Big Sky rivalry brews between Weber State and Southern Utah
By Steve Luhm
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Aug 24 2014 10:47PM
When it comes to tradition, fan-base passion and national significance, Weber State-Southern Utah is hardly one of college football’s most prominent rivalries.
It’s not Utah-BYU.
It’s not Army-Navy.
It’s not even Harvard-Yale.
Since Southern Utah joined Weber State in the Big Sky Conference in 2012, however, the schools have shown increasing signs of the brotherly dislike for each other that fuels all rivalries.
"There should be a rivalry," said Weber State’s new coach, Jay Hill. "We’re in the same conference and we go after the same players in recruiting. They have great coaches and I feel like we have great coaches. There’s definitely a rivalry brewing and there should be, all things considered."
Hill knows about rivalries.
Before being hired at Weber State, he played and coached at the University of Utah for 15 years — most them when the Utes and BYU played their annual "Holy War" as members of the Mountain West Conference.
"I hope this gets to be what that became," Hill said. "It was fun for the fans, it was fun for the players and it was fun for the coaches. It was fun for everybody. ... Rivalries are good for college football."
On the field, Weber State and Southern have played the kind of games that help create rivalries.
Since Nov. 1, 2010, when the Thunderbirds officially accepted an invitation to join the Big Sky, three razor-close battles between the two schools have been decided by a total of 15 points.
Southern Utah won twice, 35-28 and 27-21.
"They’re our biggest rivals now," said Conner Myers, a senior defensive tackle at Weber State. "I used to really look forward to playing Montana. And I still do. But now I’d say it’s Southern Utah. ... There are a lot of consequences to that game."
SUU junior defensive end James Cowser agrees. One of the top players in the Football Championship Subdivision, he attended Davis High, only a few miles from Stewart Stadium in Ogden.
"I love the Weber State guys, just not when we get them out on the field," Cowser said. "I guess that’s what happens in a rivalry. ... Playing them is a big deal."
Two years ago, the Wildcats scored a 24-22 win over the Thunderbirds in Cedar City.
"They got us at home and that was very frustrating," Cowser said. "In my mind, that really solidified it. That’s the day they really became our rivals because of how bad it felt losing to them."
Perhaps more than the games, Hill’s hiring at Weber State last December has pushed the relationship between the Thunderbirds and Wildcats in a new direction.
When he got the job, Hill immediately hired three long-time members of head coach Ed Lamb’s staff at Southern Utah. The group included offensive coordinator Steve Clark, defensive coordinator Justin Ena and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake.
According to Southern Utah athletic director Ken Beazer, the movement among the coaches spiced the feelings between the teams.
"It didn’t create the rivalry down here," Beazer said, "because it was already a big deal. I wouldn’t even say it intensified the rivalry. I think the coaching thing just garnished things a little bit."
At Weber, Hill’s new staff began recruiting Utah with renewed zest. The philosophy translated into more and more living room battles against Southern Utah which, thanks to Lamb and his assistants, had gotten most of the state’s Big Sky-caliber prospects in recent years.
Currently, SUU has 14 true freshmen from Utah on its roster. Weber State has 10. The Thunderbirds and Wildcats both signed players from Lone Peak, Bingham and Timpview.
"The commonality we have in our programs will enhance the rivalry," Beazer said.
"What I’ve seen is an emphasis by [Weber] to recruit the state of Utah," he said. "The previous staff had gone away from that for some degree. So just the make-up of the locker rooms will make a difference. Our players will know each other, going back to their high school days. I think that will add some excitement to it."