On a sunny October afternoon, my first exposure to big-time college football came when a highly ranked Arizona State team visited Provo. The Sun Devils attracted a crowd of only 18,288.
Of course, how could anyone expect football to compete with the deer hunt?
Let’s just say the sport has come a long way in this state since 1970, and happily so. In those days, or even 10 years ago, nobody could have imagined a Thursday night in August 2012 when Utah, BYU and Utah State may draw a combined 130,000 fans for their season openers.
Yet as much fun as college football has become in Utah, I can only hope the sport never grows to the point of overtaking a campus in our state, as happened at Penn State.
In announcing the sanctions against the school this past week, NCAA president Mark Emmert spoke of "an athletic culture that went horribly awry" and promised that "football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people."
That could never happen around here, right? Well, Penn State, too, was supposed to be different. Former coach Joe Paterno always portrayed his program that way, only to join administrators in a cover-up of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s crimes in the interest of protecting football, according to a school-funded investigation.
The irony of this subject is that football’s increased significance in Utah absolutely works in my favor. I’ll be helping cover 17 games this season, while traveling to four Pac-12 venues and Georgia Tech. That reflects huge interest in the local teams.
So it is weird for me to ask that football be kept in some kind of context on our campuses. I’m the one who knows how meaningless football once was at Utah State, having joined an announced crowd of barely 7,000 on a pleasant November afternoon in 1986. I also remember how Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium was half-full for some games and the lack of student interest was written off as a byproduct of a commuter school, before coach Urban Meyer arrived and the celebrated "MUSS" was created in 2003.
Football’s increased relevance is a phenomenon unlike anything I’ve experienced as a Utahn, and I love it. The Utes’ competing in the Pac-12, BYU’s playing high-profile games as an independent and USU’s long-lost tradition being revived with Mountain West membership are healthy developments.
It’s just that the sport can’t grow beyond its proper place. A football coach can’t become bigger than the school.
Scott Barnes, USU’s athletic director, didn’t invent the expression he often uses, but it’s a good one: An athletic program serves as the "front porch" of a school. Yet at Penn State, the football program seemingly became the house and the rest of the university was the mother-in-law apartment.
Here’s what I’m saying: Cheer like crazy for your football team, but take pride in the entire school. Appreciate the work of Ute football coach Kyle Whittingham and athletic director Chris Hill, but at least know the name of the U.’s new president (answer below-*).
And enjoy the games for what they’re meant to be. The circumstances were sad, but I’ll never forget the most impactive football game I’ve ever witnessed: Texas vs. Texas A&M in 1999, a week after 12 students had died at A&M when a bonfire stack collapsed.
The atmosphere was different at Kyle Field that day, even in a bitter rivalry. Beyond the Aggies’ victory, what really resonates with me is the surrounding scene of the doves, the memorial balloons and the bands’ halftime tributes.
Football held a very important place, but in the right context. Proper perspective should not emerge only out of tragedy or NCAA punishment — it should be ingrained. I’ve tried to remember that, every autumn Saturday since then — and I’ve occasionally succeeded.
(* - David Pershing).
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