After graduation, Matheson instead moved to Washington, D.C., where he became a lobbyist for an environmental group, a period the six-term Democratic congressman almost never speaks of and his campaign doesn't list in his official bio.
But those three years in the early 1980s changed his life, from the woman he married, to the jobs he held, to the elected office he is campaigning to keep.
As his mother, Norma Matheson, puts it: "I don't think you can discount his early D.C. experience and the impact it had on subsequent decisions he made."
His own path • Utah voters elected Scott Matheson governor in November 1976 when his son Jim was a junior at East High in Salt Lake City. The younger Matheson was a tight end on the school's football team and would eventually win a state tennis title in doubles, though he claims partner Joe Rich carried him. As a senior, he served as the president of the school senate. Put simply, he was a big man on campus, and everyone knew he came from one of the state's most prominent families.
But, in 1978, when he enrolled in his first semester at Harvard, nobody knew who Matheson was; he liked it that way. His eventual roommate, Peter Martin, said it took weeks before their friends discovered the "unassuming" and quiet Westerner was the son of a governor.
"I didn't want them to know. I thought they should know me for who I was," Matheson said in a lengthy interview in his Capitol Hill office.
They learned he was a guy who loved sports as much as he loved politics. He earned a degree in government, and, on the side, he called football and basketball games on Harvard's WHRB, often joking he would pursue a career in sports radio.
Actually, he always assumed he would go to law school until the moment he chose another path than the one laid out for him. It was a decision that didn't sit well with his father.
"He thought I was crazy, but he's from a generation where you go to college, you get a job and you move on," Matheson said. "He couldn't imagine why I didn't want to move on with that."
He decided to give Washington a try. He had had a small taste of congressional politics the year before when he worked as a summer intern for House Speaker Tip O'Neill. It also didn't hurt that he had a free place to stay and a father with connections.
Scott Matheson Jr. lived in Arlington, Va., at the time and let his younger brother bunk in the basement, while their dad lined up Jim with lobbyist Joe Browder, who helped create the Environmental Policy Center, where Matheson landed a job.
Opposing sides • Louise Dunlap, Browder's wife, ran the aggressive lobbying shop populated by young activists. She assigned the 22-year-old Matheson to work on a campaign against the Synthetic Fuels Corp., where he primarily did technical research. It would be another year before he registered as a lobbyist and even then he largely backed up his direct boss, Bob Roach. Matheson made only $61.11 from his lobbying activities in the first six months of reports filed with Congress.
While Matheson was restrained and measured, Roach was aggressive and intense. The two got along well. It helped that they believed in their cause.
Congress created the Synthetic Fuels Corp. after the 1979 energy crisis as the government's primary attempt to achieve independence from foreign oil.
The corporation was given a $20 billion budget to push new types of domestic fuel sources such as coal gasification and oil shale into the market.
But Roach, Matheson and the Environmental Policy Center argued the effort harmed the planet and wasted money. They essentially said the technologies didn't exist to produce such energy on a commercial scale. They were major players in a three-year campaign, which culminated Dec. 18, 1985, when President Ronald Reagan agreed the corporation was a failure and Congress pulled funding.
"We succeeded," Matheson said. "And how often does Congress vote to eliminate an entity?"
Gov. Matheson may have helped his son get the job, but he wasn't happy with the result. He, along with Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, supported the Synthetic Fuels Corp. and had lined up a $184.3 million federal loan guarantee for the Seep Ridge oil shale project. The corporation canceled a meeting to approve the Utah project the day after Congress yanked its funding.
"The governor was doing his job and Jim was doing his, and Jim won," Dunlap said. "His father had to respect that."
Jim Matheson said: "We clearly talked about the issues, but he didn't agree with what I was doing. I think history has borne out that I was right."
There has never been a commercially viable oil shale project in Utah, though there are exploratory attempts some in the same Seep Ridge area in the Uinta Basin. Matheson said he supports oil shale as long as it is commercially feasible without government subsidies.
The pursuit of love • Dunlap remembers Jim Matheson as unflappable and always armed "with an easy smile."
"He was really handsome, but it was so funny because he was modest about it," she said, recalling how he would blush when women in the office would flirt.
"Somehow he had his eye on someone else," said Dunlap's husband, Joe Browder.
That someone was Amy Herbener.
Matheson met her while in college, when he participated in a group blind date organized by women from nearby Wellesley College. They liked each other, but their flirtations didn't turn into a serious relationship until Herbener took a job with an environmental consulting firm in Washington and tracked down Matheson.
"She found me at my brother's house," he said.
Their romance may never have developed if he had written that law school essay, but like the relationships of many driven couples, once together, they had to endure some time apart when their career goals diverged.
In 1984, Matheson took a leave of absence from the Environmental Policy Center to return to Utah and run the gubernatorial campaign of Rep. Wayne Owens, a close family friend. Owens' bid to succeed Scott Matheson in the governor's mansion failed when he lost convincingly to Republican Norm Bangerter.
Matheson enjoyed the managerial aspects of the campaign and his lobbying efforts, so he decided to pursue a business degree at the University of California-Los Angeles. Herbener would follow a year later after winning a transfer from the consulting firm. They would marry in 1991.
The Bonneville blow up • Armed with a master's degree, Matheson re-entered the job hunt in 1987, looking to leave California. He caught on at Bonneville Pacific, a high-profile private energy company in Utah that was creating a buzz in the business world. His father was a board member at Bonneville, but it is unclear if he was in this post when his son was hired.
At Bonneville, Jim Matheson's job was to develop cogeneration projects, which essentially generate electricity and useful heat, making plants and factories more efficient.
He had some success with gypsum plants in Las Vegas, but then the company imploded in a fraud investigation that resulted in prison terms for top executives.
The scandal hit at an emotional time for Matheson. His father died of cancer the year before and he was planning his wedding. He was laid off in 1991 when the company went bankrupt.
He was not implicated in the scandal, but it did touch Salt Lake City's mayor at that time, Deedee Corradini, who was ordered to pay back more than $800,000.
Matheson, who remains quick to point out he was never approached by prosecutors, took some political lessons from the fallout.
"You hope you learn a greater ability to judge people and size them up," he said.
Matheson found work at Energy Strategies, a consulting firm that helped businesses operate in a newly deregulated world.
Scott Gutting, who once worked for the Utah Energy Office under Gov. Matheson, owns the company and hired Matheson to work primarily with Chevron to negotiate a better rate for natural gas at its facilities in Texas and elsewhere. Gutting said Matheson was a dedicated employee, but Gutting wasn't surprised when he decided to leave in 1998.
"I knew he had politics in the blood," Gutting said, "and was going to run for office."
An informed decision • Matheson had seriously considered running against Rep. Merrill Cook in 1998, but decided he didn't want to force a primary with Lily Eskelsen, who eventually became the Democratic nominee.
Instead, he created a short-lived consulting firm of his own, renting space from his good friend Eric Leavitt, who also had worked for Bonneville Pacific. Matheson represented county governments in tax disputes with utility companies.
By February 1999, only two months after launching his one-man business, Matheson decided he would run for Congress. He closed The Matheson Group in December and began laying the groundwork.
"I knew how the Hill worked, and I think I was intrigued by being on the other side of the desk from when I was lobbying," Matheson said. "It made it a more informed decision."
As his mother recalls: "He had some knowledge of how the system worked there. He didn't have to start from scratch."
Dunlap, Browder and many of those who worked at the Environmental Policy Center, which has since morphed into Friends of the Earth, continue to lobby on environmental issues. Bob Roach works for the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
"Jim is our only alum who is a member of Congress," Dunlap said. "We are very proud of that."
Matheson has represented Utah since 2000, when he won in a landslide after Republicans beat each other up during a bruising primary, which ousted Cook and replaced him with political novice Derek Smith. But Matheson barely survived the next election after the Republican-controlled Legislature so contorted the district that it bore no resemblance to its previous outline.
He is a veteran member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, allowing him to influence national policy on many of the topics he worked on in the private sector.
Matheson is now seeking a seventh term, this time against Republican Mia Love. The race in the newly formed 4th District is expected to be close. He and his wife, Amy, a pediatrician, have two boys and live four doors away from his childhood home in east Salt Lake City.
"It just kind of shows you how fate takes you in different paths," Matheson said, looking back on the big impact his short lobbying career has had on his life. "I was a kid out of college looking for a job. This is the place that hired me and this is the slot they had."
Jim Matheson bio
Age • 52
Family • Wife, Amy Herbener, and their two boys, William and Harris
Education • Harvard, bachelor's degree, and UCLA, MBA
Birthplace • Salt Lake City
Occupation • Consultant for energy companies
Hobbies • Couples bridge; fantasy football; sports fan