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Monson: How big a deal is BYU, Utah and Utah State football, really?

Published April 15, 2014 7:24 pm

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This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

You think Utah, BYU, or Utah State is ready for the big time?

You think Utah is a football state, where the college game is large and every other sport is petite-sized?

You think football is king here, along the lines of the game's other regal regions, and deserves to be mentioned with them on an annual basis?

Au contraire, my friends.

It's not even close. We're not even close.

How do we know, beyond the sorry facts that the Utes have won five Pac-12 games and lost something like 50 over the past two seasons, and the Cougars seem to lose most of their big games against top teams and then fatten up their independent record with lesser outfits, and the Aggies still play in the Mountain West?

There's another indicator that shows how far behind our fine state is compared to states like Ohio and Nebraska and Alabama and Tennessee and Georgia. Maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe it's the lack of a cultural thing. Maybe it's because in those areas there's nothing better to do. Maybe it's because Uncle Jeb and the boys have always loaded up the truck and headed off for a little taste of SEC or Big Ten football in the offseason.

We're talking about the Spring Game.

We're talking about attending the Spring Game.

We're talking about making attending the Spring Game a big deal.

If football fans in Utah want to see themselves as football-centric, they've got to gun it down another 500 miles of highway to get there. They've got to make getting to the Spring Game a priority.

Right now, it's not.

And that reflects poorly on your — our — love for football.

Sure, the state has leaned in that direction over the past couple of decades, maybe surpassing basketball as Utah's lifeblood sport, despite the fact that there are probably more basketball courts in this area, certainly per capita, than anywhere else on the planet. There's a gym attached to a majority of the churches in this state, and there are a million churches.

But football has made huge advances, based mostly on the success of the past, where BYU and Utah built success and sizable followings by beating up on teams in less competitive leagues. While that numerical success has gotten a bit thinner, Cougar and Ute football games still cause people to stop and watch. There's a buzz around most of them, regardless of those losing records by the Utes in the Pac-12 and some of the milquetoast opponents on the schedule for BYU. More on that in a minute.

First, back to the other indicator, which is related to success and what's stressed.

Don't think the numbers of fans who show up for what is essentially a scrimmage in the spring doesn't matter. In those rich football regions, it matters the way water matters to the thirsty mouth, the way oxygen matters to the empty lung, the way cheesecake matters to the growling belly.

Look at Penn State, where the Nittany Lions recently drew some 72,000 fans for their exhibition, or at Tennessee, or at Alabama, or at Auburn, or at Nebraska, where those programs annually bring in 50,000 to 80,000 fans for a game that nobody else thinks counts, except for the fans who think everything about their program counts.

Recently, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller had his fun at the expense of Michigan, when he tweeted out attendance figures at the schools for this year's spring games:

Ohio State: 61,058.

Michigan: Just over 15,000.

He tagged those figures by concluding that the Buckeyes have "The Best Fans in the Land!"

How do BYU, Utah and Utah State stack up?

Not great.

And it's not just a Bubba-and-Billy-Bob South-Midwest versus the too-cool and too-busy West thing. Oregon had 37,000 last year, UCLA had 20,000, USC had over 15,000. Those lag behind Bubba, but they're better than what happens around here.

The Cougars had an estimated 6,500 show for their spring game this year. (In the past, they've had more.) The Aggies had about 6,000. And the Utes play their game on Saturday, an exhibition that will be televised on the Pac-12 Network. Utah is attempting to make its game a more extravagant deal, featuring pregame activities that include tailgating, a food competition, an alumni game, and honorary coaches. All of that is great for stirring interest.

Winning real games against high-level competition would be greater.

The same Utah fans who were jacked out of their minds about the Utes getting into the Pac-12 now are wondering when their team will climb the league's lower rungs. After seasons of 3-6 and 2-7, they have to wonder. It is good for them to have USC and UCLA and Oregon and Washington come into their building to watch high-level football. But consistently beating those teams would help. When the Utes took out Stanford at Rice-Eccles, it was a major thrill for the patrons. But that thrill became an indictment against a team that was good enough to edge the Cardinal, but bad enough to lose to everybody else but Colorado.

BYU's doing what it can with its independence. But let's say it the way it is: The Cougars must and should do anything and everything possible to get into the Big 12. They then could enjoy the privilege of getting slapped around in that conference the way the Utes are getting slapped in their league — at least until they catch up. Then they could play, or attempt to play, legitimate football every week. The wins would be fewer and sweeter, the losses halfway expected. Look at the home schedule BYU is offering its fans in 2014: Houston, Virginia, Utah State, Nevada, UNLV, Savannah State. It's hard to get pumped for that.

Utah State moved up last season to the Mountain West and darn near won the thing in its inaugural run, falling in the title game to Fresno State. But the Ags are headed in a positive direction. They've won consecutive bowl games and their fans should reward them with much new interest and commitment.

All three of those programs are a few steps away.

If football really is king in Utah, it's currently a weak king. Maybe it never will be as strong as it is in the Midwest or the South. Maybe other priorities will always call first here. Regardless, a conclusion can be drawn that that relative weakness is reflected in the number of fans who show up — or don't show up — in the spring, for a game that's more a celebration of a program than it is a contest of competition.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone.