Most impactful Utes stories of the year ran gamut of emotions
From the tragic death of Utah defensive back Aaron Lowe to earning the first trip to the Rose Bowl, 2021 tested the resolve of Utah athletes and coaches
It was a memorable year for the University of Utah in a variety of sports, featuring the highest highs and the lowest lows.
The Utes celebrated triumphs and endured tragedy in 2021.
Headlining the year’s events at the U. was the first-ever Pac-12 championship in football and a spot in the venerable Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
That was a historic accomplishment but it didn’t happen until after facing significant adversity — the second death of a player in nine months.
“It’s been a pleasure to coach them all year long. What we’ve been through this year, it’s been the most difficult year of my coaching career in many respects,” coach Kyle Whittingham said after the Utes throttled Oregon 38-10 in the Pac-12 championship game in early December. “Our guys, our leadership, couldn’t have done it without those guys. They did such a great job all season long of persevering.”
Utah also hired a new men’s basketball coach; a former member of the Red Rocks earned a medal at the Olympics in Tokyo; the Pac-12 hired a new commissioner; and there was even a national championship.
Here’s the 10 most impactful stories at the University of Utah in 2021:
After 1-2 start, Utah earns first Pac-12 title and first Rose Bowl berth
Utah opened the 2021 season with a brutal 1-2 record, including its first loss to BYU since 2009, and a triple-overtime loss to San Diego State.
But the regular season ended in remarkable fashion.
The Utes won nine of their final 10 games and over the final couple weeks of the season, Utah twice defeated a top-10 ranked Oregon team by a combined score of 76-17. The Utes, who joined the Pac-12 in 2011, won the conference championship for the first time.
“Certainly, it’s a great feeling and it’s something we’ve been working toward for a long time,” Whittingham said. “We’ve been working away at it ever since we joined the league. This is the culmination of a lot of years of hard work and effort.”
With the second victory over the Ducks, at the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, the Utes also earned their way to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.
By beating Oregon, Utah avenged a painful 37-15 loss in the Pac-12 championship game in 2019 that prevented the Utes from winning the conference title and possibly a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Helping lead the way for Utah was linebacker Devin Lloyd, who barely missed out on unanimous All-America honors.
Aaron Lowe is killed months after Ty Jordan’s death
Hours after Utah’s first Pac-12 victory of the season, against Washington State, defensive back Aaron Lowe, 21, was shot and killed while attending a house party not far from campus.
His death on Sept. 26 sent shockwaves through the state. Nine months earlier, almost to the day, Utah suffered another tragedy when running back Ty Jordan died.
The two players shared a deep, special connection and it was a devastating and unfathomable turn of events for a program that was still healing after Jordan’s tragic death.
During the offseason, Lowe announced he was changing his uniform number from No. 2 to No. 22 as a tribute to Jordan.
The school established a scholarship in Jordan’s name and before the season kicked off, Lowe was named the first recipient of the Ty Jordan Memorial Scholarship by Utah’s Leadership Council.
Lowe and Jordan were high school teammates at West Mesquite (Texas) High.
Just days after Utah beat USC at the L.A. Coliseum for the first time in 105 years, the team traveled to Texas to attend a memorial service in Lowe’s honor.
On Jan. 6, the team attended Jordan’s memorial service at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.
Utah parts ways with Larry Krystkowiak, hires Craig Smith
After a disappointing 2020-21 season, longtime Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak was fired after 10 years at the helm.
Athletic director Mark Harlan’s top target to replace Krystkowiak was Utah Jazz assistant Alex Jensen, who decided to remain on the Jazz bench by withdrawing his name from consideration for the job.
By late March, Harlan hired Craig Smith, who had reenergized Utah State’s program the three previous seasons.
Smith, 48, compiled a 74-24 record at USU.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” Smith said after his hiring. “Our expectation is to win and win at the highest level, and do it in a significant way. … We are going to work our hands to the bone to put a fantastic, winning team together.”
Smith led the Utes to a 5-0 record to open the 2021-22 season.
MyKayla Skinner earns silver medal
Former University of Utah standout gymnast MyKayla Skinner thought her stellar gymnastics career was over when she missed out on a chance to compete for an Olympic medal last summer in Tokyo.
But a week later, Skinner finished second in the individual vault finals for Team USA behind gold-medal winner Rebeca Andrade of Brazil. Skinner replaced U.S. teammate Simone Biles and turned in an almost perfect performance, receiving a 15.033.
“To make this comeback and be kind of one in a million to make this, it’s so cool to show age is just a number and that anything is possible if you work hard and dream for it,” Skinner told USA Today. “I’m so honored I never gave up.”
Skinner was one of three Utah gymnasts on Team USA, along with Grace McCallum and Kara Eaker. Eaker ended up unable to compete because she tested positive for COVID-19.
Utah football retires No. 22
In October, during a home win against UCLA, Utah officially retired the No. 22 in honor of its two fallen players, Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe. It marks the first time in school history that a number has been retired.
It was one of many ways the two were honored by the school throughout the 2021 season.
Below the press box at Rice-Eccles Stadium, a banner featuring No. 22 and the names of Jordan and Lowe is now displayed. The school has also established memorial scholarships in the players’ names. Moving forward, recipients will be chosen based on qualities of Jordan and Lowe that they exemplify.
On Oct. 16 against Arizona State, Utah debuted a new video that will play during every home game between the third and fourth quarters. In the video, narrated by Whittingham, fans are encouraged to live like Jordan and Lowe did by being “22% better” every day.
The Utes dedicated their season to Jordan and Lowe and they ended up winning the Pac-12 championship.
“Just to know that we did honor them in the right way,” said Lloyd, who was named the Pac-12 championship game Most Valuable Player. “Up to this point, we did everything we could for them. I believe they were there guiding us throughout the whole season.”
“Our mantra after the tragedy was, ‘We won’t get over it but we will get through it,’” Whittingham said. “I believe our guys really did that. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Cam Rising takes over for Charlie Brewer
In 2020, quarterback Cam Rising earned the starting job at the start of a pandemic-shortened season. But he suffered a major shoulder injury in the second quarter of the opener against USC.
Rising underwent major surgery and spent a significant part of the offseason rehabbing. Some forgot about Rising because of the signing of former Baylor QB Charlie Brewer.
After a tightly contested battle in fall camp, Brewer was named the starter. But Rising, who had been voted as a team captain, remained unfazed.
So when the Utes trailed by a couple of touchdowns in the second half against San Diego State, coaches turned to Rising, who rallied Utah to a tie at the end of regulation. While the Utes lost in triple OT, they had found their quarterback.
Days later, Brewer left the program. Rising became the starter and he helped Utah win nine of its last 10 games with his dynamic play — and with his arm and his legs.
“Cam Rising, what a story,” Whittingham said. “He persevered and prepared like he was the starter. He had a great attitude. And when he got his shot, he made the most of it. The rest is history.”
Whittingham becomes Utah’s all-time winningest coach
Amid what was a difficult season for Whittingham, he became the winningest coach in school history.
With a 38-7 victory over then-No. 3 Oregon, Whittingham eclipsed the legendary Ike Armstrong, who recorded 141 career wins. Whittingham is now 144-69 in 17 seasons at Utah.
“It’s been a long journey, and a long grind, although I’ve loved every minute of it,” Whittingham said. “I just feel grateful that I could be at one place and have the opportunity to build so many relationships and have so many outstanding players and coaches come through here. I truly feel very blessed.”
Whittingham was also named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
“What can’t you say about coach Whitt? He is Utah football. A lot of teams are personified in the coach. That’s what Utah football is and has been,” said wide receiver Britain Covey. “As a player, I know him and his style and his personality better than anybody.
“Sometimes you get to know someone, and the more you get to know them, the less impressed you are with them. But that’s not how it is with coach Whitt. The more I get to know him, and who he is on and off the field, and everything it’s taken to build this program, the more impressed I am. The more admiration I have for him, just in how he commands respect because of who he is, because of his integrity.”
Utah ski team wins national championship
In 2020, the NCAA Skiing Championships were canceled at the midway point due to the pandemic.
At the time, Utah was in control and seemed poised to win the title. But a year later, the Utes captured the championship in March at Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire.
It marked Utah’s 14th national skiing championship in program history and the 28th team championship for the University of Utah.
“It’s a great feeling of course, especially after last season being canceled when we were winning it after two days,” director of skiing Fredrik Landstedt said.
Utah has now won three of the last four available championships, dating back to 2017. The Utes also produced 16 All-Americans over the course of the four-day event; Utah had two individual championships and nine podium finishes.
Both individual wins came from Park City native Sydney Palmer-Leger. She won the 5K classic on Thursday and the 15K freestyle by 24 seconds.
Gymnastics finishes No. 3 nationally
For the first time since 2015, Utah gymnastics returned to an elite standing.
While the Red Rocks had their sights on a national championship, something it hasn’t done since 1995, they finished in third place in the NCAA championships in April behind first-time national champion Michigan and runner-up Oklahoma in Fort Worth, Texas.
It was Utah’s highest finish in six years.
“This is one of my best years coaching at the University of Utah, and we feel as a staff we maxed this program out,” said coach Tom Farden.
The Wolverines scored a 198.2500, winning the meet on the final routine, edging out the Sooners (198.1625) and Red Rocks (197.9875). Florida finished a distant fourth with a 197.1375.
Pac-12 hires a new commissioner
Few people had heard of George Kliavkoff before last summer. In June, he was hired by the Pac-12 to replace Larry Scott as the league’s new commissioner.
Before taking the job, Kliavkoff was the president of entertainment and sports at MGM Grand Resorts. He brought a wealth of experience in a number of areas desperately needed by a beleaguered conference at the crossroads. It has fallen behind other Power Five conferences on the football field, and it is poised for upcoming negotiations for a new media rights deal.
One of Kliavkoff’s stated goals is to help the Pac-12 optimize College Football Playoff invitations and win national championships.
Among other things, Kliavkoff is pushing for an expansion of the CFP.
In his first 90 days in office, Kliavkoff visited all 12 of the conference’s campuses to meet with administrators, coaches and athletes to understand their challenges and answer their questions.
Kliavkoff arrived at Utah’s campus in September. What did he think of what he saw?
“Blown away by the facilities,” he said. “Very impressed.”