Monson: Utes need split-second reaction off Pac-12 line
That's exactly what all the teams in all the sports at the University of Utah find themselves in as they burn out their tires and deep stage toward the starting line in their move to the Pac-12.
Kyle Whittingham and Larry Krystkowiak are not going up against Big Daddy Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney here. Drag racing is not one of those sports. But it might as well be, considering the calibrated-light countdown on the Christmas tree currently dropping as the pass nears. It's as though the Utes are moving up from the Pro Modified class to the Top Fuelers. Their tanks had best be loaded as soon as possible with nitromethane, not low-octane regular.
In most sports, it's not as simple as just that.
Football and women's gymnastics will be the best early shots to blow through the finish line, and even those will be tough. In other sports, the timeline is more vague, although there is hope for an eventual bounce.
Take women's tennis, for example.
In the last team rankings for the 2011 season, three Pac-12 teams were in the top 10: Stanford, UCLA, and Cal. Five were in the top 20, including Arizona State and USC. Two other Pac-12 schools, Washington and Arizona, were ranked ahead of the top-ranked Mountain West Conference team, UNLV, which was at 39. Utah was next at 49. Last season, the Utes finished at 40. In each of the past two years, Utah has qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
"Based on the success we've already had, we fit solidly into the five-to-eight range in the Pac-12," said Ute coach Mat Iandolo. "The big leap is to get into the top five and compete for a league title. But it doesn't scare me at all to join that league."
Six of the past 10 national champions have come from the Pac-12, led by Stanford, which has won five during that span.
It is into that fire that Utah drives, not just in tennis, but in sports from women's soccer Pac-12 teams have made the national championship game in five of the past seven years to baseball league teams have been in the College World Series final in three of the past five seasons.
Regardless of the individual sport, Utah's ascension to respectability in the Pac-12, or to the level Ute athletic director Chris Hill is aiming "We want to be a formidable member of the league," he said is similar. Similarly difficult.
"What we need is more resources for greater access to travel and recruiting," Iandolo said. "We also need an outdoor facility equal to our indoor facility, which is very good. I do see us getting a bump soon."
Money is always an issue, and most Pac-12 schools have large wallets. But Utah's billfold will fatten, too, in the years ahead, allowing the Utes to improve those aforementioned facilities and increase pay for quality coaches, which is bound to lure better athletes, especially now that the conference is what it is.
As Whittingham has pointed out: "It's always about getting great players."
Actually, it's more than that, starting with the school's top administrators through to Hill, to coaches, and on down.
And that's where the Utes have additional hope.
Hill has shown himself to be a smart department head in just about every way except in hiring men's head basketball coaches and knows how to take advantage of what's given him. Many of the athletic directors in the Pac-12 are top drawer as well, benefiting in all sports from the tradition established in them at schools such as USC, Stanford, Cal, UCLA and the rest.
Tradition may not be Utah's comparative strong suit, but the school has enough going for it that if the university's powers decide to funnel enough resources into the athletic department, if they prioritize and emphasize that funneling, with Hill at the helm and Whittingham leading the charge in the highest-profile sport and coaches such as Iandolo running the other sports, with the institution being what it is, it's believable that it can make up ground, draw the athletes it needs and fit in snugly.
That's a guess.
But, as the wheels of the rail edge closer to the starting line, as the amber lights go to green, it's a decent one. The Utes have their chance, if administrators go ahead and fuel that baby up even in fast company.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 104.7 FM/1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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