This moment was brought to us by @corey_cheech on our Twitter feed and slc ranger in the comments section on our site Block U. In 1998, the Runnin’ Utes made an incredible run in the NCAA Tournament after losing in the first round of the WAC Conference Tournament to UNLV. The Utes entered the tournament as the #3 seed in the West Regional. They proceeded to beat #14 seed San Francisco, #6 Arkansas, #10 West Virginia, #1 Arizona, and #1 North Carolina in the Final Four before losing to #2 Kentucky in the title game 78-69. The Runnin’ Utes were led by Coach Rick Majerus and players such as Michael Doleac, Alex Jensen, and Andre Miller, just to name a few. The Utes actually had a 10-point halftime lead in the national championship game (41-31) against Kentucky before being outscored 47-28 in the second half.
After the loss, Rick Majerus led the Utes through the 2004 season before leaving to become an analyst at ESPN for three years until he finished at St. Louis University and retired before his eventual death in 2012. Rick Majerus’s iconic sweater was eventually hung in the rafters in a ceremony at the University of Utah in 2013 to honor the beloved coach forever. Rick Majerus had a well-known strained relationship with Dr. Hill, which aided in his decision to leave Utah in 2004. The question remains; what if Utah had held off Kentucky in the second half to win the National Championship in 1998?
We all know that since Rick Majerus left, the Utah Basketball program has struggled to find consistency as we have seen Ray Giacoletti, Jim Boylen, Larry Kystkowiak, and now Craig Smith take over as head coach. I think if Rick Majerus won the national title in 1998, he decides to leave Utah sooner than 2004 and take over at Wisconsin in 2001 when the position became available. Rick Majerus is a Wisconsin native, so I think the move for him would make sense, and he would stay until retirement. With the coaching vacancy at Utah, it would make sense that someone working under Majerus would be first in line for the job, which leads to Dick Hunsaker (with strong ties to Utah as the one to take over the job). I would imagine that if Hunsaker takes over, he stays for a considerable time which helps to provide stability to the program and allows them to find and groom a potential successor. One of the coaches under Hunsaker was Mark Pope (the current head coach at BYU), who I could see taking over for Hunsaker when he retired in 2015.
Ultimately, the Runnin’ Utes winning the national championship pushes Rick Majerus to exit the stage right earlier than expected, and the Utah basketball program sees a lot more success, consistency, and NCAA Tournament bids than before. I also think that if we had won in 1998 the Utes would have made a stronger tournament run in 1999 instead of losing in the second round to Miami (OH). I certainly don’t think that this singular moment has led to the struggle of the program; however, a national championship banner certainly helps in terms of finding coaching talent and recruiting and in Utah’s case would have provided the necessary stability we are so desperately craving in the nearly 20 years since Majerus left.
Share your thoughts in the comments section. What do you think would have happened to the Utah Basketball program if we had won in 1998?