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(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU tight end Andrew George (88) scores the winning touchdown of the game during overtime in the BYU Utah game at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah, Saturday, November 28, 2009.
BYU-Utah football rivalry is evolving — for the better

College football » With teams on different paths, vitriol is down, focus on game up

First Published Sep 14 2012 09:25 am • Last Updated Dec 25 2012 11:32 pm

There was a time not so long ago when the Utah-BYU rivalry game was burning this place down. It didn’t matter if the calendar said June or November, the rivalry was a hunk-a-hunk-a-burning hate. Or spate … which is an informal contraction for sports hate, which is different than hate hate. Sometimes, spate seemed an awful lot like hate, but that mostly was on the rivalry’s edges.

Let’s say it the way it is here: Ten percent of any group — be it Ute fans or Cougar fans — is one can short of a six-pack, whether that six-pack contains Coors or caffeine-free Coke.

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But every so often, come game time, that insanity would spill over and, next thing, one of those beverages would get poured on a quarterback’s family … and, then, in the post game, all hell would break loose, to the point where spate really was hate and bumper stickers were being printed up with the words: "Honk if Max Hall hates you, too."

That was then.

It’s different now.

Conditions have conspired to turn down the spigot on one of the great football rivalries in America, even tainted as it sometimes was by dopes who used the football game between the state’s two biggest schools, one state-owned and one church-owned, as an excuse to revolt against a religion or to swing self-righteousness like a hammer.

That was the occasional cost of doing strong business.

Business is not so strong, not anymore.

Utah’s move to the Pac-12 and BYU’s independence are having adverse effects on a rivalry game once at the core of sports here. Two universities located just 45 miles apart that had always been members of the same league suddenly were torn into different realms. The Utes were looking for roses, the Cougars for wider exposure. And each wanted more of what is now the lifeblood of college sports: money.

Then, supposedly on account of Pac-12 conflicts, the game was moved from every regular season’s exclamation point at the end of November to a mere comma in the third week of September. It got worse when Utah athletic director Chris Hill decided earlier this year not to play BYU in 2014 and 2015, in part, because he didn’t want to overschedule, which is a euphemism for not wanting to play more than one good team in the Utes’ three annual nonconference slots. He preferred an easier route that included scheduling smaller schools — read: automatic wins — at home.

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So, for two seasons, and maybe more in the future, a game that had been played for the better part of a century, a game that had in large measure anchored and symbolized sports in Utah, was headed into cold storage — to be thawed back when convenient for the Utes.

It’s still a rivalry game, but collectively, a toll has been taken.

The importance of the game has been mitigated and as a result the rivalry is evolving.

"It certainly is still a rivalry," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "But there are different conferences now and the game’s played earlier in the year. I still think the game matters, but there’s a different feel to it."

Said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham: "We’re still in the infancy of the transition. It’s definitely changing, but everyone will have a better idea four or five years from now exactly what’s going on."

One positive about that evolution, according to Mendenhall, is that the stupidity of some of the fans has been tamped down: "It just seems like it’s more about actually playing the game now than all the stuff that leads up to it or [comes] after it. That’s better."

Still, in an unscientific survey of former BYU and Utah players and fans from both schools this week, the consensus is that the rivalry game won’t have the same force it once had, nor will it be as intense. A few believed it could become just as emotional as it once was, even with the Utes in one conference and BYU in none: "They still want to prove they’re better than their neighbor," one fan said.

But Utah tight end Dallin Rogers tossed water on that, saying: "We treat everybody the same, whether it’s BYU or Northern Colorado."

Kalani Sitake, who like Whittingham played at BYU and now coaches at Utah, said on the one hand:

"It’s different. You play the game early and then you kind of move on. And no one really cares about the game last year because you had a bunch of games in-between. It’s transforming into a different type of game. It’s still heated. It’s still a rivalry game you want to win really badly, but it’s a different feel."

On the other hand, he said:

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