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How the 2021 year in sports played out

COVID-19, a new NCAA NIL rule, Urban Meyer, a conference for BYU, a Rose Bowl for Utah ... it was an eventful 12 months

Utah quarterback Cam Rising (7) and teammates celebrate after the Utes beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game.
Utah quarterback Cam Rising and teammates celebrate the Utes’ Pac-12 championship game victory over Oregon at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. By winning, the Utes punched their ticket to their first Rose Bowl in program history.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

My editor asked me to wrap up the year in sports. Oh, is that all? Let’s see, that’s 12 months of COVID in sports — No. 19 in your program — Urban Meyer’s latest (sad) departure, ageless Tom Brady, the cheatin’ Astros, the Bearcat outsiders, the Rose Bowl-bound Utes, the end of independence for BYU, the Olympics nobody saw in person, Tiger Woods’ latest driving follies. There’s a lot to cover, so we better get started. Like the rest of you, I’d already forgotten most of it. Here goes …

Phil Mickelson made history by winning a major at the age of 50, making him the oldest golfer to win a major in the 161-year history of the majors. At age 46, Helio Castroneves won the Indianapolis 500 for a fourth time, but his first in 12 years. Then there was Brady, who changed teams and coaches and won his seventh Super Bowl title at the age of 43, this time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady then became a TV pitchman, slinging sandwiches, but who could blame him. How’s a guy supposed to scrape by on annual earnings of $75 million?

“I really think I can play as long as I want,” Brady said a couple of months ago. “I could play until I’m 50 or 55 if I wanted to.” Anyone want to bet against him?

By comparison, Novak Djokovic was just a kid while winning the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon at the age of 34. He attempted to become only the second man ever to win all four majors in the same year but lost to Daniil Medvedev in the U.S. Open finals.

Gonzaga’s basketball team also narrowly missed making history. The team took a 31-0 record into the finals of the NCAA Final Four, trying to become the first team in 45 years to go unbeaten, but lost to Baylor by 16 points.

Tiger Woods, now 45, continued to have driving troubles, and we’re not talking about his tee shots. In February, he rolled his car several times while traveling twice the speed limit, fracturing his right leg in several places. Paramedics had to use the “jaws of life” to extricate him from the vehicle. Keep your kids off the street if Tiger is driving. He collided with a fire hydrant and a tree in 2009 and was arrested on DUI charges in 2017.

John Velazquez rides Medina Spirit across the finish line to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., May 1, 2021. Split-sample urine testing of Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit has showed that a steroid present in the colt’s system.
Jeff Roberson, Associated Press

It was another year of drug cheats in sports. This time it was … a horse? Medina Spirit won the Kentucky Derby but flunked a post-race drug test. The horse finished third in the Preakness and then was banned from the Belmont Stakes because of the drug test. At least the horse didn’t blame it on spiked hay or toothpaste. Medina Spirit died this month of an apparent heart attack while training in California, which raised more questions.

Speaking of cheating, the Astros, who cheated their way to the 2017 World Series title with an elaborate system of stealing opponents’ signs, returned to the scene of the crime in 2021. A Washington Post headline said it all: “As Astros Return to World Series, is it Time to Forgive and Forget? Nah.” The Braves did everyone a favor by dispatching the Astros in six games and did so in the same year that Braves legend Hank Aaron died.

In the eighth year of the College Football Playoff, one of the unwashed finally broke through the glass ceiling — the unbeaten Cincinnati Bearcats became the first Group of Five school to qualify for the final four. As usual, the CFP selection committee did everything it could to close the door on an outsider, but finally had no choice but to move the Bearcats into the top four of the rankings after Ohio State and Oregon lost.

The Bearcats will face Alabama, which made the field for the seventh time in eight years. Earlier in the year there was talk of expanding the field — which is certainly needed — but that move seems to have died. Remember, these are the people who took decades to decide that a playoff was a good idea.

Utah State celebrates after defeating San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference Championship, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Carson, Calif. The BYU and Utah football teams also enjoyed banner years in 2021.
John McCoy, Associated Press

It was the best combined football season in history for Utah’s three FBS schools, who won 10 games apiece. USU won a conference title and beat Oregon State in the LA Bowl. BYU had a great start to the season, beating Utah for the first time in forever and climbing to No. 12 in the polls, but the ending needed a little work (a loss to unranked Alabama-Birmingham in the Independence Bowl). Utah’s start (1-2) needed a little work, but the finish was superb. The Utes won the Pac-12 championship and climbed into the top 10 of the national polls. As a result, the Utes are going to the — can you believe it? — the Rose Bowl. It came after 12 months of turmoil in which two Utes players died from gunshots 10 months apart. BYU, Utah and Utah State likely will all finish in the final top-25 polls — the first time that has ever happened.

BYU’s Tyler Allgeier, a former walk-on, was the nation’s fourth-leading rusher and broke the school season rushing record set by Luke Staley 20 years ago. Allgeier rushed for 1,601 yards and 23 touchdowns in 13 games (276 carries); Staley rushed for 1,596 yards and 24 touchdowns in 11 games (196 carries). On Tuesday Allgeier announced he will forgo his final year of college eligibility and enter the 2022 NFL draft.

The rich got richer in college football. What else is new? Texas and Oklahoma accepted an invitation to join the SEC in 2025, making college football’s best conference even better. It was analogous to Apple joining Amazon. It gutted the Big 12 of its brand schools and cash cows. The league had no choice but to expand and that meant BYU finally got its long-sought invitation to join a Power Five league. It all worked out wonderfully well for the Cougars, who survived 11 years of independence.

Greece’s men’s water polo team pose on the medal stand before receiving their silver medals at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. The 2020 Games were contested in front of empty stadiums last summer due to COVID-19 concerns.
Mark Humphrey, Associated Press

Fans returned to the stadium in 2021 after being banned during the pandemic, but the greatest sporting event of all was still played in front of empty seats. The Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, postponed a year by the pandemic, took place in the midst of a COVID-19 resurgence in Tokyo. As a result, fans were barred from the stadiums.

There were some astounding performances — Norway’s Karsten Warholm and the USA’s Sydney McLaughlin won the men’s and women’s 400 hurdles in two of the greatest Olympic races ever seen (or not seen) and in the process set shocking, next-generation world records. To put their performances in perspective, let’s look at the IAAF points scale, which assigns points to performances for the sake of comparison. Warholm’s record of 45.94 is equal to a 3:39.6 mile (the world record is 3:43.13 and has stood for 22 years); McLaughlin’s record of 51.46 is the equivalent of a 4:07.7 mile (the record is 4:12.33). You wonder what they might have done if fans had been in the stadium.

There’s bound to be more awkwardness at the upcoming Winter Games in China, birthplace of the COVID-19 virus. Beijing will be the first city to host both the winter and summer games. The IOC awarded the city the Olympics despite its horrible human rights abuses. Like the NBA, the IOC gives only lip service to such issues when it comes to interrupting revenue streams. The U.S. decided this month to respond to China’s human rights abuses by not sending an official delegation to the Games. It’s a weak response, but a boycott would not punish China as much as it would the athletes.

BYU distance runner Conner Mantz poses at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
BYU distance runner Conner Mantz poses at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Led by four Utah natives, BYU won six collegiate event championships and one team championship in track and cross-country. Conner Mantz, a senior from Smithfield, won the 2020 cross-country championships in March (they were postponed four months by the pandemic) and the 2021 cross-country championships eight months later. An hour earlier, Whittni Orton, a senior from tiny Panguitch, won the women’s title in the final race of her collegiate career. It marked only the second time in the history of the NCAA cross-country meet that the men’s and women’s titles were won by athletes from the same school. Anna Camp, a senior from Fillmore, won the 1,500-meter run in the NCAA Track and Field Championships in the final track race of her collegiate career. Courtney Wayment, a junior from Kaysville, won the 3,000-meter race at the NCAA indoor track championships and anchored BYU’s winning distance medley relay. The BYU women’s cross-country team won the national championships in March and finished second in November.

Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the NFL draft, including BYU’s Zach Wilson, the second overall pick. That was the good news for BYU fans; the bad news was that he was taken by the New York Jets, the black hole for quarterbacks. Wilson ranks among the worst in the league in passer rating and completion percentage and has thrown seven touchdown passes and 11 interceptions in 12 games. He also missed three weeks with an injury. Same old Jets story. Then again, only one rookie quarterback has played well this season. Mac Jones had the good luck of being taken by the Patriots.

The Milwaukee Bucks won their first NBA championship since 1971, when Kareem Abdul Jabbar was anchoring the middle. If you can spell the name of the Bucks’ current star — league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — give yourself a star.

A Built Brands logo can be seen on this BYU helmet. The NCAA approved a long overdue name, likeness and image rule in 2021 that allows athletes to cash in on their fame.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

Long overdue changes in NCAA rules brought sweeping changes to collegiate athletics. College athletes are now allowed to own their own name, image and likeness (NIL). Imagine that. They finally can participate in the free-market system like other Americans. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young almost immediately collected nearly a million dollars worth of endorsements, according to his coach, Nick Saban (who probably made this known as a recruiting pitch). For agreeing to promote TiVo on social media, Georgia Tech football players received everything from pajamas to prepaid debit cards. Closer to home, a nutrition company called Built Brands, provided tuition for all 36 of BYU’s walk-ons.

Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer walks along the sideline during the first half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Jacksonville, Fla. Urban Meyer’s tumultuous NFL tenure ended after just 13 games — and two victories — when the Jacksonville Jaguars fired him Dec. 16, 2021 because of an accumulation of missteps.
Phelan M. Ebenhack, Associated Press

It wasn’t a good year for coaches. Gonzaga coach Mark Few was cited for a DUI and Jon Gruden was fired for a series of vulgar and racist emails, but then there was Urban Meyer. His last three stops as a head coach did not end well — at Florida, Ohio State and now the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. He was a hot mess almost from the start and was fired just 13 games into his first NFL coaching gig. Many successful college coaches have flopped in the pros — Jerry Tarkanian, Steve Spurrier, Lou Holtz, Nick Saban, John Calipari, Leonard Hamilton, Mike Montgomery, Bobby Petrino and now Meyer, among many others. Besides losing a lot of games and making some strange coaching decisions, Meyer simply did not treat people well. That never plays well.

For the third time in three years, Gavin Baxter suffered a season-ending injury on Dec. 1. This time it was a torn ACL, which came one year after another torn ACL, which came less than a year after a shoulder injury. Like Luke Staley and Taysom Hill before him, Baxter is a super talent that seems to have a strange predisposition for injuries.

Anyway, that’s the way the 2021 year in sports played out.