As fall camps opened around the country in preparation for the 2019 college football season, the Utah Utes became a trendy pick among national analysts to make the four-team College Football Playoff, thanks in large part to a manageable schedule and a talented group of seniors on both sides of the ball.

And it almost happened. The Utes’ bid for a spot in college football’s final four, which carried into December and generated substantial national media attention for the Pac-12 school, leads our list of sports stories of the year for 2019.

Utah exited nonconference play unscathed, but the idea of a perfect season was dashed with a loss to the USC Trojans in the Utes’ Pac-12 opener.

How Utah responded over the final eight games of the regular season was rather outstanding. Not only did the Utes reel off eight straight victories, but they absolutely dominated most of them, winning by an average margin of 29 points en route to their second straight Pac-12 South title.

All of that put Utah at No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings heading into the Dec. 6 Pac-12 championship game against 13th-ranked Oregon. Although it was far from a foregone conclusion the Utes would make the playoff if they won, many observers thought they would.

But a Utah team known for its physicality was dominated in that department as Oregon cruised to a 37-15 victory. The Ducks received the Pac-12’s Rose Bowl bid, with Utah relegated to the Alamo Bowl.

Off the field in 2019, final plans to expand Rice-Eccles Stadium were unveiled and, after the Pac-12 championship game, defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley’s contract was amended, with wide speculation that he has become the head coach-in-waiting for when Kyle Whittingham retires.

Although the Utes didn’t finish as well as they were once hoping, they parlayed their success into an excellent early signing period for their 2020 recruiting class, highlighted by signing their highest-rated prospect ever in California cornerback Clark Phillips III, who flipped his commitment from Ohio State to Utah.

Here’s a look at some of the other top Utah sports stories from 2019:

Utah Jazz shake things up

Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic participated in an introductory press conference for the Utah Jazz on Monday, July 8, 2019 in Las Vegas where they showcased their No. 10 and No. 44 jerseys.

During the summer of 2018, the Jazz opted for continuity after a 2017-18 campaign in which they made the second round of the playoffs. Following the 2018-19 season, which brought more regular-season wins but also first-round playoff exit, Jazz brass shook things up around budding star Donovan Mitchell and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert in an effort to take the next step toward contention.

Most notably, the Jazz traded Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen and a draft pick to the Memphis Grizzlies for veteran point guard Mike Conley, and signed sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency. Former point guard Ricky Rubio went to the Phoenix Suns, and franchise stalwart Derrick Favors is now with the New Orleans Pelicans.

To round out the rotation, Utah signed Ed Davis, Jeff Green and Emmanuel Mudiay. Many observers predicted the Jazz would become major players in the NBA’s Western Conference.

Utah’s start to this season has been a bit uneven, although the Jazz are in the think of the Western Conference playoff race.

#ExtendKalani realized

Through three seasons as the BYU Cougars’ head football coach, Kalani Sitake had endeared himself to his players but had a record of just 20-19. With his contract set to expire after the 2020 season, talk began heating up about whether Sitake would receive an extension.

Wins over Tennessee, USC and Boise State in 2019 bolstered Sitake’s case, and many fans started using #ExtendKalani on social media. But losses to teams such as Toledo and South Florida didn’t help. 

Following the Cougars’ fourth straight win on Nov. 16, video emerged on social media of BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe in the team’s locker room wearing an #ExtendKalani T-shirt, and players were cheering, although it wasn’t entirely clear why. Two days later, the school officially announced an extension for Sitake through the 2023 season.

Dave Rose retires, Mark Pope hired

From 2005 to 2019, Dave Rose led the BYU men’s basketball program to 348 wins and eight NCAA Tournament appearances. But recent years grew leaner, and Rose retired on March 26.

To replace him, the Cougars hired former assistant Mark Pope, a former NBA player and a highly intense and energetic coach who had spent four seasons leading nearby Utah Valley University. 

Pope faced some big challenges, as star Yoeli Childs was suspended by the NCAA for the first nine games of the season because of a paperwork mistake when he had briefly declared for the NBA draft in the spring, and a host of players suffered serious injuries. 

Additionally, the Nick Emery benefits scandal continued, as the NCAA upheld a previous ruling that BYU must vacate 47 wins from 2015-2017. (Emery announced his retirement from basketball in 2019.).

Fans banned from sporting venues

Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook gets into a heated verbal altercation with fans in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Monday, March 11, 2019, in Salt Lake City.
Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook gets into a heated verbal altercation with fans in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Monday, March 11, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

National headlines were made on March 11 when then-Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook got in a heated verbal exchange with a fan during a game at Vivint Arena. Westbrook said a fan told him “to get down on your knees like you’re used to.”

“I think it’s racial and I think it’s just inappropriate in a sense of there’s no protection for the players,” Westbrook said.

Shane Keisel was banned for life from the arena the next day following an investigation, and in the days that followed, Jazz owner Gail Miller pleaded for civility at the arena and Utah and Brooklyn Nets players shared a message of unity by wearing T-shirts with a quote from late activist Fred Hampton during their March 16 game. A second unnamed fan was banned from the arena a few days later after a previous racially charged incident involving Westbrook came to light.

On Dec. 16, Keisel filed a lawsuit against the Jazz and Westbrook (who now plays for the Houston Rockets) for $100 million, alleging defamation and infliction of emotional distress, among other claims.

That wasn’t the lone incident in Utah of a fan getting banned for life from sporting venues for a racially charged incident. On Sept. 6, during a National Women’s Soccer League game between Utah Royals FC and Portland Thorns FC at Rio Tinto Stadium, an unnamed URFC fan shouted racial slurs at PTFC goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and was banned for life from Real Salt Lake venues.

Real Salt Lake dysfunctional off the field, good on it

Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke takes to the field before the match against the Vancouver Whitecaps at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, April 08, 2017.
Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke takes to the field before the match against the Vancouver Whitecaps at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, April 08, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Another significant language-related incident occurred at Rio Tinto Stadium a few weeks earlier. On July 24, then-RSL head coach Mike Petke reportedly shouted a homophobic slur in Spanish toward an official at the end of a Leagues Cup match versus Mexican side Tigres UANL.

Petke was suspended on July 27 for two weeks and ultimately fired the day before he was to return. On Sept. 17, Petke sued RSL, claiming he’s still owed the remainder of his contract, nearly $700,000. In the lawsuit, an alleged conversation involving Petke and general manager Craig Waibel was included in which Waibel said he had plans to leave at the end of the season and that RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen shouldn’t “be rewarded for who he is.”

Waibel left RSL on Sept. 27 with two games left in the regular season with RSL in the heat of a tight playoff race. In November, Petke’s lawsuit was sent to arbitration.

Despite the turmoil, the team finished the season very well under interim head coach Freddy Juarez, and ended up with the No. 3 seed in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference after a wild final day of the regular season.

RSL made it to the second round of the playoffs, where it fell to the Seattle Sounders, the eventual MLS Cup champions. On Dec. 3, Juarez was named head coach, and interim general manager Eliot Fall had that tag removed on the same day as RSL enters a new era without retired legendary goalkeeper Nick Rimando.

Elsewhere in the RSL organization, Real Monarchs SLC won the 2019 USL Championship title after going on a late-season tear under former RSL stalwart, interim head coach Jamison Olave, who was given the job permanently. 

URFC failed to reach the NWSL playoffs in its second year of existence, but Americans Kelley O’Hara, Christen Press and Becky Sauerbrunn helped lead the United States to its fourth Women’s World Cup crown in France.

RPI ushers in significant changes in high school sports

As part of the biannual realignment process, the Utah High School Activities Association moved to a mathematical RPI system to determine first-round playoff matchups rather than predetermined region matchups. In addition, it was decided that all teams would make the playoffs as opposed to a set number of teams from each region.

There were mixed thoughts among coaches about the change heading into fall sports, and those thoughts persisted throughout the fall season. One complaint that RPI wouldn’t accurately seed teams was borne out in the 5A football bracket, as the powerful Orem Tigers ended up with the 12th seed after playing a tough schedule, but then cruised to the state championship.

Utah State men’s basketball gets back on track

Utah State coach Craig Smith celebrates with fan on the court after Utah State defeated No. 12 Nevada 81-76 in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)
Utah State coach Craig Smith celebrates with fan on the court after Utah State defeated No. 12 Nevada 81-76 in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP) | AP

One of the most consistent programs in men’s college basketball for a long time under Stew Morrill, the Utah State Aggies hit a down spell under Tim Duryea and he was replaced by the energetic Craig Smith.

Picked to finish ninth in the Mountain West Conference, the Aggies won the championship, led by Bountiful native Sam Merrill and Portuguese freshman Neemias Queta. They were an 8-seed in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, where they fell to the Washington Huskies in the first round. They started this season ranked in the top 25 but have dropped out.

Other stories of note