Watching from the dugout as her University of Utah softball team quickly fell behind, coach Amy Hogue could only wonder, “What just happened?”
That feeling became familiar to Ute coaches, experiencing life in the Pac-12 Conference. A year after the school launched its Pac-12 membership with a summer celebration at the state capitol, reality is hitting home. Competing in this conference is serious stuff — and there’s no skiing in the Pac-12.
In their first trip through the league, Utah posted a winning record in only one sport (women’s soccer) that maintains standings. The Utes placed in the top half of the field in only one sport (women’s gymnastics) that conducts a conference meet. Utah finished last in baseball, softball and men’s golf.
“Being in the Pac-12 has been great, but unto itself, that’s not an accomplishment,” said Ute athletic director Chris Hill. “It’s a credit to the university and what’s happened in the past, but here and now, we’re there, and we’ve got to do well.”
That’s what’s driving the athletic department’s $150 million capital campaign, an effort to bring Utah closer to Pac-12 budget and performance levels. None of the Utes’ first-year struggles came as a surprise, particularly in Olympic sports, where the Pac-12 excels nationally. Hill knew it would take awhile for the Utes to catch up in this conference, and everybody now understands what it will take.
“As a coaching staff, we learned a lot about where we have to go with this, and what our deficiencies are,” said baseball coach Bill Kinneberg.
There’s also a natural break-in period, becoming accustomed to the league. At times, the Utes “felt like impostors, almost,” said volleyball coach Beth Launiere.
The standards have changed for Utah’s teams, and evaluating them is somewhat tricky. The overhaul of the men’s basketball program and injuries to the women’s team created their own issues.
In football, the Utes went 4-5, finishing three games behind USC in the Pac-12 South. Yet factoring in USC’s ineligibility, Utah came within a missed field goal of forcing overtime with a conference championship berth at stake in the final game, after posting four straight victories with a fill-in quarterback.
So the Utes’ second year of Pac-12 play becomes intriguing. As coach Kyle Whittingham said during the 2011 season, “I don’t know if people thought we were going to come in and take the Pac-12 by storm and just walk through it. That’s not reality.”
Yet Whittingham ultimately liked the way the Utes measured up against conference opponents, while citing a need to increase the team’s depth.
Compared with softball teams in the Mountain West, Utah’s former home, “The talent level is completely different,” Hogue said. “It sounds like a bad thing, but it’s a level of ball that I love being a part of.”
Same story in volleyball. “If I didn’t have to worry about winning and losing and getting to the NCAA tournament, it would be totally a blast,” Launiere said. “The players love it.”
For more than a year, Utah’s soccer players closed every practice with a cheer of “Pac-12 Utes.” So after a buildup of anxiety that coach Rich Manning described as “palpable,” the Utes were relieved to go 6-5, while taking powerful UCLA to overtime in a 1-0 loss.
“The soccer actually was more fun to play, because there were less teams trying to ‘ugly’ it up, lacking talent,” Manning said.
Utah’s gymnastics team already competed favorably in dual meets against Pac-12 schools. The difference in 2012 was entering a conference meet for the first time in decades. The Utes finished a close second to UCLA, with coach Greg Marsden aiming for the school’s first Pac-12 title.
“That would have been thrilling,” Marsden said.
Instead, the Utes let UCLA take the trophy home from the Huntsman Center in April, postponing the Utah athletic department’s celebration of a Pac-12 championship for several months, if not longer.
Strugglin’ in the Pac
Utah’s rankings in the Pac-12 in 2011-12 (* finish in selected sports based on conference meets).
Sport Record Place/teams
Men’s basketball 3-15 11th/12
Women’s basketball 8-10 T7th/12
Baseball 7-23 11th/11
Women’s cross country* — 8th/12
Football 4-5 T6/12
Men’s golf* — 12th/12
Women’s gymnastics* — 2nd/8
Women’s soccer 6-5 T5th/12
Softball 2-22 9th/9
Men’s swimming* — 5th/8
Women’s swimming* — 7th/9
Men’s tennis 1-6 7th/8
Women’s tennis 3-7 T7th/11
Women’s track* — T10th/12
Women’s volleyball 6-16 9th/12
They are the champions
NCAA championships for Pac-12 schools in 2011-12
Women’s soccer Stanford
Men’s water polo USC
Women’s water polo Stanford
Women’s volleyball UCLA
Women’s indoor track Oregon
Men’s swimming California
Women’s swimming California
Men’s tennis USC