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Just as the Utes started behind the other Pac-12 members financially, Utah has had to play catch-up in recruiting.
This season should be the first when the Utes see some impact of their efforts as a Pac-12 school. The $32 million football facility that will open in July will help the efforts too, Whittingham said.
Strugglin’ in the Pac
Sport Place Pac-12 record Overall record
Baseball 12th 7-23 21-31
M. basketball 10th 7-14 15-18
W. basketball 6th 9-11 22-14
Football 5th* 3-6 5-7
Gymnastics 3rd 4-1-1 20-9-1
W. soccer 9th 3-7-1 8-8-3
Softball 9th 7-17 24-30
Volleyball 9th 5-15 14-19
"As a program we have made a lot of progress with facilities, recruiting and everything we need to be competitive in the Pac-12," he said. "We have to keep building depth and talent, but we are getting there."
Every coach extols the virtues of fancy new buildings for recruiting purposes. But in the Utes’ case, all the overhauls are critical in maintaining Utah’s image as a growing program, even as it struggles with results, according to Michael Smith, a writer for SportsBusiness Journal who covers the league.
"That kind of new building has the ability to give the football program a face-lift and change perceptions about the Utes running a big-time football operation," he said. "Every football program these days needs an impressive space that serves as a front door to the program, and that’s what Utah will have."
Patience still needed
Still, it could take several seasons more for other sports to start seeing positive results. The Utes’ adjustment to the Pac-12 is challenging because the conference is strong in the so-called Olympic sports, with Stanford, UCLA and other schools regularly hauling in NCAA titles — helping the league live up to its billing as the "Conference of Champions."
The Pac-12 has won 400 NCAA championships, a number unsurpassed by any other conference.
"It is a big leap for a lot of our programs," Utah gymnastics coach Greg Marsden said. "The Pac-12 is among the best in many sports in the nation that sometimes it seems it’s almost as easy to win a national championship as it is a Pac-12 title. It’s a big change for a lot of teams."
There were some hints of success among the losses. The men’s basketball team nearly upset No. 19 Oregon in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, and beat USC and Cal to win the program’s first two postseason games in Pac-12 play. The women’s basketball team finished second in the WNIT and the baseball team upset nationally ranked Oregon at the end of the season.
The volleyball team also notched its first win over Oregon State, and the softball team earned its first road win by beating the Beavers.
Such wins wouldn’t get much attention if the Utes were still in the MWC, where they regularly won. But they are learning that winning anytime in the Pac-12 is an accomplishment worth celebrating.
Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak said he believes those small milestones are an indication his program is turning things around and hopes his team can climb into the upper echelon of the league this season.
"That is the plan," he said. "We’re in a nice conference, and a lot of the benefits of being in the Pac-12 make it difficult too. It’s like the saying goes, the same thing that may make you laugh can make you cry, too. We have to be able to move up."
Despite the slow progress, Hill remains convinced his programs will succeed. He has more than $64 million in improvements riding on that belief.
"For us to get where we want to go and be successful, you have to have good athletes, coaches and facilities," he said. "It takes a while to get all that in place. But we are playing in the biggest of bigs and we know what is at stake — everybody knows. We are still keeping score, and we are going to try to win."
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