When the Utah Utes joined the Mountain West Conference more than a decade ago, they needed only a few months to win their first league championship, tying for the football title before winning basketball and softball crowns to begin building a strong legacy that included 38 conference regular-season and tournament titles in 10 sports throughout a dozen years.
So which team will get them started in the Pac-12 Conference?
The Utes officially join the expanded league July 1.
And though the move was primarily made to accommodate a high-octane football program that has won two prestigious Bowl Championship Series games in the past seven years, few people if any expect the Utes to immediately drive to the head of the class in that sport, not with national powerhouses such as Oregon, Stanford and USC in the league.
Utah's women's basketball, volleyball and soccer teams all have fielded nationally competitive teams in recent years, but none is any better positioned than the football team to face elite new rivals who will make it hard for them to sit atop the league right away. Skiing still won't have a league title to chase since only one other school in the conference Colorado has a team. Other sports are likely years away from title contention.
Now that's another story.
The Utes have been one of the best women's gymnastics programs in the country for nearly three decades now.
They have won nine national championships while competing mostly as an independent and have reached the Super Six of the NCAA championships 17 out of 19 times under that tournament format including every one for the past decade.
So while not every school in the new Pac-12 has a women's gymnastics team, the Utes are undeniably from an outsider's perspective better than six of the seven that do.
"I'd hate to say that," said coach Greg Marsden with a chuckle. "Especially right now. There are some awfully strong gymnastics programs. â¦ I think we can be competitive, but I'd hate to promise something I can't deliver."
Several of the Pac-12 schools have strong gymnastics teams that compete regularly with the Utes, such as Oregon State, Arizona State, Stanford and Washington.
But the biggest challenge for a league championship is bound to come from UCLA.
The Bruins have grown into one of the nation's best in recent years. Coach Valerie Kondos Field has led them to six national championships since 1997, which is six more than the Utes have won since their last title in 1995, and a national runner-up finish last season, when the Utes were fifth.
Yet Marsden knows his team is still among the best.
"We've really tried to compete with everybody in the country," he said, "so that's not going to change."
While the Utes are working on improving some basic elements in many other sports depth, recruiting and facilities, for example in order to compete in a much stronger league, the dynamic is different in gymnastics.
For years, Marsden has landed some of the nation's top gymnasts.
His coaching experience and expertise is all but unmatched after 36 years on the job, the past 27 alongside his wife, Megan, who is now the co-head coach. His athletes train in the state-of-the-art Dumke Gymnastics Center, one of the best facilities of its kind in the country, and the Utes' meets attract the largest crowds in women's gymnastics.
So his focus has been different.
"Really, we're not going to have to make any major adjustments, in terms of facilities, or recruiting budget, or travel budget, or anything," Marsden said, "because we've traveled all over the country to compete against the best in the country. â¦ We've always competed with the best in the Pac-10 and the SEC and the Big Ten. So, in that sense, it's really not going to impact us tremendously."
The biggest change for the Utes might be the addition of a conference tournament.
The Utes will actually get to host the inaugural Pac-12 championships at the Huntsman Center next spring and are looking forward to adding an important meet before the regionals and NCAA championships.
Scheduling will get a little easier, too, since Marsden will no longer have to fill all 11 or 12 competition dates per season on his own.
Starting in 2013, the women's gymnastics teams in the Pac-12 will all compete against one another in dual meets throughout the regular season they will use a less-extensive transitory league schedule next year meaning the Utes will need to find only three or four nonconference opponents each season.
That brings its own challenges, of course, since Marsden still wants to keep local rivalries with Brigham Young, Utah State and Southern Utah, as well as continuing to compete against fellow national powerhouses such as Georgia, Florida, Michigan and Alabama.
Space will be tight for all those interests.
But all in all, Marsden and his Utes are as excited, knowing that membership in such a prestigious conference will only enhance their reputation.
"We've always had a lot of positives," Marsden said.
"It's always been a good school. It's always been one of the few places that gets the kind of attendance that we do and the kind of support of the community that we get. But I think now, being in the Pac-12 Conference, it's just going to be an addition to all those other positives," he added. The Pac-12 Project
Gymnastics teamsin the Pac-12
Eight Pac-12 Conference schools field women's gymnastics teams:
Follow the Utes'move in The Tribune'sPac-12 Project series
May 15 • U. teams to face tougher competition, higher expectations.
May 16 • Despite boost to budget, U. will have financial growing pains.
May 22 • Football team will be joining some of the best in the nation.
May 23 • Can the men's basketball team keep up in a struggling league?
May 23 • Women's hoops team can thrive despite juggernaut Stanford.
May 24 • Pac-12 Olympic sports.
You can see all the stories online. > sltrib.com/topics/pac12 Editor's note • From now through August, The Salt Lake Tribune will look at issues involving the Utes' entry into a new conference. See all the stories online. > sltrib.com/topics/pac12