Rich Utter is such a modest soul that upon induction to the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame he sniffed away some tears and limited his speech to 3 minutes and 42 seconds.
So when executives at Phoenix Suns Charities selected Utter as their 2019 Spirit of Cotton Award honoree, Rincon High athletic director Dave LePeau advised them that Utter might not buy into a grand and formal ceremony.
It would have to be a surprise. Under the guise of discussing improvements to the Rangers’ gymnasium’s bleachers, LePeau asked Utter if he would stop by the school at 11 Monday morning.
Typical of Utter’s dedication, he showed up at 10, long before a van from Desert Rose World Transportation arrived at Rincon High School with six people from the Phoenix Suns, including JoAnn Fitszimmons, widow of long-time Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons.
By the time all was in place, Rincon’s basketball team, cheerleaders, school officials and a group of Utter’s family and friends stood behind a closed door.
The Spirit of Cotton Award is the highest honor given in Arizona high school basketball and when Utter finally walked through the door, he was appropriately overwhelmed.
“I’m humbled,” he said, sniffing away the tears again.
The Rincon athletic department was granted a gift of $10,000 by Suns Charities – perhaps that’ll help with improvements to the aging bleachers – but the tribute to Utter’s exemplary career surpasses any monetary gift.
Only three coaches in Tucson basketball history –Sahuaro’s boys coach Dick McConnell. Arizona’s Lute Olson and Sahuaro’s girls coach Steve Botkin – have coached more victories than Utter’s active total of 448.
But it wasn’t that number, 448, that led Phoenix Suns Charities to identify Utter as the 14th honoree of the Spirit of Cotton award.
“It was Rich’s impact in the community and the many lives he has touched,” JoAnn Fitzsimmons said. “We make sure it isn’t about wins and losses.”
The previous 13 winners of the Spirit of Cotton Award have come from every corner of Arizona prep basketball.
Now it is Rich Utter, whose 31 Rincon High boys basketball teams have not won a state championship – not yet, anyway – but keep turning out winners, on and off the court.
In fact, the man who spent four years behind the scenes putting Utter’s name before the Phoenix Suns Charities committee was one of his long-time rivals, Buena High basketball coach Dave Glasgow.
That’s when you know you’re doing more important things than diagramming a box-and-one zone or setting up an out-of-bounds play.
“I know what one coach can do for a young person’s life,” said Rincon High principal Amy Swiderski Cislak, a former state softball championship coach at Canyon del Oro. “Rich is a father-figure and a great mentor, helping kids who struggle at school and at home. He’s one person I always call for advice.”
In recent years, Utter’s winning percentage has been waylaid by open enrollment, club teams and by outright recruiting. Since Utter was promoted to Rincon’s head coaching position in 1989, he has been fortunate to coach just three Division I prospects.
Yet his overall record, 448-376, is a testament to his ability to do more with less.
“Losses are every bit as important as wins in helping these young guys learn how to deal with life,” he said. “Practices are as important as games.”
A four-sport letterman in upstate New York, Utter earned a degree from Slippery Rock University and transferred to Arizona to earn a master’s degree and teaching certificate. His first job was at tiny Valley Union High School in Elfrida, near the Mexican border.
He spent the year living in the back room of the town’s only grocery store. His team, the Blue Devils, won two games.
If there is ever a basketball coaching story about humble beginnings, this is it.
When LePeau was hired as Rincon’s athletic director three years ago, he met Utter, who then had more than 400 career victories.
“In our first sitdown meeting, I asked coach Utter ‘what can I do for you?’’’ said LePeau. “He gave me a wry smile and said ‘a better question might be ‘what can I do for you.’ ‘’
A year or so later LePeau opened an email from Buena’s Glasgow detailing the process of getting Utter selected as the Spirit of Cotton Award winner. Bingo.
On Monday, it all came together.