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June 11, 2013As the University of Utah forges ahead into its third season as a member of the Pac-12, Ute athletes, coaches, administrators and fans alike are still learning what it takes to make it at the next level.
As the stakes get higher, so does the pressure surrounding the entire athletic department. On the playing fields, courts, tracks, floors and pools, all eyes turn to the current Ute athletes as many across the nation question whether or not bringing the Utes into the big-time fold was warranted.
Off the playing fields and courts, fans and boosters are having to ramp up their own efforts in order to keep pace with the Pac-12 ranks in terms of maintaining student/fan attendance at games and events, as well as with attaining lofty fund-raising goals.
On the surface, these things are all part of what makes Utah Athletics tick. For student-athletes, however, there are many more challenges beyond what meets the eye as they cope with juggling so many responsibilities, pressures and obligations along with their own personal relationships and academic commitments.
What casual fans may not consider, and almost never see, is just exactly how valuable the support systems and resources that former Ute athletes can, and do provide to current Utes. Unquestionably, the invaluable relationships with former players are an essential and necessary component to building and sustaining winning athletic programs.
As such, UteZone.com sits down with several former Utes to provide a snapshot of what those former athletes mean to Utah Athletics, and conversely, what Utah Athletics has meant to the respective interviewees post-graduation.
Former Ute Safety Steve Tate, who has remained closely connected with the Utah Football program, recently took time out of his busy schedule to talk Ute Football. Tate was an integral member of the Utah defense during his time at Utah, and gave a first-hand perspective of Utah Football as both a player, and as a successful professional in the local work-force.
Juggling the vigors of a rich personal life, made complete by his wife, Savanna, and his three children as well as a thriving career in the medical device sales field, Tate graciously donated his time to speak with UteZone.com on his ninth wedding anniversary.
With much to be grateful for, Tate didn't hesitate to attribute a good deal of his success to his football days as a Ute, given his professional contacts and associations with former Utes. As with any group, professional, religious or otherwise, the network of former Ute Athletes is as powerful and useful as any other.
"I look at where I am today, and it's funny because I think about [that] quite a bit. I certainly, in my career, I'm here today doing what I'm doing and having success only through Utah Football," Tate acknowledged. "The guy that gave me this amazing opportunity was a former basketball player at Utah, Terry Preston. I don't believe that, this early in my life, I would have been given an opportunity like this one if I hadn't had that connection through Utah Athletics."
Aside from the opportunities that often arise out of having the right connections, Tate continued to explain how playing football for the Utes allowed him to maximize the opportunity he was given.
"I can honestly say that I wouldn't have much of what I have if I hadn't played football at the University of Utah. Playing collegiate athletics, especially at a really high level teaches you so many things like organization, discipline and juggling priorities, Tate offered. "It teaches you to overcome obstacles, and really, a lot of things. You can take the valuable skills you learned in football and apply them to whatever you do off the field and in life. I tried to take all of that to heart and apply it in my every day life."
In life, as on the football field, success must be earned and isn't automatically granted by virtue of merely being presented with the opportunity. Tate has not only learned his lessons and in the process of translating them to life outside of football, has come to appreciate them, too.
"All of those things I learned as a Utah Football player, and having those experiences really formed me into who I am today," Tate admitted. "I owe everything to Utah Football, absolutely."
While winning on the field is certainly important, Tate was quick to point out that it isn't the only priority under Kyle Whittingham or Urban Meyer, for whom Tate played under for one season.
"I played one year under Urban [Meyer] and it was important to him, and obviously Coach Whittingham has done a great job carrying on that tradition. [Whittingham] did a great job mentoring all of us, and really prepared us to be successful outside of football. Really, that's what it's all about," Tate credited. "Of course you want success on the field, but I think he understands that there's a correlation; if you're successful on the field that will almost always transfer over to life and what you're able to accomplish after football."
Anyone familiar with Whittingham and his philosophies and methodology knows that he is extremely proud of the wide and varied backgrounds of his teams. Ute players will often openly discuss their pride in having strong diversity amongst teammates, and the topic was something that Tate complimented and reflected upon as well.
"One thing I really took away from my days playing at Utah was the fact that I was so exposed to so many guys with different backgrounds, that honestly, I might never have known without that experience. Utah embraces that diversity and the different backgrounds and I don't think you really see that anywhere else," Tate observed. "Here I was a married guy, with a baby and so that was something that might have really isolated me without football, and instead, I had all these teammates with different stories and backgrounds, and we all had the same goal, and were working for all the same things. It was something that was really positive, and something that I'll never forget. It's still an important part of who I am."
As Tate came away from the program with so much, he and countless other former Utes also left their legacies on the program in various forms and to varying degrees. As a member of the BCS Busting, Fiesta Bowl Championship squad, it can be argued that it was Tate's generation that began to pave the way for the Utes to join the Pac-12. According to the former walk-on, that fact is a huge source of personal pride to this day.
By all accounts every former Ute player feels similarly; taking a certain pride and ownership in that singular accomplishment.
"It's surreal. When they made the announcement that Utah was going to the Pac-12, it was one of those moments that you don't have very often in life. It was one of those moments where you actually take a step back and look beyond what you accomplished and what you went through when you were there and saw how that fit into the bigger picture and the grand scheme. When I did that, our portion of that picture was a pretty big piece of the Pac-12 picture, so it was unbelievable," Tate recalled.
In recollecting the moment, Tate was also forced to re-visit his playing days and the sacrifices and hard work that was required of him then, he was better able to appreciate the moment the Utes joined the BCS.
"When I was there, we played with a pretty big chip on our shoulders because we felt like we really belonged up at that level and deserved that kind of respect," he continued. "So to accomplish what we did, and then see them these years later kind of capitalize on what we did, what we started and turn it into this great accomplishment and milestone was honestly, one of the most proud moments that I've had in my life."
For Tate, who graduated six years ago, the moments and the memories are treasures meant to be passed on, appreciated and remembered by future generations.
"As a former athlete to have helped build the program into one eventually join the elite, or the ranks of the Pac-12, it's still one of those moments you'll look back on. It's something tangible that I can point to, and tell my son about. He's seven, and so he's getting to a point where he can begin to understand that now," Tate expanded with an obvious sense of pride. "Starting with entry in the Pac-12 and seeing everything else progress is something we can watch happen before our eyes. Things like the new facility that is going up and other things tied to our joining the Pac-12 are just tangible evidence of what we all did, a bunch of players from a lot of different years before and after us. It just shows that Utah Football has been something special, and that it is going to continue to build into something special."
While Utah may in fact be building for a bright future, it's historic rise to the Pac-12 ranks hasn't gone exactly as planned and has been anything but a smooth ride. Though that fact is a great source of frustration for most, surprisingly, Tate takes a grounded approach to Utah's recent struggles.
"I don't think that fans truly understand what it takes to make a move up to this level, and as former players and guys who know what it's like to be there at practice every day and go out and have to play the games, I think that we understand that this is a process. I think we without a doubt had the best starters back when I played, but our twos and threes weren't always ready to play and weren't up to the same par," he offered. "At this level, it takes an entire team, top to bottom, to be at that higher level. It's about the depth you have, and how good that depth is. So Utah is building that up, and I think we've seen that happen incrementally since we joined the Pac-12. We're getting closer, but we're still going through that process. Understanding that, it hasn't really been that frustrating for me to watch as we go through that process."
Regardless of wins or losses, Tate says that the Ute pride amongst former players never wavers.
"Of course we'd rather see the teams win, but through this time or any other struggles we might have, all of the former players still have that Ute Pride. It's something that never really leaves us, and something we all share, no matter when we played, or who we played with," Tate insisted.
As evidence of that fact, Tate recalls a recent impromptu meeting with former Ute and NFL great Steve Smith.
"I was down in Newport Beach (Calif.) recently, and I saw a guy working out with a Utah shirt on, so I went over to him. It was Steve Smith, and we didn't play together or know each other, but we spent about 30 minutes talking Utah Football," Tate said. "It was like we knew each other and it's just because of the bond that's there, or a brotherhood. He was up to date on everything that was happening, and all the current players, so we all, wherever we are and whatever we're doing, keep track of what's going on. I think we all watch the games and follow the teams closely, so that never really goes away."
Though apparently willing to be patient with the Utes as they grow and build their depth to a Pac-12 or BCS-type level, Tate did relay some advice to current players as they weather the storm.
"The biggest thing I would say to these guys is don't lose your edge. When I played, I think we took a lot of pride in kind of over-achieving. I think Utah Football has built a reputation for putting in the work, and being blue-collar, so it's not flashy. We didn't have a lot of flashy players, and a lot of us got over-looked, so because of that we played with a chip on our shoulder," Tate advised. "I don't think that should change, even though we're recruiting a higher level athlete who maybe isn't a guy who is as over-looked as a lot of us older Utah guys. I think these guys have got to find a way to play with that chip, and keep that same kind of attitude and never feel entitled. If Utah could find a way to mix those two things; the increased talent and that old-school, blue-collar mentality, they could build something really special."
When asked to name a player for whom he has great respect and/or best embodies that 'Utah Man' type of mentality to which he earlier referred, Tate didn't hesitate.
"I really love Trevor Reilly. He's a guy that came in, and not a lot of people knew his name. He's a guy that really grinds it, he works hard every single play and he never gives up," Tate complimented. "I think Trevor is a guy that plays with that edge, and definitely with a chip on his shoulder, and I love that. He's competitive, and he hates to lose. I can see that, how much he hates to lose, every time I watch him play. I love watching him play, and he's a cornerstone of that defense. I really love his game, and I respect him a lot, and I really look up to him in a lot of ways. He epitomizes what that defense is about, and really, he epitomizes Utah Football."