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Distinguished alumni: Former Northern Michigan University athletes Steve Mariucci, Per Utnegaard honored

Per Utnegaard

“If my dad had been soft or easy … he would have caved in … and I never would have played college football.” — Steve Mariucci, ex-NFL head coach and current NFL Network analyst, on his father Ray coaxing Steve to remain at NMU

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MARQUETTE — A pair of Northern Michigan University alumni with strong ties to sports were among the five who were announced Wednesday as 2020 NMU Alumni Award recipients.

Former Wildcats football quarterback of the school’s 1975 national championship team, Steve Mariucci shares the Distinguished Alumni Award with Per Utnegaard, who is a former athlete in Northern’s Nordic skiing program.

The awards are presented by the NMU Alumni Association annually at Homecoming. It normally includes a Wildcats football game, which it would have been this weekend with GLIAC opponent Saginaw Valley State scheduled for Saturday afternoon at the Superior Dome. With the coronavirus pandemic, all GLIAC fall sports contests were canceled.

Head coach Steve Mariucci, right, with his San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, left, and Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, whom he used to coach as an assistant. This was taken during Mariucci's tenure with the 49ers from 1997-2002. (Photo courtesy NMU Archives)

Other alumni award winners this year are 2002 NMU graduate Anita Mattson with the Alumni Achievement Award, 2007 grad Amanda Rosenburg with the Outstanding Young Alumni Award and 1994 grad Greg Toutant of Negaunee with the Alumni Service Award.

Here are sketches of Mariucci and Utnegaard:

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Steve Mariucci

Mariucci went on to achieve glory and fame nationally in his chosen sport, football.

Upper Peninsula Celebrity Golf Challenge host and presenting sponsor Steve Mariucci, right, takes a photo with Bobby Bradley at the Greywalls golf course at the Marquette Golf Club during the Beacon House Celebrity Golf Classic. (Journal file photo)

He became a National Football League coach, first as an assistant with his beloved childhood team, the Green Bay Packers, before going on to become head coach of both the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions.

He has moved on to become one of the lead analysts with cable television’s NFL Network.

Mariucci enrolled at NMU with the goal of becoming a high school teacher and coach, however, in the early 1970s, modeling his career objective on the mentor who had the most influence on him — his father, Ray.

But the Iron Mountain High School graduate took a different route, beginning a 30-year coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater. At San Francisco, his first head coaching job, he began his tenure with 17 consecutive regular-season home wins, still an NFL record.

“Broadcasting is ideal because I still get to live and breathe football, but without the intense pressure that came with coaching,” he said. “Instead of winning or losing, I simply critique and analyze. I tend to lean toward accentuating the positive because that’s my nature. I love watching all the teams and their different strategies.”

Steve Mariucci points at one of the players on the sidelines of the Northern Michigan University vs. Minnesota-Mankato football game at the Superior Dome in Marquette during September 2011. (Journal file photo)

In anticipation of a documentary film project related to the 1975 Wildcats, Mariucci recruited researchers from the NFL Network to confirm that the team’s remarkable turnaround — from losing every game one season to winning a national championship the next — was indeed unprecedented.

“They looked at this from all pro sports, both men’s and women’s, and from all NCAA and NAIA men’s and women’s sports. It’s never happened, except with that 1975 Wildcat football team. That’s why the film is so different and interesting.”

“Put Your Hand on the Line,” the documentary directed by Scot Fure of Marquette, premiered at NMU’s 2018 Homecoming. It recently streamed online as part of the 2020 Dances with Films Festival in Los Angeles.

As a sophomore at Northern

, Mariucci had moved into the starting Wildcat lineup partway through the first game of the 1975 season and led the team to its storybook-ending victory over Western Kentucky for the national championship. In hindsight, it is hard to believe he had come close to quitting the sport shortly after arriving at Northern with Tom Izzo, his best friend and Gries Hall roommate.

“During training camp as a freshman, I just reached a point that I didn’t like football anymore,” Mariucci said. “So I called my dad to come pick me up and packed my bags. He drove up to Marquette and told me to bring my bags back to my room so we could talk about it.

Steve Mariucci is seen on the set of the GameDay show on the NFL Network, where he is a resident analyst. (Photo courtesy NMU)

“Then we went to one of the coaches, who convinced me to stay one more day, then another day and another day after that. It got better once school was in session and all the students were on campus and more activities were going on.

“If my dad had been soft or easy, trying to be my friend, he would have caved in and taken me home that day and I never would have played college football. But he didn’t.”

Mariucci was inducted into the NMU Sports Hall of Fame for his achievements. Upon earning a bachelor’s degree in health education in 1977, he transitioned from player to assistant coach for a season and later earned a master’s in education in 1983.

He went on to coach at California State-Fullerton, Southern California, California-Berkley, Louisville and the Orlando Renegades of the USFL pro league.

Shifting to the NFL, he was an assistant under legendary coaches John Robinson of the Los Angeles Rams and Mike Holmgren of the Packers.

Away from football, Mariucci is committed to supporting his alma mater and community causes. With his longtime best friend, he established the Izzo Mariucci Academic Center at NMU, along with the Izzo Mariucci Fitness Center and a student-athlete scholarship in their hometown.

He and his wife, Gayle, recently broke ground on the Steve Mariucci Family Beacon House in Marquette.

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Per Utnegaard

Per Utnegaard left his hometown of Oslo, Norway, to attend NMU on a Nordic skiing scholarship. A willingness to venture beyond his comfort zone at a young age stoked his fascination with other countries and cultures, and served as a springboard to his successful career as a global transport and logistics executive. It also inspires his solicited advice for current students as an alumni award recipient.

“Explore the world,” said Utnegaard, who graduated from NMU in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and marketing. “Take advantage of opportunities to study, intern or work abroad because it’s the best way to broaden your horizons.

“It also gives you a better understanding of what people are saying and why they might act on different interests based on their cultural backgrounds. Today, more companies are looking for employees who represent different nationalities.

“Even in the worst case, you’ll spend some time enriching your life. You can always return home, but you will do so with a new perspective. You will look at your own country with a completely different set of eyes based on what you experienced.”

Utnegaard said he was among the Scandinavian skiers recruited by former Northern coach Guy Thibodeau. He accepted the opportunity because he had heard only positive reports about Marquette and Northern from his friend, NMU 1977 grad Halvor Maartmann, an earlier ski recruit.

“Before I came to NMU, I was on a developmental team in Norway,” he said. “In Europe, athletics and education are two separate things. When you compete, you’re representing a club, not a university. The opportunity to combine higher education with athletics was very important to me.

Utnegaard knew he wanted an international occupation. World trade and the business of transporting goods around the globe became his professional niche. Under his leadership, companies eliminated wasteful expenditures and increased profitability. He also completed several prestigious executive leadership programs over the course of his career at Harvard Business School, London Business School and INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France.

After more than three decades as an executive and chief executive officer-president, Utnegaard recently transitioned to the role of board member and investor.

“It was time to step down, but I felt it would be a good idea to continue to serve on the boards of international companies,” he said. “One is in Paris and manages 12 manufacturing facilities worldwide. Another operates 3,000 restaurants at railway stations and airports worldwide. Another runs 17 airports in Saudi Arabia. In my spare time, I also serve on the Swiss University Foundation, which fosters top sports in Switzerland. So I’m still involved with different countries, continents and cultures, but from the perspective of a board member and without having to be an executive.”

Through his business and personal philanthropy, Utnegaard has sponsored soccer teams in Ghana and improved the water supply in Tanzania.

Utnegaard has remained active in international competitive skiing and is an avid biker.

He splits his time between Switzerland, Italy and Norway, and is fluent in six languages.

Information compiled by Journal Sports Editor Steve Brownlee. His email address is sbrownlee@miningjournal.net.

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