With each successive sentence, Kyle Whittingham’s nose extended out and across Utah’s practice field the other day when he was asked about the back-to-back rivalry games his Utes face this Friday and next Saturday.
There’s nothing routine about Utah playing Utah State and BYU, and he knows that. Coach Pinocchio started with half a truth in Sentence 1, then stretched it in Sentence 2, and then blew it past midfield in Sentence 3. He said: “Our preparation doesn’t change. … We just go about our business the same exact way. … It’s just another ballgame.”
It’s not just another ballgame.
These are in-state rivalries made great over the long haul. They’ve been going on since your grandpa’s grandpa’s grandpa first donned a raccoon coat, swallowed a goldfish and waved a small pennant in celebration of the football teams from the U. and the Y. and the A. They started before the turn of the century. Not the last turn. The turn before that.
And that is a beautiful thing. It’s a thing that should be relished and appreciated and preserved.
Sometimes, in the commotion of late-model enthusiasm for the most recent thing — say, inclusion in the Pac-12 and big money — the young and the shortsighted and the foolish lose their ability to see that beauty. Utah and Utah State were playing football against one another before any of us was born. Who among us, then, with any degree of responsibility and authority feels justified in threatening or putting asunder that which has become a part of our sports culture here?
Would that person of power really understand what he was killing? Apparently not, or he wouldn’t kill it. He’d find a way.
We all get the pressures of our modern times, the nine-conference-game schedules — and that goes for both the Pac-12 and the Mountain West — and the list of other excuses/hurdles that so often are put in the way of continuing a great in-state tradition. But it would be refreshing to see somebody stand up and make the right call in guarding good things about our past as we rocket toward the future.
Football fans in Utah deserve that, even if the crazy 10 percent like to use a bit of one-upmanship to smack down the validity of rivals by saying that their own school has now moved on to more important matters.
Yeah, there have been times throughout the Utah-Utah State, the BYU-Utah State, the Utah-BYU series when the competition hasn’t been all that level. Ja, und?
They’re all connected at the hip by geography — and a whole lot more. Fans and alumni from all three schools live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same churches, shop at the same grocery stores, breathe the same air.
Besides, look at what Gary Andersen is doing with the Aggies now. They were low for a long time, but they’re climbing up again. Somewhere, Merlin Olsen is looking down on all that with a grin as big as the man himself. And it’s cool.
In 2009, the last and only time Andersen coached Utah State against the Utes, a program he earlier helped launch to new heights, he was an Aggie neophyte. His team lost in a plucky effort at Rice-Eccles, 35-17. He was not pleased. He expected more. He wasn’t going to settle for any pat-you-on-the-noggin-and-scootch-you-in-the-shorts kind of good try. He was there to win.
He’s still there to win, underdog status or no.
We all want to see how Chuckie Keeton will do against Utah’s great defensive front. We want to see Andersen’s coaching put up against that of his good friend Whittingham. We want to see if the Aggie defense can slow John White.
There are ’dogs and there are favorites in this series, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the game is played, same as it ever was, same as it ever should be. Same with BYU, when the Cougars are mixed in. And we’ll see and hear plenty of that next week.
Neighbors who don’t come out to play, home and away, whatever the reason, are the worst things neighbors can be — snobs.
No. Friday night’s game is not just another game. How many other coaches does Whittingham talk with on the phone every single week? It’s something extraordinary. And the Utah game against BYU … well, only you-know-whats would diminish that.
Whittingham, of course, is fully aware. In a burst of subsequent honesty, his telescopic nose retracted quickly when he said there was no denying the extra sauce on these games: “It happens on its own. It takes care of itself. The players get up for it.”
So does everyone else, upon whose backs, and grandpas’ backs, these football programs and traditions were built.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.