BYU Will Be Fine Without U
Utah athletic director Chris Hill’s announcement this week that BYU and Utah would not be playing in 2014 and 2015 should be cause for mourning and outrage from every real sports fan in the region.
It should be a time for both sides of this bitter feud to unite in fighting to keep one of college football’s best traditions alive.
But even if the rivalry ends, BYU will be fine without U.
It used to be every autumn in Utah the leaves would turn into a rich tapestry of yellow and orange, standing out in vibrant contrast with the dark green pines in the canyons and on the mountains. The flavorful aromas of turkey, ham, stuffing, and other Thanksgiving delectables would waft into the cool, crisp air. And floods of blue and red-clad fans would flock to one of the local meccas of college football to share in one of the richest traditions in the country.
Building a Rivalry
It’s a time-honored tradition that has gone on uninterrupted since World War II, and one that began more than a century ago.
For years now, the BYU-Utah rivalry has been more than just a game. It is THE game. It might be fun to see BYU suit up against Miami, Texas, Florida State, Notre Dame and y other college powers that have visited Provo over the years or to watch Utah tangle with heavy hitters from out of town, but in the end, only the BYU-Utah game really matters.
It is a rivalry unlike any other. A separation of just 45 miles means that both fanbases mix on a daily basis. Add the religious overtones inherent in the state’s largest private, faith-based university taking on the flagship public state school and the fact that both schools have enjoyed periods of success and it is clear both fanbases are equally passionate about this game.
From the sweltering days of August through the entire season, fans of both schools constantly compare each other in a never-ending game of one-upsmanship. For decades, those arguments were facilitated by the fact that each school faced so many common foes, but even with the changing landscape, those arguments continue to play out on a daily basis somewhere along the Wasatch Front.
In the end, however, everyone could count on the state’s bragging rights being settled in a winner-take-all showdown in the climactic season finale.
Nationally, BYU-Utah has become known as the “Holy War”. In 2005, the Wall Street Journal named BYU-Utah the fourth-best rivalry in the country. In 2010, Fox Sports named it the second best college football rivalry in the country. Just last year the Huffington Post placed it in the nation’s top ten college rivalries in any sport, right alongside Florida vs. Georgia, Ohio State vs. Michigan, Army vs. Navy, and North Carolina vs. Duke basketball.
Yet somewhere in the shifting world of college sports realignment, tradition has taken a back seat to money and fear.
The first rivalry casualties came in 2010 with the end of Nebraska-Oklahoma (1912-2010) and Nebraska-Missouri (1892-2010).
2011 saw the end of four major rivalry games: the Backyard Brawl (1895-2011) between Pittsburgh and West Virginia, the Battle of the Brazos (1899-2011), an annual fight between Baylor and Texas A&M, the Lone Star Showdown (1894-2011) between Texas and Texas A&M, and the Border War (1891-2011) between Missouri and Kansas.
This week, realignment claimed a new victim. The very best, most compelling sporting event in the state of Utah will be interrupted after 2013, and whether it continues after that is really anyone’s guess.
No Good Reason for the End
The worst part is the Utes can’t offer any compelling reasons to cut off one of the best annual bouts in the country.
“I can’t expect us to play 11 really, really difficult games in a season,” Hill offered when announcing the two-year hiatus.
That rings especially hollow in light of all that Utah has been trying to build over the past decade. In 2004 when an undefeated Utah looked at disdain against their Fiesta Bowl foe, the school wasn’t concerned about playing too tough an opponent. Instead, the team and fans were clamoring for someone better and worthy of facing the Utes.
In 2008, an undaunted Ute squad steamrolled Alabama in the Sugar Bowl after many said it couldn’t be done and the Crimson Tide was just too powerful.
Yet, fast forward just a few short years and suddenly that same school, with a freshly minted Pac-12 logo on its jerseys, is suddenly backing away from a game against a team it beat 54-10 the previous year and 7 of the last 10 times? Really?
The other justification offered by Hill? He’s just doing what’s best for the student-athletes. “The reality,” he said, “is we have an unusual opportunity and we had to do what was best for the student-athletes.”
Because a short trip down I-15 is apparently too arduous of a journey for the Utes to play a game those same student-athletes really want to play, Hill will instead fly in a steady diet of patsies to feast on in Rice-Eccles. Here’s looking at you, Northern Arizona, Sacramento State, and Eastern Washington.
And apparently even though Utah is now part of the Pac-12 and there’s a scheduling agreement between the Pac-10 and Big Ten, Hill thinks landing Michigan was an unusual opportunity. Does Utah really struggle that much in bringing quality non-conference foes to Salt Lake that it was worth sacrificing so much for?
“Just like every other program in the country, we have to do what’s in our best interest,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said about the rivalry earlier this summer. From his perspective, another built-in win on the schedule is certainly something he’ll take. It makes Whittingham’s job that much easier. Easier to make a bowl game, easier to be ranked higher, easier to make the new college football playoff; unless of course, there’s a strength-of-schedule component and the Pac-12 has a down year (such as 2011 for example).
Kill Two Rivalries with One Stone
If ending BYU-Utah wasn’t good enough, Hill slipped in one extra bonus; the Utes have bought out of their 2014 trip to Utah State, thus hastening the demise of that instate rivalry as well. But don’t worry, the Utes and Aggies will still play in basketball (if anyone can stomach watching Utah basketball right now).
BYU Will Be Fine without U
BYU definitely wanted to keep this rivalry train rolling. At BYU’s media days in June both AD Tom Holmoe said, “I love the rivalry. There’s nothing like it as a player, going into that game and playing. We’ll keep playing that game…we do not want to drop it, and we want to keep going forward.”
Bronco Mendenhall echoed Holmoe’s words, saying, “We’d like to keep playing (the Utah game), every year. I think the game itself has such fantastic tradition. It’s one of the best rivalries in the world, in any sport, and to think that it might go away doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
A lot has been made of BYU’s ability to schedule as an independent, but a quick glance at BYU’s future lineups shows the Cougars will have plenty to test their mettle besides the Utes.
“The exposure we’ve received (as an independent) is unprecedented, and (it’s a) great reason to be independent,” said Mendenhall. “I’m very proud of the completeness of the program…so this thought seven years ago that many said ‘this couldn’t be done,’ well, it is being done.”
In 2013, BYU has home games against Texas, Boise State, Utah and Georgia Tech along with road contests at Utah State, Houston, Hawaii, Washington State, and a November visit to South Bend to take on Notre Dame.
While 2014 and beyond are still in the works, BYU has already announced future games against Nebraska, Texas, West Virginia, UCF, and Southern Miss to complement long-term deals with Boise State, Notre Dame, Utah State, and Hawaii.
The world won’t be right until the Blue and Red clash in November once again. Until then, the crisp, autumn air and occasional Thanksgiving-time snow flurries will be marred by the disinterested choruses coming from the Utah-Colorado game and the BYU-whomever game on that season-ending November day.