SALT LAKE CITY — If ever there was an unlikely pal for Rick Majerus, it was Jon M. Huntsman Sr., the man whose name adorned Majerus’ workplace. But Huntsman didn’t base friendships on religion or bank accounts.
They were good friends, even though one was a worldly, obsessive, profane basketball coach, the other an LDS area authority and philanthropist who loved sports. Huntsman just happened to love people a lot more.
Huntsman passed away on Friday, which will be noted worldwide. The billionaire’s name is revered in many circles, most notably relief efforts, education and cancer research. In any endeavor, he was in it to win it, which is why he put hundreds of millions into the cancer institute bearing his name. His efforts to relieve suffering are almost inestimable. He has been ranked the second-most financially giving person in America. In his other persona, Huntsman wanted the University of Utah to have a nationally recognized athletic program, which he helped facilitate. When the former Special Events Center underwent its first renovation, it was Huntsman who provided the money, hence the name on the building. But when the Utes built their national-class basketball center, completed in 2015, he was there, too. The Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility is a first-rate home for both women’s and men’s teams.
Calling it a practice facility is like calling the Mar-a-Lago a residence.
With everything he did, Huntsman went first class once he was committed. Consequently, so did the Utes. The basketball team was often conveyed to important games via a Huntsman private jet. The practice facility locker rooms feel like an executive lounge.
But Huntsman was the antithesis of a stereotypical big-dollar booster. He sat at floor level for both Jazz and Utah games, always engaged but never outraged. He wore his wealth and influence humbly and didn’t abuse it. Those at the U. who knew him say he was far from a braggart. But sometimes money is hard to hide. After a game at Nevada-Las Vegas, one year, he was standing outside the locker room, waiting for Majerus to finish addressing the team.
“I wish he’d hurry,” Huntsman said to then-sports information director Bruce Woodbury, noting he had to catch a flight to Hawaii.
“What time does your plane leave?” Woodbury said.
“Whenever I want it to," Huntsman said.
Not bragging, just stating.
He was important enough to have his own plane but patient enough to wait for someone else.
Huntsman and other donors such as Spencer Eccles and Larry H. Miller helped move a mid-major athletic program into a power conference.
“Jon has been an incredible friend and contributor to the university and community at large for many years,” said athletics director Chris Hill. “His philanthropy seemed to know no bounds. I have personally known Jon for more than 40 years and consider him a close friend. I will miss him greatly. I am overwhelmed by his passing and this is a sad day for all of us — and there are many — whose lives he touched. He was a good man who made the world a better place.”
Compared to other endeavors, Huntsman’s athletic contributions were modest. He and wife Karen gave away an estimated $1.55 billion of their fortune. By comparison, the Ute basketball facility was $36 million. That’s because he understood where sports belong.
They matter, but they don’t matter most.
Some say he saved Armenia with his donations after a 1988 earthquake. He certainly saved lives after Hurricane Katrina. It was easy to see with his rapid response to hardships around the globe where his priorities were. A member of the Utah Sports Hall of Fame, he was a powerful influence in shaping Utah’s sports landscape. More important, he improved and lifted the lives of countless people who wouldn’t know the U. from Ukraine.
Hopefully that’s the goal, in athletics and in life — to make things better. It would be hard to find someone more adept at it than Huntsman.