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100 Things Utes Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Patrick Sheltra
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Patrick Sheltra
All rights reserved.
Big-Time Entry: Utah's Invitation to the Pac-10
"When you compete for championships in the Pac-10, you compete for national championships."
— Dr. Chris Hill at a press conference announcing Utah's entry into the Pac-10 Conference
The summer of 2010 was the most anxiously anticipated off-season in the history of Utah football. The Big 10 made its long-awaited expansion from 11 to 12 teams by adding Nebraska, and rumors had been swirling all around Salt Lake City that the Pac-10 would follow suit. While previous Pac-10 leaders had scoffed at the idea of expansion, new Pac-10 president Larry Scott openly talked about the possibility of adding two teams — something the league last did with Arizona and Arizona State in 1978.
Adding to the tension were Texas media outlets — most notably Chip Brown at Orangebloods.com — detailing the Pac10 and the University of Texas' efforts to create the first super-conference among the Bowl Championship Series conferences. Almost all of those possibilities listed Utah as an afterthought candidate at best.
But on June 16, not long after Texas made its public commitment to keep the Big 12 Conference intact — albeit at 10 teams, for the time being anyway — Scott sent the message every Utah fan had been waiting a lifetime to hear: "Come on board, Utes."
"It raises the opportunity to not have that glass ceiling that is there for teams not in one of the six BCS conferences," Hill said when asked what the invitation's biggest benefit would be for Utah football.
Translation: Utah will never again have to fear going undefeated and being relegated to a non-factor in the national title picture, as was the case during perfect campaigns in 2004 and 2008.
"It's a win-win for us," Coach Kyle Whittingham said. "No question about it. It's a win-win for the university."
In the fall of 2010, Utah's future was further cemented when its new conference leaders decided on a new name for the league, the Pac-12 Conference, and a true geographical North-South setup for divisional play. Utah will compete in the Pac-12 South along with long-ago conference rivals Colorado, Arizona, and Arizona State, plus USC and UCLA. Utah will play those teams every year and four more from the Pac-12 North, which features Stanford, Cal, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, and Washington State. The conference setup will also feature a championship game between the winners of the two divisions.
Adding to the benefits of the new league were the enhanced bowl opportunities for Utah. As a champion in the Mountain West Conference, and provided it didn't qualify for a BCS bowl game, Utah's bowl destination would be against the Pac-10's No. 5 team in the Las Vegas Bowl. Now should Utah win the Pac-12, it would be headed for the granddaddy of them all — the Rose Bowl.
That possibility was not lost on Pac-10 leaders, who brought along officials from the Rose Bowl to Utah's celebratory press conference.
There will likely be some growing pains. Utah will not be a full partner in revenue sharing until after its third year in the league, which would come in the 2014–15 athletic year. But a separate television contract for the first Pac-12 championship game and additional televised games as the result of expansion reportedly will pay $25 million to the conference. Split 12 ways, Utah's take is just more than $2 million, or nearly double the $1.2 million it received annually from the Mountain West Conference.
As it becomes a full partner in revenue sharing, Utah's revenue will vastly exceed what it received in the MWC. Some estimates say Utah could get as much as $13–$14.5 million per year as a fully vested revenue partner with a new Pac-12 television contract ... and that's before BCS bowl and NCAA basketball tournament shares are calculated into the mix.
Utah can ride out the initial financial concessions a little easier knowing it will receive more fan interest, media attention, and marketing opportunities than it would have gotten in its previous conferences as the Utes enjoy their initial season in the Pac-12, traveling to new locales and establishing new rivalries (or in the case of Colorado, Arizona, and Arizona State, reestablishing). There is no more exciting time to be a fan of Utah football as it heads into its initial season in the Pac-12 Conference.CHAPTER 2
Urban Meyer's tenure with the Utes lasted all of two seasons. But they were the most glorious, thrilling two years Utah had ever experienced, displaying once and for all the potential that existed in Utah football. At the same time, the foundation Meyer helped build during the 2003–04 seasons was strong enough to endure long after his departure, and without that foundation, it's possible that inclusion in the Pac-12 Conference would remain a fantasy for Utah.
There were periods of greatness in the Utah football program prior to Meyer, but mostly they were significant only for history buffs and the lucky few fans still alive who remembered Ike Armstrong's teams from way back when. For the 60 years previous to Meyer's arrival, Utah was a basketball school.
So what factors were in play to help Utah land arguably the best college football coach of his generation?
More than a decade before arriving in Salt Lake City, Utah coaches had crossed paths with Meyer on the recruiting trail when Meyer was a wide receiver coach at Colorado State. His first boss, Earle Bruce, remembered Meyer as a graduate assistant who had worked with Bruce when they were at Ohio State in the mid-1980s. It was Bruce who saved Meyer from the rigors of an 8-to-5 job in order to support his family — Meyer made just $6,000 as an assistant coach at Illinois State — and offered him a job as a receiver coach with a much-needed pay increase.
"My dad is first, Earle is second," Meyer said in a 2009 article in Sports Illustrated, talking about the men who have influenced his life.
"I've never seen a coach so deep into [the game]," Bruce said. "Some coaches bitch about the hours you put in, but the guys who like football don't; they only bitch about wasting hours. When it came time to recruit, he brought in more good players than anybody we had there."
Bruce was fired after the 1992 season, and Meyer appeared out of a job. New coach Sonny Lubick — a stark contrast to Meyer's disciplined, tough-love approach — saw something in Meyer and rehired him. Meyer stayed at CSU for another three years.
Next was a five-year stint as the receiver coach at Notre Dame — a dream job for Meyer, who is Catholic. There he became associated with Mike Sanford, who was the quarterback coach under Bob Davie.
"He was constantly coming up with ideas of how to spread out the ball, just for fun," said Sanford, who later would be Meyer's offensive coordinator at Utah. "We'd put together entire game plans that just wouldn't fly in the offense Notre Dame was running."
Meyer's first head coaching job was at Bowling Green, where he inherited a team that went 2–9 and turned it into an 8–3 outfit the following year. A nine-win season followed, and he was hired as the 16th coach in Utah history after the 2002 season.
Having enjoyed her previous trip out west, Shelley Meyer encouraged her husband to consider Utah's offer. Meyer, who had seen Utah's 10-win team in 1994 as a CSU assistant, knew there was potential. "I couldn't see why Utah wasn't winning," he said.
Meyer had previously seen Utah's talent on film and on game day, but there was little else there. Meyer was shocked at how poor Utah's facilities were, Rice-Eccles Stadium notwithstanding. Fan support was lukewarm, and there wasn't the dedication to conditioning necessary to be a big winner, or at least the dedication Meyer wanted to instill.
As he had done at Bowling Green, Meyer's first workout at Utah consisted of locked doors, trash cans, and an endless sprinting session. "We stared at each other for 45 minutes," running back Marty Johnson said. "We couldn't believe what life was going to be like."
There were some rough patches that first year, but there was nothing to give anyone a reason to believe Meyer wouldn't be a smashing success. Quarterback Brett Elliott went down for the year with a broken collarbone on a failed two-point conversion attempt after leading Utah back from a multiple-score deficit in the fourth quarter at Texas A&M. Utah won five straight with Alex Smith as quarterback but was outclassed in a 47–35 home loss to New Mexico.
The positives were far greater. In Meyer's third game, Utah set a single-game home-attendance record against Cal that still stands today. The following week, with his former team driving for the winning score, Arnold Parker returned a fumble 80 yards for a touchdown as Utah beat Colorado State for the first time since 1994.
The season concluded with a pair of shutouts against BYU and Southern Mississippi in the Liberty Bowl. It was a nice prelude to the 2004 season, in which Utah went 12–0 and became the first team from a non-BCS conference to play in a BCS game. Although Meyer moved on to Florida after the 2004 season, questions about his former program came up often in the 2008 season — Meyer's Gators won the national title, while Utah, which featured some notable Meyer recruits, finished No. 2.
"Utah is not going away now," Meyer said before the media and a room full of Gator fans after the Gators defeated Oklahoma to win the 2008 national championship. "If you go evaluate that program ... you keep hearing the words 'BCS conferences.' I can't think of many schools that are better than Utah."CHAPTER 3
2009 Sugar Bowl Win Against Alabama
To say Utah was an underdog in the 2009 Sugar Bowl against Alabama is an understatement of Terrence Cody–sized proportions. The previous year, Hawaii had crashed the BCS from the Western Athletic Conference and was pummeled by Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Although Utah and Boise State had registered BCS bowl wins in 2004 and 2006, respectively, many viewed the Hawaii game as a return to the norm — that schools from non-BCS conferences had no business playing in bowl games against traditional powers from major conferences.
Entering the game, No. 4 Alabama had been ranked more weeks at No. 1 than any team in the country, while No. 6 Utah, despite being undefeated, had more than its share of close calls.
So from the moment Las Vegas issued its opening line on the game (Alabama was a 101/2-point favorite) to the Fox pregame show when Barry Switzer said not one player on Utah's roster would have been recruited by Alabama coming out of high school, Utah fans were forced to either bite their tongues or debate a skeptical public that insisted this game would be a blowout.
At least they got the blowout part of the equation right.
Utah's 31–17 beating of Alabama was far more decisive than the score indicated. The Crimson Tide offense was never a threat, scoring its lone touchdown on a short field after a Brian Johnson fumble. Its other touchdown came on a Javier Arenas punt return. Meanwhile, Utah and Johnson shredded the 'Bama defense in opening a 21–0 first-quarter lead.
Utah's defense sacked quarterback John Parker Wilson eight times, intercepted him twice, forced a fumble, and stuffed the vaunted 'Bama ground attack — which only featured a third-round NFL Draft pick in Glen Coffee and 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram — to just 31 rushing yards and 208 total yards.
Alabama wanted to be there, fighting back from the early three-TD hole to get within four points at 21–17. But just like it did against Michigan, Air Force, Oregon State, and TCU, Utah remained cool and quickly regained momentum. A 33-yard pass-and-run by Freddie Brown advanced the ball into Crimson Tide territory. Bradon Godfrey caught a key 10-yard pass on third-and-10. And on another third-and-10, Johnson hit David Reed on a curl pattern. Reed slipped a tackle and raced to the end zone untouched to regain Utah's two-possession lead.
Utah would force two Alabama turnovers in the fourth quarter and win going away.
Having listened to a month's worth of dismissal, chagrin, and skepticism, it was now Utah's turn to talk.
"You tell us where to be, when to be there, and we will be there," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We are the only ones standing right now with an unblemished record."
"Without question we are one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the country," Johnson said.
Perhaps Utah's greatest motivation came from Alabama coach Nick Saban. Maybe Saban was trying to salve his team's wounds after a loss to Florida in the SEC championship game. However, his claim of Alabama being the only team in the country to go undefeated in a "real BCS conference" struck a nerve within the entire Utah program.
It would be one thing to tout SEC supremacy; it was quite another to let clearly inferior leagues like the Big East and Pac-10 (which went 1–7 against the MWC in 2008) piggyback onto Alabama's success. But Saban's words were merely an extension of what the national pundits had been saying all season long: Utah couldn't live up to the week-in, week-out demands of any BCS conference.
"The whole team knew about that," said senior defensive tackle Greg Newman. "We came out here hungry, ready to go. It was no respect, a slap in the face."
In the aftermath, it was nothing but hugs and tenderness.
"Find me anybody else that went undefeated," argued Rick Reilly for ESPN The Magazine. "Thirteen-and-zero. Beat four ranked teams. Went to the Deep South and seal-clubbed Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. ... So that's it. Utah is the national champion."
John Feinstein begged AP poll voters to reconsider Utah's spot in the polls. "I am writing to urge you — no, implore you — to cast your final ballot of the season with one team and one team only ranked No. 1: the University of Utah."
Many listened but not enough to leapfrog Utah ahead of Florida and former coach Urban Meyer. Still, with 16 first-place votes (as opposed to zero during the regular season), it was good enough for Utah's No. 2 finish in the AP polls. The coaches, apparently oblivious to Utah's undefeated mark and Sugar Bowl Stomp, relegated Utah to No. 4. Nonetheless, both finishes represented Utah's best ranking ever in the polls.
It was a magical season by any standard. And for the Oklahomas and USCs of the world who find no satisfaction in finishing No. 2 in the polls ... if any of them carried Utah's 2008 resume, highlighted by four wins against Top 25 teams and two in the Top 10, and no other team finished undefeated, they would end up being ranked at the top.CHAPTER 4
Original BCS Buster
When the Bowl Championship Series, nee Bowl Alliance, was formed in 1996, it effectively created a caste system in college football. There were the privileged teams from the six power conferences at the time — Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast, Southeastern, and Pac-10, plus independent Notre Dame. And then there were the ne'er-do-wells, led by the Western Athletic Conference, the Mid-American Conference, Sun Belt, Big West, and Conference USA. In 1998, the breakup of the 16-team WAC led to the formation of the Mountain West Conference, of which Utah was a member. The Big West stopped sanctioning football in 2000, leaving five non-BCS conferences.
The ultimate formation of the BCS was, and remains today, about concentrating money and exposure among the elite programs and their conferences. On the field, it would appear the BCS was formed to keep another team like Brigham Young from winning the national championship, as BYU did in 1984 despite facing a slew of unranked, losing programs on its way to posting the nation's only perfect record.
The bar was set almost impossibly high for teams from non-BCS conferences, and the gap in exposure and financial windfall from TV contracts and bowl appearances grew greater and greater. For any team from a non-automatic-qualifying conference, it must finish in the top six of the BCS standings for entry into a major BCS bowl game — Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, and Orange.
Excerpted from 100 Things Utes Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Patrick Sheltra. Copyright © 2011 Patrick Sheltra. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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