By Jeff Call
Not surprisingly, BYU and Utah don’t agree on much — even the date when their celebrated football series started.
In the beginning, on April 6, 1896, they played a game vaguely similar to what we now know as football. The University of Utah defeated Brigham Young Academy 12–4 in Salt Lake City. They played each other five more times between 1896 and 1898. In all, each school won three games apiece.
That’s according to the “Book of Utah.”
BYU doesn’t acknowledge those pre-1900 games, counting only the ones played since 1922. The sport was banned at BYU from 1900 to 1919 because of the death of a football player in Salt Lake City in the late 1890s and the opposition of university administrators and LDS Church leaders.
BYU officially launched its football program in 1922.
Even though the schools can’t agree on when the series began, it has nonetheless blossomed into an intense, rabid rivalry — growing bigger and bigger in recent years.
With every game, another fascinating chapter is added as the football field turns into a stage featuring unforgettable moments, intriguing subplots, surprises, drama, emotion, heroes and goats.
Yet, after Sept. 21, the series is taking a two-year hiatus. Utah wanted to take a break in the rivalry, explaining that it was looking for balance in its schedule.
The Cougars and Utes won’t play again until 2016, so it’s time to revel in the rivalry.
Over the years, some games have had more national impact than others. For example, BYU’s 1984 win over Utah propelled the Cougars to No. 1 in the national polls for the first time. Utah’s 2004 victory over BYU sent the Utes to the Fiesta Bowl for the first time.
Still, the series has been marked by long stretches of domination by one side or the other. When BYU football began in 1922, Utah crushed the Cougars, 49–13. That set the tone for the next 20 years. From 1923 to 1938, Utah outscored BYU 416–39 in those 15 games and shut out the Cougars 10 times.
It wasn’t until 1942 that BYU finally defeated Utah. BYU blocked a punt at the Utah 10-yard line, and on fourth down, Herman Longhurst scored on a four-yard run to lift the Cougars to a 12–7 victory in Salt Lake City. BYU fans ripped down the goal posts and sawed them up for souvenirs.
Because of World War II, the teams didn’t meet again until 1946, but not much changed after the long layoff. Utah continued thrashing BYU, with rare exceptions. The turning point came, of course, in 1972, when LaVell Edwards took the helm at BYU. At the time, the Utes held a 38-5-4 advantage in the series. Then Edwards’ teams won 18 of the next 20 contests.
In the 1990s, the Utes, under coach Ron McBride, made the rivalry competitive on a yearly basis for the first time. From 1990 to 2003, the two schools met 14 times and each team won seven games. In fact, nine of eleven of those contests weren’t decided until the fourth quarter, and most of those came down to the closing minutes or seconds. From 1997 to 2003, the average margin of victory was 4.4 points, with the widest margin of victory in those contests being seven points.
Amazingly, in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012, the outcome was decided on the final play.
Can a college football rivalry get any closer than that?
Aside from the games, the climate surrounding this rivalry is unique. There are cultural overtones, as religion plays a huge factor. Some call it “The Holy War.” BYU vs. Utah is Church vs. State. Tuesday devotionals vs. Frat parties.
Like the infamous 19th century American conflict, the Civil War, BYU-Utah pits brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, alum against alma mater (BYU-Utah also has spouse against spouse). It even has a North vs. South flavor. It is one of the biggest backyard brawls in college football, a rivalry that is rarely civilized.
We have been reminded of this fact every year during Game Week, when the Cougar statue outside LaVell Edwards Stadium is covered with Visquine as a protection from would-be Ute vandals. There are BYU fans who have painted the Block U in Salt Lake blue and Utah fans who have painted the Block Y in Provo red.
“It’s more than a rivalry,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall told television/radio host Jim Rome recently. “Any time religion, or politics, are part of a rivalry, there’s a personal element that starts to take shape. So not only is it school against school, it’s person against person. Then it starts touching hearts and minds of people and makes them do things they wouldn’t normally do. It’s an amazing experience — not always fun, based on the outcome.”
Just when you thought the rivalry couldn’t get any more intense, or personal, it did.
In December 2004, for example, BYU’s Gary Crowton had stepped down as coach, and Utah had lost coach Urban Meyer to Florida. With both schools simultaneously searching for a new coach, both targeted Kyle Whittingham, a former Cougar linebacker and longtime Ute defensive coordinator. In the end, Whittingham decided to stick with Utah. And BYU elevated its own defensive coordinator, Mendenhall, to head coach. Since then, Mendenhall and Whittingham have led their respective teams in epic BYU-Utah games.
Enjoy the rivalry while you can, because after Sept. 21, you won’t see the Cougars and Utes clash on the football field for two long years.
Here are some of the highlights of the Golden Age of the BYU-Utah Rivalry:
(Photos courtesy of BYU Photo)