Anyone who went to the "Night With the Runnin' Utes" last week or has dropped in on Utah practice this fall might have noticed the familiar face on the Ute sideline. Actually what they might have noticed is the familiar lanky 6-foot-9 frame of Phil Cullen.
Cullen, who played for the Utes from 1998-2002, is back — assisting the Ute basketball team while he works on completing his degree in civil engineering.
Cullen is a native of Chelan, Wash., and he became acquainted with Utah coach Ray Giacoletti when Giacoletti was an assistant at the University of Washington in the late 1990s and recruited Cullen.
"I just help out where I can," said Cullen, who doesn't even stay the whole practice every day because he has to go to class in the afternoon. At first, Giacoletti thought he could use Cullen in practice to play against big men Luke Nevill and Chris Jackson. But he is restricted by NCAA regulations and Cullen can only participate in limited drills.
"Phil is a great kid and we're glad to have him," said Giacoletti. "It's nice that he can keep his association with the university."
When Cullen finished his basketball career at Utah — with a flourish, by the way, hitting 7-of-8 3-pointers in an NCAA first-round game against Indiana — he embarked on a professional baseball career. He had been signed by the Seattle Mariners organization the year before and played for the Everett Aquasox.
However, late in the 2002 season, he broke the humerus bone in his right arm while pitching and it kept him out the entire 2003 season. He finally got to pitch in 2004, going 2-2 with a 2.87 ERA in a partial season after sitting out 22 months. His velocity was never the same, he said, and he was released after spring training this year.
Although he never made it to the majors, Cullen did get a thrill when he was able to pitch in an exhibition game with the Mariners last year with a lineup behind him that included the likes of John Olerud, Brett Boone and Ichiro Suzuki.
"It was pretty special," he said. "I kept the lineup card."
Cullen looks back on his time at Utah with fondness.
"I loved it," he said. "There's nothing more fun that putting on a jersey every day and playing a game you love."
Cullen said he enjoys working with Giacoletti and his staff and sees differences from his former coach, Rick Majerus.
"The coaching staff here is great. They're real interested in getting players to be better," he said. "It's a little bit different than Majerus. The intensity's the same and the players seem to be passionate about the game instead of playing in fear all the time."
Cullen won't be with the Utes all year. He has a job lined up in town with an engineering firm and starts in January, while he finishes up one last class spring semester. He is also engaged to be married next year.
STARTING LINEUP: Everyone always wants to know the starting lineup, particularly with a young team like the Utes.
Giacoletti has decided on his starting lineup for this week's exhibition game against Whitman College on Saturday night, although it may change before the official opener. The two returning starters from last year, Tim Drisdom and Bryant Markson, will be joined in the lineup by guard Johnnie Bryant, freshman forward Shaun Green and center Chris Jackson.
Bryant was expected to start, but the other two might be a surprise to those who assumed junior Jonas Langvad and freshman Luke Nevill would be starting. Giacoletti said Green is starting because Langvad has missed a couple of practices this week with an injured foot and that Jackson is starting because of his "experience."
UTE NOTES: The game with Whitman, whose nickname is the "Missionaries," will start directly after the football game at 5 p.m. at the Huntsman Center . . . The Utes entertained a 6-foot-9 recruit earlier this week. He has made no commitment, but could sign next week during the early signing period. The Utes already have three commitments from players who are expected to sign next week . . . The next exhibition will be Nov. 14 against Northwest Nazarene before the first official game Nov. 18 against Texas State.
Utah women enter season ranked No. 21 in coaches' poll
The University of Utah women's basketball team will begin the 2005-06 campaign in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. Utah is ranked No. 21 in the poll, released Wednesday.
Tennessee, Duke, LSU and Ohio State make up the top four. Rutgers and Georgia were tied for the No. 5 spot, while defending national champion Baylor was No. 7. North Carolina, Connecticut and Stanford round out the top 10.
One Utah opponent is ranked in the Top 25. The Utes will face North Carolina State, which came in at No. 24, on Dec. 17 in a tournament in Las Vegas. Utah could also face 15th-ranked Notre Dame during that tournament in Vegas, depending on first-round outcomes.
The Utes open their season Thursday night with an exhibition contest against Montana-Western. Tipoff is slated for 7 p.m. at the Huntsman Center.