call it a concern that is routinely expressed by current members of the University community, including faculty, students, and staff, and the external community,” he says. “People will ask routinely, ‘When are we going to remove the drum and feather logo?’ ” It’s a concern also raised by faculty who are considering a position at the University, he says. “The question is not just one of whether the Ute Tribe is offended or not,” Villalpando says. “The other question is how the symbols are offensive to people beyond the Ute Tribe. So, it’s a larger question, I would propose.”

A University of Utah football fan wears a costume Indian headdress and face paint at a recent game. (Photo courtesy U Athletics Department)

Utah athletics fan Randy Lewis, who attended the U in the late 1970s, says he later heard about the teepee incident, and he believes the man in question is in a “tiny minority” of people who occasionally bring shame to the University’s nickname and logo. “I felt sickened and horrible about it for her,” Lewis says, adding that he will confront anyone he sees abusing Native American imagery or traditions. He not only wants to see the Ute name and logo stay, he’d also like U officials to meet with Ute tribal leaders and come up with a way to incorporate the tribe into the U’s athletic tradition in a manner that would be positive.

The drum and feather logo appears on a variety of items, from shot glasses to boxer shorts, at the Utah Red Zone store on the U campus. Some view the use of the logo on that merchandise as disrespectful. (Photo by Stephen Speckman)

Even before the NCAA issued its rules, some institutions—including the University of Utah—had begun to move away from offensive nicknames and traditions. By the mid-1970s, the U had stopped using the nickname Redskins and became the Utes. The official logo became the drum and feather. The Crimson Warrior, a man in Native American garb who rode a horse into the football stadium, was retired in the 1980s, when Ted Capener was vice president of institutional advancement. “I had groups of young Native American students in my office who sometimes had tears in their eyes,” Capener recalls of the situation leading up to the warrior’s retirement. Swoop, a red-tailed hawk, became the official mascot in 1996.

“There are no plans at present to discontinue use of the Ute name,” says Fred Esplin, the U’s vice president of institutional advancement. The same is true of the logo. “It is beloved greatly by U athletics fans,” Esplin says. But he says he realizes that the name and logo are a “concern” to some Native Americans.

Danielle Endres, a U associate professor of communications, can back up that point with her own academic research. “I did discover that many of the Native Americans on campus are uncomfortable with the nickname,” says Endres, who specializes in Native American rhetoric and activism. “They generally expressed that it kind of created a hostile environment on campus.”

Other American Indians, though, including Forrest Cuch, chief executive officer of Ute Tribal Enterprises, say that the use of mascots and logos bearing their names brings more awareness of their tribes. One thing American Indians find worse than having their imagery and traditions abused is being ignored, he says, and he thinks the University’s use of the Ute name and logo should remain. “My position is that there’s nothing wrong with it, so nothing needs to be fixed,” says Cuch, who was the state’s Indian Affairs director until last year. In his new post, he looks after the Ute Tribe’s business holdings. He says his fear is that if the U relinquished the drum and feather logo, it would be like saying, “Maybe it’s time to eliminate any decent reference to the Ute people and erase them from any kind of landmark from the state of Utah.” The Ute name and logo represent a long, successful relationship between his tribe and the University, he says.

A Negative Impact 

U Athletics Director Chris Hill speaks at a fundraising event. He says he favors more education and understanding among those who regard the name and logo in disrespectful ways. (Photo by August Miller)

Certainly no one in a position of power within the Ute Tribe is lobbying to change the name and logo. But opposition is out there. U American Indian Resource Center Director Matthew Makomenaw often is the one who students, Native American or otherwise, turn to when they take issue with the way the people treat Indian imagery and traditions on and off campus. “I think currently there are some students who feel strongly about the issue, whether it’s the nickname or the drum and feather,” said Makomenaw, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottowa and Chippewa Indians.

Makomenaw points to photos that can be found on several U Facebook links, depicting Utah fans wearing Native American garb. One image features two young women with long blond hair, each wearing a rainbow colored headdress and two-piece fringed, faux buckskin outfits with moccasins. Another photo shows a teepee with a feather and drum logo set up in a tailgate lot. It’s that kind of treatment that sends some students to Makomenaw’s office in tears. “The research on American Indian nicknames and mascots shows that it has a negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian youth,” he says. Some Native Americans tell Makomenaw they don’t want to bring their children to football games because it isn’t a “welcoming environment” when fans dress up like Indians and perpetuate only a stereotype of Native Americans.

Even so, during John Ashton’s 23 years as the U Alumni Association’s executive director, support among many alumni and fans for the U’s use of the Indian name and logo have been clear, he says. “There’s no question that the weight of opinion was on preserving the tradition of the Ute name and drum and feather,” Ashton says, and changing the logo now would be difficult because it has become so successful and recognizable. If the Ute Tribe withdrew approval of using their name or the logo, then it would be time for change, he says.

Any change now would involve the U Board of Trustees and Michele Mattsson, the board’s current vice chairwoman. “I personally love the logo and the name, and feel it’s rooted in strong tradition,” she says. “To me it’s a nice connection to Ute heritage.”

A.J. Kanip’s drum and eagle feather rest on the Ute Tribe’s powwow grounds at Fort Duchesne. (Photo by Stephen Speckman)

Others, including Villalpando, don’t see it that way when the logo—the emblem of Kanip’s drum and eagle feather—can be found on merchandise such as underwear, garden gnomes, and shot glasses. “I think a [public] university has the responsibility to the taxpayers of that state to ensure that it provides an educationally sound experience to all students,” Villalpando says. “And if students bring to the attention of the university concerns about its particular practices or symbols impacting their learning, then I think it’s the university’s responsibility to listen to them and to explore how best to enhance the academic experience for all students. … It’s not an issue of political correctness. It’s an issue of educationally sound strategies.”

Barbara Snyder, the U’s vice president for student affairs, realizes the problems. “I understand how offensive the continued use of the drum and feather logo is, not just to Native American students but to those who value social justice,” she says.

So, what next? Some say the answer is education.

In presentations Makomenaw makes on campus, he tells people to close their eyes and picture a Native American, and he asks if they see someone wearing a headdress or a polo shirt and slacks. It’s an exercise, he says, to drive home the point that American Indians are scientists, history teachers, neighbors, and, in other words, just like anyone else you might know. The hard part, he adds, is how to educate the masses about Native American culture in a way that will foster more sensitivity and  understanding.

Hill says he favors more education and understanding among what he estimates are the 5 percent of people who regard the name and logo in disrespectful ways. “If what we have as a nickname and logo lead to more offensive things, then I think we need to take a hard look at what we’re leading people to,” he says.

Striking the right tone 

Keith Keddington, a U student who is president of The MUSS, the U’s student athletics fan group, says there is an overwhelming desire among Utah students to continue using the Ute name as well as the drum and feather logo, but he also sees a need for learning. “It is a storied icon that provides a unique opportunity for education and increased respect for Ute tradition,” he says. “I see a great opportunity to share information about the Ute Tribe both on campus, in the community, and on a national level. We should further develop an understanding of who and what we represent by using the Ute name.”

Mattsson and other U officials past and present, as well as Ute Tribe members, all say that at the very least, the U could lead or facilitate efforts to better educate Ute fans and the campus community about the tribe from which it borrows its name and logo.

As Kanip played his drum and sang and spoke on that hot summer day, he agreed that there could be a little more education around campus about what a Ute is or what the logo means. Standing close to Kanip’s own round drum, you can feel its vibrations as he plays. As he sings, you sense the deep respect Kanip has for the meaning and place that songs hold among not just Utes but all Native Americans.

“Only certain people can make a drum, to make it sound a certain way,” he says. “I can’t do it. I can just offer the songs for it. It takes patience, skill, and time.

“Something like this,” he says, looking at his drum, “you can’t rush. The tone, it’s an instrument of God. So, it needs a tone that brings out the spirituality of the event or ceremony.”

—Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer who is a frequent contributor to Continuum.


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After the Roar, Recycle

University of Utah recycling coordinator and waste management supervisor Josh James last fall watched a man walk up to a recycling station in a tailgate lot at a U football game. The man proclaimed, “Recycling, that’s awesome,” and then proceeded to throw away his own recyclables in a nearby trash can.

The man’s garbage contributed that day to what James estimated is about six tons of trash generated before, during, and after each U football game. That adds up to about 36 tons of trash generated during the six home football games in 2011. About one quarter of that was diverted from landfills and recycled.

People power—or sometimes the lack of it—is the biggest reason those who are champions of improved recycling efforts at U athletic events aren’t ready yet to give an A grade for the University’s efforts to achieve greener games. The U often makes it easy for people to recycle at U football games, and yet it seems difficult for many people to take the critical next step, James says. “It’s really amazing.”

Still, James can at least feel comfortable giving a B+ these days to recycling work during U football games at Rice-Eccles Stadium and at gymnastics meets and basketball games at the Huntsman Center. “It’s catching on,” he says. That B+ is an improvement from the C that James would have issued just a few years ago. Since then, student volunteers have worked with U Facilities Management to take recycling to a whole new level at University athletics events.

Fans watch a basketball game at the Huntsman Center, and put their garbage on the floor.

Football, gymnastics, and men’s basketball are the three sports that generate the most waste out of all University athletics events; hence they are the three areas getting the most attention so far with the recycling efforts. Since 2007, the U has purchased two cardboard balers (think hay balers, only for boxes) for use campuswide, a battalion of bins for placing under desks, bins on wheels, and flatbed trailers to haul the bigger bins. Those changes have had a spillover effect on athletics events, but it was only minimal without a more collective endeavor on the part of students.

Winning ever more ground in the bin game, students came up with the idea of using three bikes with more bins on the backs. Previously, the bikes had been used elsewhere around campus but not at athletics events. Last football season, student volunteers rode the bikes around tailgate lots, mainly along Guardsman Way, spreading the green word and collecting recyclables.

Last year, U student Seth Crossley, who this past year has been associate director of sustainability for the Associated Students of the University of Utah, changed the game even more. Crossley showed what can happen when one person is able to mobilize more students than ever with the shared interest of reducing waste at athletic events. “He did a lot to get us where we’re at now,” James says.

Students in prior years had begun a “Recycle Rice-Eccles” petition drive to obtain signatures of people
who supported the idea of having paid facilities workers separate garbage from recyclables, as well as encouraging more people to be recycling volunteers, but the effort gained little traction.

As Crossley looked for ways to improve the U’s recycling efforts, particularly at athletics events, he researched what other Pac-12 schools were doing. And it turns out many are doing more than the U on that count. So to help bolster the work at the U, Crossley set out to find sponsors who could help incentivize recycling support by giving T-shirts to students who volunteer to help reduce waste at U games. The students help by standing at recycling stations, encouraging others to recycle, and sorting through garbage. Crossley found support from the U Athletics Department, the Office of Sustainability, ASUU, Coca-Cola, The MUSS (the U’s esteemed student cheer section for sports events), and alumni. Fans who participate in the recycling efforts are now issued Frequent Recycler cards and awarded prizes for their efforts. And the “Recycle Rice-Eccles” movement has evolved into an annual initiative complete with its own brand and logo.

Josh James, the University of Utah’s recycling coordinator and waste management supervisor, sits at a gymnastics event in the Huntsman Center.

“If you give T-shirts to volunteers, it unites them,” says Crossley, who was scheduled to graduate from the U this past spring with degrees in political science and environmental and sustainability studies. He has used social media, email, and old-fashioned word of mouth to find students to help out. Volunteers dubbed “green police” began to feel like they’re part of something “bigger,” Crossley says. “Branding and marketing were the biggest thing for me.”

Back in 2010, before his efforts, often only 15 or so volunteers would show up at an athletics event, and it wasn’t enough to make a dent in the mountains of garbage generated. Some games now draw 50 volunteers who collect and sort recyclables and help with getting the word out during the events. The volunteers often stand at bins and urge people to deposit their plastic, paper, and aluminum in the recycling cans. Students also stick around after games to sift through garbage in the stands for recyclables before paid crews move in to sweep up.

Student volunteers help break down boxes for recycling at an athletics event at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center.

It’s that kind of people power that compels Crossley to raise the recycling grade at Rice-Eccles from what he thinks was a lowly D to a B+ and to a B at the Huntsman Center, where he says the older, indoor crowd isn’t as messy as football’s younger, outdoors audience and generates less garbage. The reason for the slightly lower grade at Huntsman, he notes, is because fewer student volunteers show up at events where the team (such as men’s basketball this past season) does poorly. “There’s a lot of work to do, but we’ve made up a lot of ground,” says Crossley.

The Sierra Club in 2011 ranked the U at 97 out of 118 colleges and universities that replied to a questionnaire looking at environmental issues such as energy use, transportation, and waste management. U Sustainability Coordinator Jen Colby answered in the questionnaire that 32 percent of the campus’ waste is being diverted from landfills. Vital to that percentage is what students have been able to help accomplish at football games, where volunteers helped divert an estimated 19,000 pounds of recyclables from landfills last season.

Ashley Patterson, the U Sustainability Office’s outreach and education coordinator, attributes last year’s success to Crossley and others including ASUU student volunteers Allison Boyer, a stalwart at the Guardsman Way tailgate lot, and Alec Van Huele, who was at every game and organized meetings to coordinate the efforts of the masses of green-minded student volunteers. “[Crossley] did a really good job of turning this into a collaborative effort,” says Patterson, who uses her office’s Facebook page (and its 830 or so followers) to help get the word out to rally volunteers. “Students say they want to do something, but they don’t know what to do or how to do it. Seth fully grasps all of that.”

Crossley pointed out in a presentation earlier this year to volunteers, “Fans’ views of recycling need to be influenced rather than forced—they have to want to recycle!” Even on a bad day at Rice-Eccles. James says that when the Utes have a big loss, fans are much less enthused about recycling. “Everyone says, ‘Leave me alone—I want to go home,’ ” he says. Happy fans are more apt to recycle.

Student volunteers pick up trash in the stands at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center after a gymnastics meet.

Despite the U’s great strides with recycling at athletics events during the past few years, other Pac-12 schools get higher praise for their efforts, including the University of Washington, Arizona State University, and most notably, the University of Colorado at Boulder, which on its Web site lists 1976 as the year it officially began an on-campus recycling program. In 1991, University of Colorado student government leaders and campus administration officials became partners in recycling with the signing of a memorandum of understanding. Today, the students’ fingerprints on recycling are all over campus, not just at sports events. “Students here have a rich history of speaking up and putting their money where their mouth is,” says Ed von Bleichert, Colorado’s environmental operations manager for Facilities Management. “It really comes from our student body, and it has permeated up.”
From the first minute students hit the Colorado campus in the fall, they are met by “zero-waste ambassadors” at residence halls, where students are educated then and throughout the semester about how to recycle. Between 25 and 30 ambassadors, also known as “goalies,” are also at each football game at zero-waste stations, and each volunteer receives a shirt, hat, meal ticket, and entry to the game. In order to get fans to use recycling services at games, von Bleichert says, “you’ve got to make it easy.” The university also touts a $470,000 facility built in 1992 near the football stadium, Folsom Field, to help with campuswide recycling. And Colorado collects a small fee each semester from its 30,000 students to support education and outreach about recycling at the university.

The recycling facility today employs about 25 students to help divert recyclables from landfills, which accounts for the university’s overall 42 percent diversion rate. “We’re shooting for 90 percent,” says von Bleichert. The current diversion rate puts Colorado in the middle of the pack among other colleges and universities, he says.

A big key to the recycling success at Colorado, von Bleichert says, is the full support recycling efforts receive from the university’s athletics department. Planning goes into what type of packaging will be used at concessions during football games, and garbage cans inside the stadium have been eliminated. All waste from inside the stadium, even while a game is still being played, is sorted by students at the nearby recycling facility.

Other institutions, including the University of Utah, over the years have sought to emulate what’s happening in Boulder. “They definitely get the most attention,” James says. “They have a very well-designed program.” Students from other places in the nation tell James that Utah as a state is behind the times on recycling, and they’re upset that more people are not doing it. James says it will take continued student support to sustain and improve the U’s current recycling efforts at athletics events.

U student Seth Crossley, associate director of sustainability for ASUU, drives student volunteers through a football tailgate area last fall to encourage people to recycle. The student efforts have had good results.

Steve Pyne BS’11, director of events and facilities for the U Athletics Department, says he supports the work of James and the student volunteers to improve recycling at athletics venues. “Whatever they recommend, every football game, I support them,” Pyne says. As part of those efforts, Pyne notes, vendors for games are now making sure boxes they use for supplies are being broken down and recycled instead of simply thrown away. “In my mind, I think we’re doing everything within the resources we have that we can do,” he says.

Universities including Colorado and the U have seen a spike in recycling at football games when sponsors such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the ESPN television network create a competition among institutions to see who can recycle the most. Crossley said earlier this year in a report to student volunteers that an ESPN game-day challenge at the U motivated the crowd to get involved without feeling forced, and volunteers were excited to be working alongside ESPN employees. “Much more fun than Dumpster diving,” Crossley says.

With the U as a new member of the Pac-12, James predicts audiences—and their trash—will increase at all U sporting events, requiring an even more expanded recycling effort on campus. When crowds again roar inside Rice-Eccles and Huntsman Center for the 2012-13 season, James and Crossley are planning on more outreach and more student volunteers. But success will depend once again on two words: people power. “People complain there are not enough bins, but at some point you’ve got to take responsibility for yourself and your purchase,” James says. “You are the consumer; you bought the product.”

—Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

 

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Faces of the Future

The University of Utah almost lost honors freshman Bettymaya Foott to one of several other colleges she had considered while in high school in her hometown of Moab, Utah. “I really wanted to get out of Utah,” says Foott, who now spends some of her spare time showing off the U to prospective undergrads.

Academically, Foott fits the profile of what the U wants more of on its campus. She graduated from Grand County High School with a 4.0 GPA. She was valedictorian, captain of her soccer and debate teams, and she was a volunteer at the Moab Valley Multicultural Center. A full-ride Eccles Distinguished Scholar Award and the University’s study abroad and student exchange programs sealed the deal for Foott, who at first was fearful of attending a big university. “I really like it,” she says of her University experience. “I’m surprised how much I like it up here.”

Foott is in it for the long haul now at the U, concentrating on environmental studies and Spanish. “My goal is grad school and beyond,” she says. Her honors advisor, Charlotte Hansen Terry HBA,10, says a lot of bright students like Foott might overlook a good thing in their own backyard. “This happens in every state,” Terry says. But that—and a lot more—will gradually change during the next few years if a new first-of-its kind enrollment management plan being put in place by U officials is a success. Foott is exactly the kind of well-rounded, bright student U leaders want as the University works to shift its overall academic profile.

Starting this year, admissions requirements for incoming freshmen will change, as the U has dropped its so-called admissions index in favor of a more comprehensive evaluation of students’ accomplishments. Dovetailing on that plan will be the fall 2012 opening of the new Donna Garff Marriott Residential Scholars Community, a unique 309-bed residence hall that U officials are counting on to help woo and retain some of the nation’s best college students.

In 2010, the U brought in consultants from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers to help orchestrate a new enrollment plan. And U officials plucked an enrollment expert from Louisiana State University—Mary G. Parker—to put the plan in place. Parker, now the U’s associate vice president for enrollment management, arrived in September 2011 and was given responsibility for bringing together the entire enrollment process, including student recruitment, admissions, registration, financial aid, and network support. She also has the task in the coming months of writing the University’s first Integrated Strategic Enrollment Management Plan. The new enrollment plan is expected to be ready for implementation by the start of the new recruiting season in August.

 

U Student Affairs Vice President Barbara Snyder, front left, and Mary G. Parker, associate vice president for enrollment management, stand as students walk by in the Olpin Union Building.

Parker will be working from a one-page snapshot of change that lists overall enrollment profile goals. The goals document also sketches an “ideal” freshman class of the future, with average ACT scores for incoming students migrating upward from 24.4 to 26 (the upper 15 percent in the nation). Half of those students would live on campus, compared with the current 34 percent. And ideally, 30 percent of freshman students would qualify for the U Honors College, and 20 percent would enroll in it, instead of the current 10 percent. Average SAT scores would be up by about 90 points in each of the test’s three categories. Another ambition is to raise the graduation rate, within the current standard of six years.

In short, if the plan’s goals are achieved, the U student body soon won’t look quite like the one left behind last spring when Associate Vice President for Budget and Planning Paul Brinkman retired. Part of his job during his 20 years at the University was to help piece together the U’s enrollment puzzle. He helped arrange the funding for and hiring of the consultants for advice on creating an integrated enrollment plan unlike any previous strategic plan at the U. The puzzle pieces included a growing university, lack of student housing, changing admissions requirements, and entry into the Pac-12. “It’s just a lot of things coming together to where you sense the need to develop a more coherent vision,” Brinkman now says.

 

Sources: University of Utah Office of Student Affairs; U Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis

The U has gone from an open-enrollment policy in the ’80s to being “moderately selective” today, he says. “It has come a long way, but it can go further. We need to do a better job of recruiting students who will succeed and in retaining them. That’s a complex process.”

The U shouldn’t strive to be an “ivory tower” or a Stanford University, Brinkman says, but it should be among the “upper echelon” of public universities while still providing opportunities for “reasonably able” students in Utah. Going after more students like Foott fits with Brinkman’s idea of a slowly changing campus makeup.

With the number of high school graduates in Utah on the rise (while many other states are in decline), the new plan is expected to help shape exactly how the University grows. Utah Higher Education Commissioner William Sederburg is cheering the U’s efforts, including the plan to “ratchet” up GPA and ACT requirements, and says, “I think this is a little of a new game for the U.”

He wants to see the U avoid becoming a “mega” university like Arizona State University as public institutions in Utah continue to grow. He’d prefer that the U zero in on its research and flagship functions and maintain high standards while the state’s other public institutions absorb some of the projected growth.

Freshman Bettymaya Foott, who is focusing on environmental studies and Spanish at the U, sits in her dorm room on campus.

Student Affairs Vice President Barbara Snyder says the U’s entry into the Pac-12 provides a perfect opportunity for re-examining enrollment. The U for years used an index system that weighed a student’s high-school GPA and ACT scores in correlation with one another. Students with higher ACT scores could have a lower GPA, and vice versa, and still qualify for admission to the University. Under the new admission profile that will be used starting this year, grades will have twice the importance of test scores. U officials also plan to take a closer look at the whole academic profile of an applicant and ask more probing questions. What did the student do outside of school? What activities did the student participate in during school? What kinds of classes did the student take? Were there any honors classes?

The days of an “I’m getting in” attitude, with just the minimum required GPA and ACT score, are fading away. “We are no longer doing that,” Parker says. “There is no more guarantee.” Qualified Utah students are the U’s first priority, and they will be admitted. The U also will continue recruiting qualified out-of-state students who have Utah ties.

U Student Recruitment Director Mateo Remsburg BA’94 (who holds a master’s from Kansas State) says that as word is spreading about the new profile goals for incoming freshmen, he is hearing a common refrain from high school counselors, who are saying, “Well, it’s about time.” One ripple effect will be that as U admissions requirements tighten and the University starts asking high schools for students’ final transcripts (instead of merely confirming that a student graduated), those students may be less likely to squander their senior year.

Change will be gradual. “It’s like a cruise ship; you can’t turn it on a dime,” Remsburg says. The challenge, he says, will be to become known as a “highly selective” school without being perceived as “elitist.” But morphing enrollment expectations will likely mean that marginal students who would have barely made it into the U in the past might not get a nod from the U down the road.

And more of those who do make it in will live on campus, if the U has its way. “I hate the term commuter campus,” Snyder says. She wants to see higher retention rates and students who are more invested in their university, and she believes more campus residents can help achieve those goals. But a new honors dorm won’t be enough, and estimates for new digs put the need at 1,000 to 2,000 beds down the road if the U wants to meet its campus living goal.

Honors College advisor Charlotte Hansen Terry, left, sits with freshman Bettymaya Foott on the front steps of the Honors College office in Fort Douglas.

Getting students to stay through to graduation will be a key indicator that all of the elements of the new plan are working. The U’s freshman to sophomore retention rate now is around 87 percent, and the six-year graduation rate is 57 percent. That graduation rate ranks the U at third from last in comparison with 21 research-focused institutions nationwide, according to a November 2011 report released by the Utah Office of the Legislative Auditor General. Auditors noted that the University’s low rate also doesn’t compare well with the U’s new Pac-12 peers. The University “enrolls a relatively large percentage of students who are not ready to succeed,” the auditors said. “In mathematics and science in particular, many enrolled students [at the U] appear to be ill-prepared.”

Utah has a few more unique reasons why college retention and graduation rates lag. Snyder notes that many U students from Utah postpone college until after serving a mission for The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints—young LDS men typically serve two-year missions, while women may serve 18 months. Some students drop out to get married and start families. Others attend classes only when they believe they can afford them.

U officials hope that luring higher-achieving students from Utah and across the nation, in addition to more students living on campus, will mean more graduates. Parker knows she has a huge task: She will craft and put in place the new plan by August, and then there will be yearly analyses. In three to five years, the U will assess how it’s doing with the plan and its enrollment goals, including whether more academically stellar students like Foott have opted to attend the U.

“It is an ongoing process that we will continue to build upon,” Parker says. “It is the way we should be doing business.”

—Stephen Speckman is a freelance writer and photographer based in Salt Lake City.


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