Utah fans have enjoyed rubbing BYU fans’ faces in the fact that the Utes are in a P5 conference and the Cougars are not. I can live with that kind of rivalry banter. What I can’t live with are Ute fans pretending like they don’t care about the rivalry game now that they’ve been invited to eat at the cool kids’ table. That’s just silly.
You can’t blame the fans entirely. Many of them are simply following the lead of Utah athletic director Chris Hill, who said that the “deep, dark dirty secret is [Utah] fans are not disappointed” that Utah doesn’t play BYU every year. These comments, which Dr. Hill is smart enough to know would spark controversy, smacked more of smack than fact.
An example of this rivalry-ambivalence-exaggeration is this piece by a new writer here at Torn by Sports, Steve Glauser. Steve is a great a guy and a personal friend. We were co-nursery leaders at church, where we chatted sports, politics, and law while we fed the kids gold fish crackers and fruit snacks. He is the kind of guy that makes me second guess my passionate hatred for all things red, and he is a superb writer to boot. But his piece highlights some of the disingenuous aspects of the Utah rhetoric machine.
Let me start by pointing out where Steve, Dr. Hill, and I agree. First, it seems clear to me that the rivalry game is more valuable to BYU than to Utah. BYU has to make its own schedule and would like to get more high-caliber teams on it. Utah, on the other hand, gets most of its games dictated to it by the PAC-12 and is apparently not interested in a challenging nonconference schedule. Thus, from a scheduling perspective, BYU would get a lot more mileage out of the Holy War than Utah would. This doesn’t mean that the BYU football program will collapse without the the rivalry game or that Utah is better off without it; it simply means that BYU gains more from it than Utah.
I also agree with Dr. Hill’s assessment that BYU is an “A game.” Although Utah has had BYU’s number in recent years, the risk of losing to BYU is much greater than, say, Idaho State or Fresno State. Moreover, the ACC, SEC, and Big 10 have all formally recognized BYU as a P5-equivalent for purposes of those conferences’ scheduling policies, and most PAC-12 teams have been more than willing to schedule BYU to add strength to their schedules. It’s clear that BYU is not a cupcake game on anyone’s schedule, least of all on Utah’s, given the rivalry aspect of the game. Pretending otherwise (Steve seems to think BYU is a “B game”) exposes the ignorance and arrogance of some Utah fans.
While I agree that BYU needs the rivalry more and that BYU is a tough opponent, I simply don’t buy Steve’s and Dr. Hill’s argument that Utah fans don’t miss playing BYU. Steve suggests that survey data supports this theory, but I haven’t been able to find those surveys. The only poll I’ve found suggests the opposite. And even if survey data didn’t confirm what I suspect, then Utah fans’ propensity to storm the field after wins against BYU indicates that they really do love those games.
Steve makes much of the fact that only one of the top-10 attended games at Rice-Eccles Stadium was against BYU (in 2008). He fails to mention, however, that the 2008 Holy War was the third-most attended game in RES history. That’s right, just seven years ago a “mediocre” (Steve’s words), non-P5 program attracted more fans than #20 USC, #5 Oregon, #15 Pitt, and #11 TCU. After four years of “nationally ranked, high-profile, … conference implication games” in the PAC-12, Utah hasn’t found a single opponent that is as attractive as BYU was in the Mountain West days.
For perspective, note that that the 2001 game against Utah ranks third in LaVell Edwards Stadium’s attendance records. The first and second place games were against Notre Dame and Miami. Despite the fact that BYU fans attended two games against nonconference, high-profile programs at a higher rate than any game against Utah, Cougar fans don’t pretend that they don’t love the rivalry.
Utah fans should stop puffing their chests and just admit that they love it too.