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Former Utes coach Jerry Pimm recalls favorite players, memorable moments and the mulligan he wishes he had

Former Utah basketball coach Jerry Pimm coaches up his players during a timeout. Pimm enjoyed a successful run guiding the Utes from 1974-83.
Courtesy University of Utah Athletics

SALT LAKE CITY — When you talk about successful University of Utah basketball coaches, you start with Rick Majerus, who brought the Utes national recognition in the 1990s with several NCAA Tournament runs, capped by a national title game appearance in 1998.

Before that, you had Jack Gardner, who came to Utah in the 1950s and led the Utes to a pair of Final Four appearances in the 1960s and Vadal Peterson, who coached for 26 years and led Utah to its only NCAA Championship in 1944.

Often lost in the shuffle is the career of Jerry Pimm, who had a better winning percentage than Peterson, nearly the same as Gardner, and an equal number of Sweet 16 appearances as Majerus in six fewer seasons.

Pimm coached the Utes from 1974 to 1983 back when college basketball was perhaps in at its peak in the state with Utah, BYU, Utah State and Weber State all fielding winning teams most years. In fact, in 1979, all four made the NCAA Tournament when it was just a 40-team affair.

Pimm recently talked with the Deseret News from his home in Santa Barbara, where he has lived for nearly four decades since leaving Utah in 1983. He just turned 82 last week but was as sharp as ever, recalling details from games throughout his 40-year college coaching career and giving his opinions of favorite players, most memorable games and the “mulligan” he’d like to have over.

•. •. •

Jerry Pimm grew up in Southern California where he was an All-American high school player, named to a 10-man team with the likes of Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas. He received a scholarship to USC, graduating in 1959 and staying for another year to get his master’s degree, while helping coach the Trojans’ freshman team.

Utah coach Jack Gardner was looking for an assistant coach with California ties after Ladell Andersen left to coach Utah State and Pimm joined the Utes’ staff in 1961. Billy McGill was a senior at the time and Pimm stayed on as an assistant throughout the 1960s, including the 1965-66 team with Jerry Chambers and Merv Jackson that made it to the Final Four and lost to eventual champion Texas Western.

Pimm was disappointed not to get promoted when Gardner retired in 1971 and Bill Foster got the job. He was going to leave and work for a sporting goods company, but Foster convinced him to stay on as an assistant. After Foster’s third team made it to the NIT Finals in New York in 1973-74, Foster was offered the job at Duke and Pimm was named head coach.

Utah’s 1976-77 WAC championship team coach Jerry Pimm, left, is honored by Utah athletic director Chris Hill as the University of Utah plays Colorado on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012, in Salt Lake City. Today, Pimm is enjoying the retired life in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Utah’s 1976-77 WAC championship team coach Jerry Pimm, left, is honored by Utah athletic director Chris Hill as the University of Utah plays Colorado on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012, in Salt Lake City. Today, Pimm is enjoying the retired life in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

Within a couple of years, the Utes were contending for the WAC title on a regular basis with players such as Jeff Jonas, Jeff Judkins, Buster Matheney, Danny Vranes, Tom Chambers and Pace Mannion.

In 1983, his team started 7-10, but caught fire and won 11 of 14 games, tied for the WAC title and won two NCAA games before losing to eventual NCAA champion North Carolina State in the Sweet 16 in Ogden.

At that point he surprised a lot of folks by abruptly leaving and landing in his native Southern California at UC-Santa Barbara. So why did he leave a top program like Utah for a small undistinguished program like UCSB?

“I wanted to get out of the cold and get back to California, near my folks and my wife’s folks,” he said. “Everyone in the industry thought I was nuts. They said, ‘What are you doing, going to a program that’s won two games (actually seven), and is on probation? I said, ‘Obviously you haven’t been to Santa Barbara, California. It’s very unique, beautiful, not crowded, just two stop signs on the 101 at the time ...’ Our kids were already gone and out of the house, so it was a clean break.”

It took a few years to get the UCSB program going as Pimm built it, along with assistant coach Ben Howland, who went on to later success at Pittsburgh, UCLA and now Mississippi State.

The Gauchos gradually improved, going from 10 wins in his first season to 16 in his fourth season. Then in 1987-88, the Gauchos went 22-8 and made it to the NCAAs and followed with a pair of 21-9 seasons, the latter which included an NCAA tournament win.

“It was great, we got it going,” Pimm said, talking about “epic battles” with Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV teams and Neil McCarthy’s New Mexico State teams at Santa Barbara’s arena, nicknamed the “Thunderdome. “That (Big West) was a really good basketball league, a legit Division I league, led by UNLV. We had four teams in the postseason one year.”

Ask him who was the best player he ever coached, Pimm quickly defers, saying “that’s really difficult, we had so many great players.” Eventually he mentions Vranes and Chambers at Utah along with Brian Shaw and Carrick DeHart at Santa Barbara.

Favorite players?

Again after a few hems and haws, Pimm names Tyrone Medley, Judkins, Jonas and Mannion among his favorites.

Jerry Pimm looks to the court during a timeout a the Special Events Center during break in play. Pimm enjoyed a great run coaching the Runnin’ Utes and is enjoying his retirement in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Courtesy University of Utah Athletics

“Judkins and Jonas were both great people and competitors, competed every day. Mannion was very solid, had a great attitude and just loved basketball.”

He has no problem naming his best team, the 1980-81 Utah squad that went 25-5, made the NCAA Sweet 16 and included Vranes, Chambers, Mannion, Karl Bankowski and Scott Martin.

That season also included the most disappointing game of his career, the 61-56 loss to North Carolina with James Worthy and Sam Perkins in the Sweet 16. It was played at home, at the Special Events (Huntsman) Center, back when teams were allowed to play NCAA games on their home court.

“If you ever get a mulligan in life, the one I’d like back is the North Carolina game at home,” he said of a game he’s only watched twice since. “What I did was strategically sound, but it wasn’t like me at a home game.”

Pimm said he and North Carolina coach Dean Smith had similar philosophies, one of which was to hold the ball when they had the lead on the road. Remember this was before the 30-second clock and teams like North Carolina often went into “four corners” for the final minutes of the game.

“We got the lead and I went into our four corners,” Pimm said. “Usually I would only do that on the road. I probably should have just let us keep going, because we couldn’t make the shot from the wing that night. We went ahead and stalled it a little bit because we weren’t hitting that shot. It was a game I’d like to have over, But hey, you do what you do and don’t look back.”

His most memorable win came in 1976 at the Kentucky Classic in Lexington when the Utes knocked off the Wildcats in the championship game, the first year Rupp Arena was open.

Judkins, Jonas and Matheney were the stars on that team, but guard Earl Williams, known mostly for his defensive ability, sank the winning shot in a 70-68 victory.

“I remember Earl made the big bucket and 22,000 fans went silent. All you could hear was (Utah radio announcer) Bill Marcroft saying, ‘It’s good, it’s good.’ The fans evacuated that place so fast. When they gave us the trophy, there were probably only 50 people in the building.”

•. •. •

Pimm has been retired for 22 years, getting out when he turned 60 as he’d planned. He’s enjoyed his retirement, but like many people isn’t happy with life right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m struggling with this damn pandemic thing,” he said. “I had a good life, going to one or two movies a week, playing poker with friends, playing a lot of golf. This is not a normal life.”

At least Pimm can still play golf, though not as much as he once did. He was a single-digit handicap golfer for many years and though he isn’t any more, he’s still good enough to shoot his age on a regular basis.

“I was single digit until I was 76 years old, but now I’m a double, toward the end of a mediocre career on the golf course,” he said with a laugh.

For the last few years, Pimm has worked as a color analyst for UC-Santa Barbara TV games, working the home games along with a few road games.

“I enjoy it, we have a lot of fun,” he said.

Pimm generally likes the state of college basketball these days, saying it’s better than it used to be when he coached, thanks to the advent of the 3-point shot and the shot clock in the mid-1980s.

But he’s worried about the upcoming season, for several reasons, including the looming shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the influence of NBA on the college players.

Every year Pimm comes to Utah where he has two children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. This past summer he came up and caddied in the Utah Open for his grandson, Dustin, who played for the U. golf team and is a local golf professional.

But Pimm is happy living in Southern California, where he grew up.

“Santa Barbara’s not a bad place to live,” he says. “You can play golf year-round and you get 12 months of the same kind of weather. I’m comfortable here.”