SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah running back Quinton Ganther was all smiles as he headed toward the Huntsman Center Friday morning. He had something to get — a degree in sociology.

Ganther, who played for the Utes in 2004 and 2005 before heading to the NFL, joined several Utah athletes (past and present) in donning caps and gowns for commencement ceremonies up on the hill.

"This is a special opportunity," Ganther said. "This is one of the biggest accomplishments ever."

Although graduating from college wasn't always a goal for Ganther — his dream growing up was to play in the NFL — he has since learned that "education is key to everything."

After playing parts of five seasons with the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills, Ganther opted to go back to school. Besides completing course work for his degree, he's also coaching at his alma mater. Ganther helped out this spring and will serve as a student assistant this fall. He hopes to eventually become a full-time coach.

"This is where I want to be. This is where my heart is," Ganther said. "I feel like I've got a lot to give the kids here and I'm an example to them."

Ganther explained that he knows the game and knows his position. Coming back and earning his degree, he added, can serve as encouragement to others — especially for athletes from less fortunate areas.

"I've come from the same place," said Ganther, who is from Richmond, Calif. "College is an option."

Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak agrees.

"A lot of times in athletics you get kids that are getting their first family degree. So it's just pretty cool, kind of the culmination of everything — knowing there's a lot of hours in the process," he said. "When you're recruiting kids you talk about making them as good as they could possibly get (sports)-wise and promising that they will get a degree. When you get part of that promise taken care of, it's pretty fulfilling."

Krystkowiak had three players from last year's team go through graduation — center Jason Washburn, as well as guards Chris Hines and Josh Watkins.

A large contingent of football players also participated in the ceremonies. The group included several returnees including quarterback Jordan Wynn; wide receivers DeVonte Christopher, Luke Matthews, Reggie Dunn and Dexter Ransom; center Tevita Stevens; defensive tackle Dave Kruger; and cornerback Ryan Lacy.

"It's a phenomenal thing to see because the No. 1 goal of the program is to get our players graduated," said Fred Whittingham Jr., Utah's director of player personnel. "A degree from the University of Utah is internationally respected. It's a great day for them and it's great for their families. It provides the foundation for the rest of their lives."

Utah athletics director Chris Hill noted that it's important to have coaches and student-athletes that really care and have a genuine interest in academic success, as well as a support system, in place.

"I think we're fortunate to have people who have the right values," Hill said. "All those elements have to be added together to have a successful academic program."

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