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From left, legendary University of Utah basketball coaches Vadal Peterson (1927-1953), Jack Gardner (1953-1971), and Rick Majerus (1989-2004).

Living the Legacy
The U celebrates a century on the basketball court.

by John Youngren

University of Utah basketball fans may not have known much about new head coach Jim Boylen when he arrived on campus last spring, but he certainly knew all about U of U basketball.

That’s what 100 years of history—and a consistent winning reputation—will do for U.

“When I envisioned being a head coach, I was hoping to get something like this,” Boylen says of the U’s program. “I was hoping to be part of something this positive. We have 28 [conference] championships here [at Utah].”

And Boylen is firmly positioning himself to build on that formidable legacy—one that began, humbly enough, with a 3-8 record in 1908-09 (under coach Erastus J. Milne) but began to gather steam quickly.

U of U Basketball 1916
The U of U basketball team pauses for a photo after winning the Amateur Athletic Union National Tournament in 1916.
The Utes won the first of three national titles with an Amateur Athletic Union National Tournament victory in 1916. By the time they won the NCAA championship in 1944, the Utes were well on their way to establishing a tradition that lives on to this day. (The team also won a National Invitational Tournament title back when that tournament was the more prestigious post-season affair, in 1947.)

“We have an extraordinary tradition of great basketball here at Utah,” says U of U President Michael K. Young. “This has been one of the great teams in the United States. It has a long and very distinguished history with extraordinary accomplishments behind it.”

Indeed. Heading into their 100th year, the Utes have a 1,595-833 record, a .656 winning percentage, the 10th best in the NCAA. They’ve posted a losing record just 20 times—and only 13 times in the past 77 seasons. The Utes have recorded 20-win seasons (or better) 32 times, and they’ve advanced to post-season play 40 different years.

Still, even among loyal Utah fans, true appreciation of some of the school’s hoops history may be lost. The Utes are 13th all-time in NCAA tournament appearances (26) and 14th in games played (64). They’ve been to the NCAA Final Four four times—in 1944, 1961, 1966, and 1998. Only 15 teams have made more Final Four appearances than Utah.

It’s impressive stuff. And the numbers add up to a proud tradition highlighted by legendary coaches like Vadal Peterson, Jack Gardner, and Rick Majerus, and memorable players like Utah’s six consensus first team All-Americans—Bill Kinner BS’36 (1936), Arnie Ferrin BS’66 (1945; he returned to the U years later for a degree in marketing), Billy “The Hill” McGill ex’62 (1962), Keith Van Horn ex’97 (1997), Andre Miller BS’98 (1999), and Andrew Bogut ex’05 (2005). All but Kinner saw their jerseys retired by the Utes, alongside those of fellow stars Vern Gardner BS’49 and Danny Vranes ex’81.

Andre Miller
Andre Miller (above), along with Keith Van Horn, were some of the superstars from the late 1990s.
The fascinating thing about Utah basketball is its multigenerational appeal. Though Majerus was a dominant figure in Utah sports throughout the ’90s, he left the program in early 2004—meaning some of the Utes’ younger fans may barely remember the big man on the sidelines.

And while relatively recent Utah stars like Van Horn, Bogut, Miller, and Michael Doleac BS’02 have gone on to NBA careers and continued success, the fun part about the Utes’ basketball tradition is dropping the names of players from the past who influenced the program by blazing a trail of success. Ferrin, Vern Gardner, and Wataru “Wat” Misaka BS’48—the U of U’s first draft pick to the NBA (or Basketball Association of America, as it was known until 1949), in 1947, and the first ethnic minority to play professional basketball at the highest level in the U.S.—are such stars from the ’40s. McGill was the man of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Mike Newlin BS’71 and Luther “Ticky” Burden ex’73 were heroes of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

By then, the Huntsman Center (originally known as the Special Events Center) had opened its doors and very quickly established itself as one of the premier basketball arenas in the country. The venue, which opened in November 1969 (Utah beat Stanford, 96-94, to christen its new home on Dec. 1) was the first step toward broader appeal for the Utes, who had played for years in the cramped Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse, which held just 4,000—if that.

Playing in front of up to 15,000 fans at home made a big difference to the Utah teams of the era; in fact, since then, the Utes have won more than 80 percent of their home games. And the new arena, along with technological advances in sports broadcasting (especially TV), exposed the Utes to more fans than ever before.

What was once a sport heralded via newspaper or radio became a game with more mass appeal; the Utes were able to reach beyond campus and make fans of people who couldn’t (or didn’t) attend games.

U Archives
Tom Chambers (taking on a player from BYU, above) and teammate Danny Vranes epitomized U of U basketball during the ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Maybe that’s why the cluster of names that fall together on Utah rosters from the mid-’70s through the early ’80s—Jeff Judkins BS’84, Jeff Jonas BS’77, Charles “Buster” Matheney ex’78, Tom Chambers ex’77, Pace Mannion ex’83, and Danny Vranes, to name just a few—

still seem to resonate, even today.

“I think it was those guys, in a lot of ways, who set the standard for the next 30 years of the program,” says Peter Behle BS’86, a former Daily Utah Chronicle sports editor who covered the Utes of the early ’80s. “Players like Chambers and Vranes were talked about for years. They were kind of the first stars of the modern era.”

And they set the bar—and created some lofty expectations—for a generation or three of fans. Many of the stars from those years retained some connection with Utah. Judkins would eventually coach under Majerus. Jonas was a Utah broadcaster for a number of years. Chambers had an All-Star NBA career, including a stint with the Utah Jazz. Even today, Mannion plays a high-profile role on Utah Jazz pre- and post-game TV broadcasts.

“It was really the teams of the Vranes-Chambers era that became the first to receive regular TV exposure,” Behle says. “They were appealing big-time players who drew in even casual fans.”

The Utes of that era went to the NCAA tournament under Coach Jerry Pimm, who was succeeded by Lynn Archibald in the mid-’80s. While Archibald would never have the on-court success of his predecessor, he did coach a few memorable players of his own—including the trio of Jerry Stroman ex’88, Kelvin Upshaw ex’86,

and Manny Hendrix BS’94 MS’04—and generated his fair share of chills and spills, particularly in some wild conference tournament games.

Ticky Burden
Luther “Ticky” Burden helped the U to become a basketball powerhouse in the 1970s.
But it was the Majerus era that redefined the program and made the Utes one of the most respected programs in the country during the media-savvy, NCAA-crazy ’90s. The coach became a familiar figure on ESPN and other national sports outlets, and the Utes became a late-night fixture led by the likes of Josh Grant BS’93, Jimmy Soto BS’95, Van Horn, and eventually Bogut.

Coached by Ray Giacoletti, the Bogut-led Utes went to the NCAA tournament for the 26th and most recent time in 2004-05 (to the Sweet 16). The 29-6 team was a success on nearly every level. But that heady success left a heavy burden of expectation for its successors. Following a disappointing 11-19 season this past year, Giacoletti was forced to resign in March 2007. The Utes wanted to be back on track for this, their 100th year.

“Celebrating our 100th anniversary … I think it’s going to be a great time for us,” says Utah Athletics Director Chris Hill MEd’74 PhD’82. “Utah basketball is very important for us. That’s why I’m so excited [about Boylen]. I share a vision with him about how good we want to be.”

“This is someone who understands our tradition,” Young says of Boylen. “He understands our program deeply … and very deeply understands the role basketball plays within an institution.”

And, despite nearly 100 years of history and a lot of daunting accomplishments preceding him, Boylen is up to the challenge.

“I figure I can coach for 20 more years,” says the 42-year-old Boylen, with Utah’s 28 conference championships in mind. “If we don’t leave with 48 [championships], then I didn’t do my job. I believe that. You have to dream it before you can live it. We’re going to dream it here and we’re going to live it.”

Sounds like the new guy knows what he’s getting into.

—John Youngren BA’88 works in advertising for Love Communications in Salt Lake City and has written many previous articles for Continuum.

Photos courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, and the University of Utah Athletics Department.

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