Rise and shout: This 98-year-old has helped pave the way for BYU athletics
When it comes to donating to the BYU sports program, Cougar alum Sy Kimball is proof there’s no school like the old school
Sy Kimball is old school and his old money has transformed the student-athlete experience at BYU — and most have no idea who he is.
The Southern California businessman, who celebrated his 98th birthday last Sunday, has been giving BYU Athletics financial assistance since the 1960s and a family source estimates the value of his overall contributions, including land donations and accrued interest at $22 million — and that may be a low estimate.
His investment in the dreams of student-athletes spawns from two areas — his friendship with the late LaVell Edwards and his own desire to play quarterback at BYU.
Kimball was a shifty signal-caller at Millard High in Fillmore, Utah. His football, basketball and track coach was Stan Watts — the same Stan Watts who would later become the all-time winningest basketball coach at BYU and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Watts let Kimball do what he did best — run with the football.
“I joked with LaVell that I probably would have been the best quarterback BYU ever had. I was a runner,” Kimball said. “I asked him, ‘Why don’t you get a quarterback that can run?” Then he went and signed Steve Young.”
World War II
Long before Young was ever in BYU’s plans, the Cougars offered Kimball a football scholarship in 1942. But after his freshman year, with World War II underway and all the uncertainty that came with it, Kimball left school and moved in with his sister in Long Beach, California.
It was there that he married his BYU girlfriend, Betty Rich, and, with a deferment from the war, he went to work.
“But he felt so guilty that others were fighting overseas that he went and enlisted in the Navy without even telling our mom,” said Jeff Kimball, Sy’s second-oldest son. “He’s a determined patriot.”
Sy was put on a ship destined for battle in the Philippines when, during a fuel stop in Maui, his orders were changed. The base needed an aircraft machinist mate and his skills fit the requirements. The Navy kept him in Maui through the end of the war while Betty remained in Long Beach.
Following his Navy service, Kimball worked as a fireman in Long Beach with an electrical job on the side. A conversation with a home builder piqued his interest to become a general contractor.
Eventually his construction portfolio included homes, subdivisions, apartments, condominiums and senior living centers throughout Southern California and hundreds of homes and condos in Deer Valley and Heber, Utah.
Kimball left BYU in 1942 with $6 to his name and the sad realization that he would never play quarterback for his beloved Cougars. Years later, he returned to Provo to help turn the program into a winner — not by throwing touchdowns, but by helping bankroll projects and scholarships.
“My love for BYU is why I donate,” he said. “If I hadn’t received a scholarship there, I probably wouldn’t have been as interested.”
Kimball’s current donations may pale in comparison to BYU’s new group of younger, high-end contributors, but his investment into Cougar Athletics came long before “Silicon Slopes” was a thing and during a time when there was no social media outlet to trumpet major donations.
“Sy was one of our first ‘major donors’ going way back,” said athletic director Tom Holmoe. “He’s a dear friend and one of the all-time great BYU supporters.”
For example, when BYU wanted to improve its baseball program in the early 1980s, then-athletic director Glen Tuckett knocked on Kimball’s door.
“He said he wanted to build a ballpark for the baseball team and asked if I could help?” Sy said. “I had a piece of property overlooking the beach in Malibu, California, and six acres of land along the Pacific Coast Highway. I gave him those two properties. The larger property would be worth $18 million by today’s standard.”
In 2007, after a personal prompting from then school president Cecil O. Samuelson, Kimball started an endowment called “The Coaches Circle” with $1 million of his own money, and then he recruited others to join him.
This multimillion-dollar fund is designed to help BYU hire and retain coaches throughout the athletic department, including football coach Kalani Sitake and men’s basketball coach Mark Pope. Both coaches are often mentioned as viable candidates for high-paying jobs elsewhere as the program prepares to join the Big 12.
“I think they will both stay. They are both happy here,” Kimball said. “That endowment (which Sy estimates to be $17 million) will be going on long after I’m gone. It’s structured to keep BYU competitive when it comes to coaches’ salaries.”
LaVell and Sy
In addition to his desire to play quarterback, Kimball’s affection for BYU largely grew from his friendship with Edwards, who he met through a brother-in-law who played alongside him at Utah State.
“When LaVell died, Patti called and said, ‘I don’t know if you know this or not, but you were LaVell’s best friend,” Sy recalled while fighting back his emotions.
His relationship with the Hall of Fame coach trumped all of BYU’s conquests, including the 1984 national football championship and Ty Detmer’s 1990 Heisman Trophy.
“LaVell was the most important,” he said. “Just the kind of guy he was made him special.”
Through all the years together, Kimball said Edwards never asked him to donate a single penny. But as for some funny moments together there were plenty.
“LaVell and I used to go to basketball games and he would always drive, and he was a very bad driver,” Kimball recalled. “One night on our way to a game the phone rings and it’s Andy Reid.”
Reid, head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles at the time, asked LaVell what they were doing?
“We are going to the game,” Edwards replied.
“Who’s driving?” asked Reid.
Edwards responded, “I am.”
“Let me talk to Sy,” Reid demanded.
Edwards handed Kimball the phone.
“You have got to get out of that car,” Reid quipped. “I don’t care if it’s at the next stop sign, but you better get out, for your own safety.”
On another occasion, the two were playing golf at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland.
“As you know, LaVell was a really good golfer. I shot pretty good on the front nine. But on the 10th hole I sliced a shot way out into the weeds,” Kimball said. “We all went looking for the ball and when we found it, I asked the local caddie, “Which way to the green?”
“I don’t know, laddie,” he said in his rich Scottish accent. “I’ve never been out here before!”
“LaVell was doubled over laughing, and then he beat me. We had a wonderful relationship.”
Raising money is an endless effort. Fortunately, BYU’s donor pool more closely resembles today’s lush and green Salt Lake valley as compared to the way Brigham Young found it in 1847. That’s life as a pioneer — blazing the trail for others to follow and laying the foundation for others to build on.
Kimball’s pioneer heritage, as an early donor, played a key role in the Big 12’s long-awaited realization that BYU “is the place” for full membership in its conference beginning in 2023 — the year Sy will turn 100.
“I don’t know if I’m gonna make it. There is no one in my family that has lived this long,” he said. “But the Big 12 is going to be a money maker for (BYU) and I think they will compete right away in that league.”
There is no shortage of Cougars memorabilia and memories throughout Sy’s Provo home — including remnants from his most famous visitor — Jimmer Fredette.
When Jimmer’s senior season reached mayhem status, he often sought refuge at Kimball’s house where several of his trophies and awards remain. It is also where Fredette proposed to his wife, Whitney.
Kimball’s full-time residence is in San Diego. His wife Betty died in 2006 and despite being confined to a wheelchair, Sy rarely misses a Cougars home game. He watched Saturday’s battle against Boise State while tucked away inside his suite at LaVell Edwards Stadium that is two doors down from the president’s box.
Whether it’s The Coaches Circle, the President’s Leadership Committee, the Touchdown Club, or any other arm of the Cougar Club, Kimball and his checkbook are all in.
“A great recruiter for BYU, he tried to bring the best to BYU,” said Kirt Kimball, Sy’s son and BYU team orthopedic surgeon. “He spoke with his heart and his money.”
Yes, it has been quite a journey for this one-time quarterback recruit from Kanosh, Utah, who never played in a varsity game at BYU, but this son of the late Brigham Young Kimball still found a way to be a game changer for countless student-athletes who have brought similar dreams to campus.
Sy Kimball takes great pride in helping them — even if most have no idea who he is.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.