Kyle Whittingham has accomplished many things in his nine years at the helm of Utah Football. Perhaps the greatest of them is the family environment he has helped to foster within his program; a recurring theme that can heard uttered by recruits, support staff, current players and former players alike.
"I think it's the ultimate compliment that former players want to come back, be involved and donate their time and money to Utah Athletics," said Associate Athletics Director of Major Gifts and Athletic Relations, Manny Hendrix. "This didn't just happen over night, and we have been building this network of relationships with our former student athletes over the course of ten or fifteen years. After all of that time, we're starting to bear the fruits of our labor and see significant results."
Indeed, the results are beginning to reveal themselves, as the strong base of former student athletes at Utah has impressed the likes of Norm Chow, a former Ute Offensive Coordinator who had often commented about the strength of Ute Alumni base. New Co-Offensive Coordinator Dennis Erickson, who has extensive experience at all levels of football, has also remarked about the strength of the relationships Utah maintains with its former players. In fact, Erickson has repeatedly made reference to the impressive network of former players who remain so closely connected to the program.
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Whether they dynamic started with Whittingham, or began before him in the Ron McBride era or even prior to that, the fact remains that the tradition of building a family setting has been a cornerstone for the program.
In fact, that atmosphere and the values of strong family, which include loyalty, duty and character, don't end with football either. In polling the other Utah athletic teams, both mens and womens, family permeates throughout the Ute Athletic Department. Apparently, the connection between current and former players isn't isolated to the football team, as many athletes hailing from non-revenue teams remain heavily connected and involved with their respective former teams.
"We have somewhere between 500 and 800 former Ute athletes that make annual, financial contributions to Utah Athletics. These are men and women who may not be famous, star athletes but they are loyal fans who remain connected to the University," Hendrix confirmed. "They give what they can, whether that is $100 or $10,000, but they make an annual commitment, and it all matters. It all adds up, bit by bit."
The support from former Utes, financial and otherwise, has no doubt played a critical role in Utah's emergence in the world of collegiate athletics, even catapulting it into the ranks of the Pac-12. When asked, every Alumni to the last man and woman cites the the Utes' membership in the Pac-12 as a great source of pride.
Further, most feel as if they helped to lay some foundation or played some small part in making that achievement possible. As Alumni involvement has played a large role in the evolution of Utah Athletics, it stands to reason that it will only play a greater role in the future.
As Hendrix has worked vigorously to re-establish contact with former Ute athletes in order to gain financial support and stimulate greater participation from that particular segment of the population.
Though the fundraising aspect is a crucial facet of his job description, the former Ute hoopster says that reaching out to his fellow former Utes isn't all about the money, but rather the total value of a re-established relationship with a former athlete. Often times, that commitment can range from financial investments to a time and/or a personal emotional investment in current teams or players.
A recent example saw former Ute football player Robert Johnson return to Salt lake City to provide a much-needed pep talk to the football team last season in the midst of a trying time. Johnson's visit, in some intangible way, could be viewed as just valuable as any financial investment might have been.
Though the Utes appreciate the heavy donations accumulated from this particular population segment, they encourage these types of interactions with former players equally. According to Hendrix, Ute Athletic Director Chris Hill understands the huge and intangible benefits current student athletes gain from these types of interactions. Ultimately, Hill and Hendrix philosophize, these interactions go straight to happiness and well-being of current Utes.
"I think it all starts from the top, with [Utah Athletic Director] Chris Hill. This is his program, and this is something that he wanted to make sure was a part of his mission. He wanted, and we all want our current student athletes to have a positive experience here. That's part of our collective mission," Hendrix said with conviction. "In order to do that, we feel that we have to have a program where we can allow our former student athletes to stay connected to our current athletes. We feel that building those relationships can benefit everyone, in a lot of different ways."
Another, more recent example of how current athletes benefit from interaction with Alumni was when current Carolina Panther and former Ute Steve Smith returned to Utah earlier this spring, and took some time out to work with the current Ute receiving corps.
"Those kinds of moments are priceless for our student athletes. To have a Steve Smith or Alex Smith or an Andre Miller or Keith Van Horn come in and share some one on one time is truly priceless. It's something you can't really put a price tag on," Hendrix opined. "If they had to choose, I think if you talked to players, they would much rather have that player come in and spend time with them one on one, or in a small group because they gain so much from that."
Hendrix expanded on what exactly can be gained from these rare visits from former athletes in an attempt to assign a tangible value to such an experience with high-profile athletes who return for sporadic visits.
"To have someone who has succeeded at the next level come in and talk about chasing your dreams lends more weight to that dream. It's a confirmation that it can happen, but beyond telling them they can do it, the practical advice and instruction they provide is invaluable," Hendrix continued. "It also helps to instill trust and respect in what their current coaches are doing. That's big because when those players are taught something by one of those guys, and it's the same thing they're being taught already by current coaches, they know they're on the right track. They feel good about where they're at in terms of their preparation for the next level."
While current players seem the most obvious beneficiaries of this arrangement, Hendrix was adamant about the intangible, but no less moving rewards the former athletes get in return.
"Every single man and woman I talk to is genuinely excited to reconnect in some way with the school and with Ute athletics. They want to return or to give back in some way, whether that is with their time, their money or simply their vocal support," Hendrix relayed. "They want to do it, because someone did it for them when they were here playing. They remember what it meant to them when they were student athletes, and how important those interactions were to them. So they want to give it back and they even feel obligated in some ways to give back."
As a former Utah student athlete, Hendrix is in a position to speak intelligently on the matter, especially given the fact that he himself has returned to his alma mater to work in the Utah Athletic Department .
"For me, I felt like I was always indebted to the University of Utah for embracing a kid from the inner city of Phoenix. At the age of 17, I marveled, and was amazed at how many people supported what I did, and all I did was play basketball," recalled Hendrix with obvious fondness. "But the tremendous love and support that I felt when I was here was overwhelming. I just felt like I could never repay that. So I just felt like I owed them, and I still feel like I owe them. They helped me grow as a man, and they helped me in every aspect of my life."
Though not every former Ute athlete went on to the next player, made millions of dollars or became a recognizable name, the support of each alum is important and plays an equally important role within the structure of the close-knit Ute community.
On any given day, former Utes can be seen dotted along the sidelines in support of the current team members. Members of various classes can be seen chatting and reconnecting, or meeting each other and current players alike.
A common bond in the form of similar experiences is the thread that connects, and holds this fine fabric of Utah Alumni together, providing a sort of safety blanket or safety net for current student athletes.
"They share a lot of the same experiences and the former players have walked in their shoes. So they are an invaluable resource for those players currently attending school," Hendrix observed. "They can provide an insider's perspective as well as an outside view, which can sometimes help fill in blanks or even provide the whole, bigger picture."
The expansive web of former Ute athletes is an impressively powerful microcosm whose tentacles reach throughout the business world, forming a strong network that is as valuable as almost anything else the former Utes might take away from their experience on the fields or courts.
With the perspective of a Utah Athletic Department insider, combined with the experience of having been a student-athlete at Utah, Hendrix not only verbalizes the significance of his role inside Ute Athletics, he personifies the value of the outreach program itself.
With hundreds, if not thousands of former Utah student athletes out there, UteZone will look to devote the coming weeks to some of the proud Ute alum who play under-the-radar, yet critical roles in the future success of Utah Athletics, especially as it struggles to even the playing field in the new frontier of Pac-12, and BCS play.