I’ve taken some heat recently for my habit of mocking the University of Utah basketball team. They’re an easy target for derision and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future, considering they’re joining the Pac-12 next season. On Tuesday night, the Runnin’ Utes got a glimpse of what their Pacific coastal future may hold, losing to San Diego State 85-53. The Utes’ lone triumph of the night came when they somehow managed to squeak over the 50-point mark, thus depriving San Diego State fans of the free curly fries they receive when their team holds its opponents under 50.
Although I relish the Utes’ 3-7 conference record, it’s important to note the distinction between laughing at your in-state rival’s floundering basketball team and condemning a school’s athletic program. I’ve always had respect for the University of Utah teams that warrant it. And in any given year, there are plenty of teams that do. Last Friday, I had the opportunity to watch the No. 3 gymnastics team take on Arizona State in the Huntsman Center. It was an absolutely amazing experience. Those girls are true athletes and epitomize class in every way.
The entire evening was bathed in the color pink, in honor of former All-American Ute gymnast Annabeth Eberle. Diagnosed with breast cancer last summer, Eberle recently underwent surgery and has inspired her former teammates with her courage and optimism. She was on hand throughout the evening, and the home crowd roared when she made an appearance on the floor and announced that she is now cancer-free.
Rallying around their hero, the Ute gymnasts scored a season-high 196.525. Corrie Lothrop was particularly impressive, earning her best marks of the season as she won the all-around and beam. Stephanie McAllister and Victoria Shanley rounded out the first-place victories, on bar and vault, respectively.
Brimming with championship-caliber athletes who display grace and class on a regular basis, it’s no wonder the Ute gymnastics team is ranked third in the nation and averages over 13,000 fans at home meets. People are drawn to this kind of greatness. In fact, the Utes’ meet against Stanford last month drew the largest crowd to watch any NCAA meet this season.
I know the Ute athletic department has been struggling to increase attendance at home basketball games. They’ve tried various promotions, but not many fans are interested in watching their team lose by double digits. Following the BYU game in the Huntsman Center, a coach from one of the Utes’ respected (i.e. non-basketball) sports summed up her attendance at the game thusly, “I was only there to watch Fredette. He didn’t disappoint.”
This type of apathy from within the athletic department underscores the seriousness of the problem. And there is no easy solution. Firing Boylen might be a step in right direction, but it would probably lead to even further instability in their challenging inaugural year in the Pac-12. As I see it, there is only one way to guarantee a sellout for the next home basketball game – have the gymnastics team play in their stead. Sure, it’s a gimmick. Sure, they’d get destroyed. But it would be incredibly entertaining to watch. And it’s quite likely the final score would be closer than 32 points.