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New BYU president: Kevin Worthen to replace Cecil Samuelson

SHARE New BYU president: Kevin Worthen to replace Cecil Samuelson

PROVO — Whoosh, Kevin?

Kevin J Worthen, 57, BYU's advancement vice president and former dean of the BYU law school, will become BYU's 13th president on May 1, replacing Cecil O. Samuelson, 72, whose tenure included a new school basketball tradition: Every time a BYU player makes a free throw, students point to him and say, "Whoosh, Cecil."

The announcement came at the end of Tuesday's regularly scheduled campus devotional and was made by President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and first vice chairman of the BYU Board of Trustees.

A press release issued by the church at LDS.org said a search committee appointed by the board of trustees considered "many outstanding, well-qualified men and women for the position, including internal and external candidates from academe and industry."

"Brother Worthen is well-qualified for this appointment," President Eyring said.

Elder Worthen, an area seventy who has been at BYU for more than a quarter century, said at a press conference that the appointment was humbling.

"To be honest with you, the thing I worry most about, to use a term (late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley) used during one of his speeches, is that I might 'muff' it, because I really don't consider myself in the same category as those who have come before me."

Elder Worthen said the campus community should not expect any "radical changes," since the overall direction of BYU is set by the board of trustees, but he added that he has found that "nobody is given this kind of assignment to maintain the status quo."

He said he would work within the board's framework to help students be spiritually strengthened and intellectually enlarged.

After the devotional ended, the estimated 4,265 gathered in the Marriott Center gave Elder Samuelson a 50-second standing ovation.

"President Samuelson has served this institution with great distinction," President Eyring said, "and it is important for the faculty, staff, students and supporters of this university to know that the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve and Board of Education unanimously recognize the great work and devotion of President Cecil O. Samuelson to BYU.

"Truly his leadership and influence for good cannot be measured."

Elder Worthen and Elder Samuelson, who the newly announced president thanked Tuesday as a mentor, appeared together two weeks ago in a video released during a BYU basketball game. In the humorous promotional video, Elder Samuelson, Elder Worthen and athletic director Tom Holmoe — all with deadpan expressions — lip sync the song "It's Not Unusual" in the president's office.

Elder Worthen's appointment continues an 18-year trend that a BYU president simultaneously serves in the LDS Church as a seventy. Elder Merrill J. Bateman was a general authority of the church and member of its First Quorum of the Seventy when he became the university's president in 1996. Elder Samuelson also served in that capacity at the time of his appointment in 2003.

Elder Worthen is not a general authority, but he is an area seventy of the church in Utah County.

The appointment also continues a recent tradition of BYU presidents who served as deans at the university before being named president, including Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (1980-89), Rex E. Lee ('89-95) and Elder Bateman ('96-03).

Elder Worthen also earned two degrees at BYU and returned to campus in 1987 to serve as a professor and administrator.

He earned an associate degree as co-valedictorian (and co-captain of the basketball team) from the College of Eastern Utah in 1978. The following year, he graduated summa cum laude from BYU with a bachelor's degree in political science. He earned his juris doctorate from BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School in 1982, also summa cum laude.

Elder Worthen clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and then for Supreme Court Justice Byron White in 1983-84. He practiced law in Arizona from 1984 to 1987 and is "a noted scholar on federal Indian law and the impact of law on indigenous peoples internationally," according to his BYU faculty profile. He was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Chile in 1994.

Elder Worthen served as dean of BYU's law school from 2004-08, after which he took over as advancement vice president in charge of university relations, communications (including BYUtv), athletics and philanthropies.

"Those are important parts of the university," he said, "but I recognize they are not the core parts of the university."

Elder Worthen grew up in rural Utah.

"I like to say I come from a town that no longer exists," Elder Worthen said about being from now-defunct Dragerton, Utah, which today is East Carbon.

He served an LDS mission to Monterrey, Mexico, from 1975-77.

Elder Worthen said he learned about the appointment six weeks ago. One of the things he's thought about is "Whoosh, Cecil," which began in 2004 when a small group of freshmen decided to add Elder Samuelson's first name to the familiar college basketball "whoosh" chant after a made free throw.

The "Whoosh, Cecil" cheer gained momentum during the 2009-10 season, when near the end of the season he began to give students a thumbs up after each made free throw, and it took off during the 2010-11 Jimmermania season, according to a story about it in the Daily Universe.

"I think it's a wonderful tradition," Elder Worthen said with a broad smile, "I think it's great. I think it really ought to be associated with President Samuelson. I have nothing against it if the students want to continue. My fear is that 10 years from now, after my successor would be 'Whoosh, Somebody Else,' they will have lost that special connection they have with President Samuelson. ... I'd just as soon they come up with something different, in some ways."

Rumors about the end of Elder Samuelson's tenure surfaced three years ago when he was 69. He was serving as a general authority of the LDS Church in its Quorum of the Seventy. Quorum members regularly gain emeritus status when they turn 70, and some wondered if that change might also include a change of assignment in the BYU president's office.

LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson granted Elder Samuelson emeritus status in October 2011, two months after Elder Samuelson's 70th birthday.

Known to friends as “Cec” (pronounced “seese”), Elder Samuelson replaced Elder Bateman as BYU's president on May 1, 2003.

Major milestones during his tenure included the hiring of Holmoe, football coach Bronco Mendenhall and men's basketball coach Dave Rose; the addition of the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center in 2007 and the BYU Broadcasting Building in 2011; the move to independence for BYU's football program; and a massive restructuring of campus housing. The university razed all of the Deseret Towers buildings and 20 of 24 older Heritage Halls buildings to make way for 12 new Heritage Housing apartments.

Back in 2003, the BYU community didn't know what to make of a president so closely tied to the school's archrival, the University of Utah. Elder Samuelson earned his bachelor's (1966), master's (1970) and medical (1970) degrees at the U., and later served there as a professor, dean of the school of medicine and vice president of health sciences. His father was a longtime U. professor, too, which is how Elder Samuelson met his wife, Sharon. She was his father's secretary and they met in his father's office on the U. campus, according to Continuum, the U.'s alumni magazine.

Elder Samuelson even was a founding member of the U.'s athletic booster organization, the Crimson Club.

Urban legends about his loyalties grew up quickly, like the one that the Samuelsons had a red block U at the bottom of their swimming pool. The myths were spurious, though they motivated "Whoosh, Cecil," and the Samuelsons became major fixtures at BYU sporting events.

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com