As we look back on the 2020 sports year in Utah, there’s a clear choice for the MVP Award — it goes to the rookie from China, COVID, No. 19 in your program, an elusive, fast, 9-nanometer offensive virus. Many schemes were utilized to stop it, including the old N95 defense, but nothing really worked. Picture Muggsy Bogues in the open court here.
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COVID postponed seasons, shortened seasons or ended them altogether. It canceled games, wreaked havoc with schedules, forced teams to play games in bubbles or empty stadiums, sans fans. The Utes and Cougars played in home football stadiums that cost more than $100 million combined, but, given all those empty seats, they might as well have played at a local high school. Stadiums were nothing but TV studios.
It tells you something about America’s sports obsession that they persisted at all.
COVID forced BYU to rebuild a football schedule almost from scratch at the 11th hour. COVID sent the Cougars racing across the country to play Coastal Carolina in a hastily arranged showdown of unbeatens. COVID postponed entire football seasons at Weber State and Southern Utah. COVID even eluded the defense of Rudy Gobert and made him the first NBA player to test positive for the coronavirus, which he apparently passed to teammate Donovan Mitchell, who wasn’t happy about it. Credit Gobert with an unwanted assist.
A little drama ensued and Gobert apologized for being careless. His illness led to an almost immediate shutdown of the NBA and had a rippling effect throughout the sports world. Both players probably felt better after receiving enormous contract extensions.
COVID forced pro basketball to play in August and pro hockey in September and pro baseball — wait, did they even play? It’s all so forgettable now — because no one watched. TV ratings tanked.
Nobody had a more difficult time defending against COVID than the Utah and Utah State football teams. Three of the Utes’ first five games were canceled by COVID and the other two were losses. After watching the Utes actually play, cancellation didn’t seem like such a bad thing. It didn’t help matters that the virtue-signalers at the Pac-12 office kept changing their minds about whether they were going to play at all and ultimately settled on a seven-game season that didn’t start until Nov. 7. To their credit, the Utes rallied and won their last three games, scoring 38 unanswered points to rally past Washington State in what proved to be their final game — they elected not to accept a bowl offer if one came their way.
It was a miserable year for the Utes, who also suspended Morgan Scalley, the popular defensive coordinator, when a years-old racist remark came to light.
The USU defense apparently practiced social distancing on the field while losing the first four games by an average score of 37-11. The fifth game was mercifully canceled by COVID. Meanwhile, head coach Gary Andersen was fired and starting quarterback Jason Shelley, a transfer from Utah, was kicked off the team. Then things got worse.
USU players voted to opt out of their season finale to protest alleged remarks made by school officials. The players’ leadership council held a Zoom meeting on Dec. 8 with USU president Noelle Cockett and athletic director John Hartwell to offer input on the coaching search. The players reported that when interim head coach Frank Maile’s candidacy was raised, “their primary concern was his religious and cultural background. Players, stating their diverse faiths and backgrounds, then jumped to coach Frank Maile’s defense in treating everyone with love, equality and fairness.”
The Ags hired another Anderson — Blake Anderson, with an “o” — as Andersen’s replacement. He was the head coach at Arkansas State. Let’s hope he knows what he’s gotten himself into. There’s more drama in Logan than 10 episodes of “Downton Abbey.”
About the only bright spot for the USU football program this year was the NFL draft, but even that turned sour. The Green Bay Packers made quarterback Jordan Love the 26th pick of the first round. That pick was universally panned not only for putting Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers’ time with the Packers on the clock, but for failing to get him needed help on offense. Rodgers, who believes he will finish his career elsewhere because of Love, is having his best season in a decade, at age 37. Love has failed to impress and is the third-team quarterback.
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COVID canceled the entire spring sports season, high school, college and pros. All of which led to a certain desperation. Athletes got so bored that BYU track star Whittni Orton set a world record for the mile — while dribbling a basketball.
Next: BYU pole vaulter Elise Romney will catapult herself over the bar while catching passes from BYU backup quarterback Baylor Romney, her husband.
Due to COVID, the NBA resumed play in the Florida bubble after a suspension of play that lasted almost five months. In the playoffs, the Jazz blew a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets and lost Game 7 when Michael Conley’s buzzer-beater missed.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Nobody had a chance except the Lakers. LeBron James manipulated the league again and created another custom-made team to give himself another championship.
The biggest development for the Jazz occurred off the court. The Miller family, the team’s great benefactors and longtime owners, sold the Jazz. The man who bought the team is Ryan Smith, who is Larry Miller’s opposite when it comes to haute couture, what with his carefully disheveled hair and hipster hats and wardrobe. Fans were shocked that Gail Miller sold the team, but the $1.66 billion sale price gave the Millers a profit of about $1.55 billion on the original purchase of the Jazz and the construction of the arena. It keeps the team in Utah and gives the Millers capital to expand the reach of their companies. Larry Miller was smiling.
COVID impacted the NFL, forcing some games to be played in empty stadiums and postponing others, but along came Alex Smith to deliver a much-needed, feel-good story. The former Utah player returned to the league after a horrible leg injury in 2018 that almost killed him and became a starter at midseason. He did what no other quarterback has been able to do for years in Washington: win games.
The other bright spot in the COVID-complicated NFL season has been Taysom Hill. The most versatile player in the league since platoon football began, he became a starting quarterback and showed he might be Drew Brees’ heir apparent. In the offseason he signed a two-year contract extension worth $21 million — $16 million guaranteed — making him one of the highest paid backups in the league. The only thing no one can explain is why a player who missed 28 games in college because of injuries has managed to play four seasons in the NFL without getting hurt.
Now in his third season, BYU alum Fred Warner is believed by some to be the best linebacker in the NFL. Warner was wired for sound when quarterback Aaron Rodgers congratulated him after the 49ers-Packers game. “I’m happy for you man, I really mean that,” Rodgers told him. “Unfortunately, name recognition means too much. Ain’t nobody better. There really isn’t. You’re the best and everybody knows it. The film don’t lie. You should be All-Pro.” After the 49ers-Patriots game, CBS announcer and former quarterback Tony Romo called Warner “the best linebacker in ball.”
Andy Reid, the former BYU lineman who was talked into coaching by LaVell Edwards, finally won the Super Bowl championship that has eluded his great career, with another BYU alum, Daniel Sorensen, playing a big role on the Chiefs’ defense. Then he provided one of the few funny moments of the 2020 COVID season when his mask fogged up repeatedly on the sideline.
COVID made the NFL draft problematic by eliminating post-combine, in-person evaluations. Apparently, scouts had seen enough of the Utah prospects. Seven Ute players were taken in the draft — four in the first three rounds, six on defense. Any questions about why the Utes excel on defense and struggle on offense? Utah and Washington are tied for the most players from the Pac-12 taken in the draft the last six years, at 26. All of which begs another question: Why can’t these guys win a Pac-12 title?
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BYU’s basketball team would have made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015, but the tournament was canceled because of you-know-what. Under first-year coach Mark Pope the Cougars were 24-8 and defeated No. 2-ranked Gonzaga, but, as usual, lost in the conference tournament. One of BYU’s most talented players, Gavin Baxter, sustained a season-ending injury seven games into the 2019-20 season — and then did it again just two games into the 2020-21 season. Seniors Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws finished in the top six for career scoring at BYU but never played in the NCAA Tournament.
The Utes had another lackluster season and couldn’t even blame it on COVID. They were 16-15 overall, 7-11 in league play, finishing ninth in the Pac-12 standings.
Utah State won the Mountain West tourney to secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament, but a few days later it was canceled due to COVID. Sam Merrill became the second highest scorer in school history and the first USU player taken in the NBA draft since 1986.
COVID cost once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for thousands of athletes. The BYU men’s volleyball team was ranked No. 1 in the country when the last six matches of the season and the national championships were canceled. Orton was ranked the No. 1 middle-distance runner in the country, but the national indoor championships were canceled. The Red Rocks won the Pac-12 gymnastics championships and were ranked No. 4 in the nation, but the national championships were canceled.
COVID shut down all high school spring sports one week into the season, wiping out 42 state championships. For seniors, those are opportunities that can’t be compensated.
On the other hand, while many states delayed the start of the prep football season one or two months (or until the spring), Utah started it on time and was the first in the nation to begin play. Despite complications, state championships were decided in all fall sports.
Because of COVID, Real Salt Lake’s season was suspended and then resumed with a shortened schedule. COVID was only part of the team’s problems. Dell Loy Hansen, the team’s enigmatic owner, criticized his players for refusing to play a game on Aug. 26 to protest the death of George Floyd. MLS investigated charges of racism against the owner. Hansen took a leave of absence and said he would sell the team, but nothing happened. The league announced it will take over the sale of the franchise. Almost as an afterthought, the team finished 11th in the Western Conference.
In the year of COVID, BYU’s football team provided the biggest and brightest moments. A first-rate schedule was destroyed by cancellations, but athletic director Tom Holmoe did the near impossible by rebuilding a 10-game schedule just a few weeks before the season began. It was made up of weak opponents, but it was the best that could be done under the circumstances.
The Cougars won their first nine games by an average score of 45-14 and climbed to No. 8 in the AP and Coaches polls. Then they agreed to travel 2,000 miles for a game with unbeaten Coastal Carolina that was arranged 48 hours before kickoff. They came within one yard of winning the game in a contest that was widely praised as the best of the season. Both teams deserved much respect for agreeing to put their unbeaten seasons on the line, especially in a sport where so many teams avoid tough nonconference opponents and schedule cupcakes. They wrapped up their season Tuesday with 49-23 victory against Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl.
In the end, it was a memorable year of sports, but often for all the wrong reasons. COVID made its mark on athletics, just as it did in every aspect of American life.
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