The Washington game was met with much hoopla, a visit from Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and a downtown Salt Lake City pep rally featuring Hill alongside Mayor Ralph Becker and the Downtown Alliance’s Jason Mathis. But a huge loss and the sudden lack of an experienced quarterback offered a vivid reminder that Utah’s program, successful as it’s been, is not as loaded with the same brand of top-to-bottom talent as much of the school’s Pac-12 peers. Utah lost its first four games against Pac-12 foes before beating Oregon State, in late October.
“Football has been very, very successful, and we’ve struggled some this year,” Hill said. “There are some things we’re struggling for that we haven’t had to before. Nobody’s looking for excuses.
“One of the things we have here is, we’re not afraid of high competition,” Hill continues. “We always say ‘high risk is high reward, and low risk is low reward.’ This way, we get to take a swing at the very best in the country.”
Bill Riley—who does play-by-play radio coverage of Utah games for ESPN 700 AM and hosts a daily show on the station—has noticed changing expectations among fans. Many figured at the season’s start that the team would be one of the conference’s best. Instead, Utah needed a season-ending hot streak to save a season that looked like a disaster at the halfway point. Heading into this weekend, there’s a slight chance the team could land in the first Pac-12 championship game with a 5-4 league record, 8-4 overall.
“I didn’t have the expectation that Utah was going to come in on the same footing as the best of the Pac-12,” Riley said. “The talent, the first-line and second-line talent, is on par. But I never thought they’d go into the conference and be among the elite. Those programs [like USC, Stanford], there’s a reason they’ve been among the Top 5 and Top 10 [in the country] consistently for the last three, four, five years.”
Dan Sorensen is the managing editor of UteZone.com, an affiliate of athletic-recruiting supersite Rivals.com and home to a passion-filled message board where Ute fans pay a yearly subscription to congregate and argue over the minutiae of Utah athletics. And while Sorensen grew up in Utah, the 35-year-old public-relations specialist with degrees from Utah State and Westminster College tends to UteZone.com from his home in San Francisco, in the dead center of Pac-12 country.
Sorensen could sense the excitement of the Utah online community as this season approached, calling the feeling one of “unbridled optimism. People were so happy to be part of the club.” A couple months later, Sorensen notes, and “Utah fans have been forced to learn a couple of harsh lessons” about the bigger, faster athletes in the new conference.
Those lessons haven’t been enough to cause the Ute faithful to, well, lose faith. Indeed, in talking to everyone from students to townie fans, administrators to alumni, none regretted the jump to the Pac-12.
Randy Lewis—a board member of the school’s Crimson Club boosters group and weekly cheerleader, literally, at his tailgating spot—has missed only four Utah home games since 1963. He and his wife, Tammy, travel to nearly every road game, too, and donate considerable time and money to the Utah athletic department. Lewis laughs at the notion that maybe Utah fans will miss being the big fish in the small pond of the old Mountain West.
“It’s been a struggle; the competition is great,” Lewis said of the change. “It’s about what I expected. But how about San Francisco instead of Laramie? The Coliseum in L.A. instead of Fort Collins? Or Tucson in November instead of Fort Collins? We all want to do well. We all want it to be 2004 and 2008 all over again, and it’s not going to be. But the idea of going to Cal and these other schools, instead of where we were going, it’s a huge difference.”
Perhaps no sport makes a bigger deal of tradition and history as college football does. And as hard as it is to find anyone yearning for the good ol’ days of life in the Mountain West, there’s something to be said for rivals left behind.
The old conference, with the exception of San Diego State, consisted of schools in towns and cities across a vast, mysterious and harsh swath of America that mixes soaring peaks and stunning deserts in the Mountain time zone. Towns like Laramie, Wyo., and Fort Collins, Colo., have some charm for fans more interested in the country’s blue highways than big-city tourism. And having Las Vegas as a playground for UNLV games and the conference basketball tournament just six hours away was pretty good for Utah fans.
“I’ve always said we have good friends in that league, but every one of those people have been fully gracious with us, fully understand why we made the move we did,” Hill said. “There’s nothing but fond memories, except for a few games we lost. But to be honest, the transition and being in the Pac-12, you don’t really think about the past.”
One part of the past that’s not going away is the annual rivalry game against BYU, aka the Holy War. The football series goes back to 1896, and annual showdowns were assured by the teams being in the same conference from 1922 to 2010. With Utah now in the Pac-12 and BYU leaving the Mountain West to go independent, the schools will have to negotiate games as non-conference foes; both schools have publicly expressed a desire to do so.
In 2011, for the first time in recent memory, the Holy War game was played in mid-September instead of the end of November as the season finale. And the lack of excitement on both sides in the week leading up to the game led one to believe neither Utah nor BYU’s fans knew quite what to make of a warm, sunny Holy War with no ramifications beyond bragging rights over a rival. Riley noticed the difference from past rivalry games from inside his radio studio.
“It didn’t feel like a Utah/BYU week to me at all,” Riley said. “It felt like kind of a big game, but it didn’t feel like Utah/BYU … I don’t think it will ever be like it was when they were in the same conference and were playing the last game of the year, but I think they could create some of that magic and hype if they played it the first game of the year.”
Hill said the change might be for the good, taking some of the steam out of the uglier elements of the rivalry.
“It’s always going to remain intense, but it’s going to be at the beginning of the year and we’d all be na've if we didn’t know that was going to change the feel,” Hill said. “One of the things I’m hoping is, it takes some of the toxic nature out of the fans’ interest in the game. For us, it’s probably a little healthier. But it’s going to be different, no question.”
Hill might be underestimating the yearlong, nay, lifelong disdain of Utah and BYU fans toward their rivals, but part of being an athletic director is being a diplomat.
Morley has no desire to revisit Utah’s successful years in the Mountain West, even though games against the University of New Mexico gave him an easy excuse to visit his Albuquerque hometown.
When he talks to his high school friends who attend New Mexico, he recognizes the dramatic differences in college experiences between him and them, something he attributes to becoming a fanatical Utah football fan when he arrived in Salt Lake City four years ago and joined the MUSS, the so-called “Mighty Utah Student Section” that’s grown from 1,400 students during Urban Meyer’s first year to 6,000 in 2011, with 1,000 on a waiting list for tickets in the MUSS section at home football games.
“New Mexico fans, basically, they don’t care about football at all,” Morley said of his friends. “They all go to the tailgate and eat and drink and socialize, and then they don’t go to the game.”
Sounds a lot like Utah football during the late ’80s and early ’90s. And Morley sounds a lot like the kind of student that the Pac-12 branding Rudd talked about will attract, using football as a gateway to Utah’s various programs.
“One of the reasons I want to go to grad school at the U is because of the MUSS and football,” Morley said. “I want to get my Ph.D. here. I want to be in the Crimson Club someday.”
That’s music to the ears of the U administrators who led the charge to the Pac-12.