The week was bookended blue and red.
But it wasn’t until Brad Klekas filled up his water bottle at work and began the walk back to his desk that a co-worker at another cubicle did a double take. “You can’t be wearing this polo!” he shouted at Klekas across the floor.
Why not? Well, earlier this recent week, Klekas proudly sported a blue Brigham Young University polo shirt. A few days later, he showed up in red, a drum-and-feather logo on his chest. This spawned outrage, debate and, eventually, a heated conversation. A dozen co-workers huddled around Klekas, all of whom joined in to lecture him that not only could he not fearlessly wear both shirts, but he shouldn’t even own them.
“They all tried to get me to choose a team right then and there,” he said, “and I wouldn’t do it.”
This is life for this isolated subgroup. Folks who have zero qualms saying they, in fact, root for Utah and BYU on a full-time basis. To some zealots on each side, it’s blasphemous. To others, it’s disingenuous. Some diehards have laughed in the faces of this uncommon club, asking them to prove their loyalties.
Believe it or not, though, they’re out there, those who ride blue-and-red every weekend, cheering on Kyle Whittingham’s Utes and Kalani Sitake’s Cougars, hoping the state gets recognized for the talent it possesses and hoping, bottom line, for some wins on Saturdays.
Some wonder how these folks manage to walk the tightrope of one of the country’s most earnest rivalries. Joe Matthews, a retired former professor who taught at both Utah and BYU, summed it up succinctly: “It’s a little complicated.”
Rivalry ties that bind
After spending a total of 20 years at Utah and BYU as a professor of educational leadership, Matthews was taken aback when informed that there are indeed others out there like him, those who bleed red and those who bleed blue.
“I don’t know of anybody like me, to be honest,” he said. “All my friends are only one way or the other.”
Matthews, who is retired and living in Provo, has looked at the etymology of the rivalry for decades. What still fascinates him is how such fervent fandom — and hatred — can be bred from those who never spent a semester at each respective school.
“You may never even step foot on that campus, you may have no idea about college life,” Matthews said, ”but you identify with their athletic program.”
Still, as he said, one of his best friends is vehemently anti-Utes, until he has to go for treatment at Utah’s renowned medical centers. You don’t have to give up on one to like the other, Matthews says, and to him, it’s unfortunate that’s where the majority lies. It’s a broad and distinct stance, no doubt. But many families in this state have splintered off.
Andrew Christensen grew up attending Utah football games with his father, a season-ticket holder. He attended BYU for undergrad and law school. For two years, he was a member of BYU’s student section, The ROC (Roar of the Cougars). When he wasn’t in the mass of blue, he’d change out shirts and cheer on the Utes with his dad.
“It drives people nuts. They just don’t get it,” Christensen said. “How can you like both schools? In some ways, I wish I’d prefer one of them. Maybe it’d make the rivalry more fun. But once you just embrace it, it’s really just the best of both worlds because both teams will inevitably let you down.”
The Salt Lake Tribune asked readers to respond to a query last week, in search of those who not only identify as both Utah and BYU fans, but also those who actively and unabashedly root for each side. The paper received 183 responses. Upon filtering through them, it’s clear there is a rare faction out there.
“Let’s put things in perspective: It’s a sports game. It’s universities. Nobody’s dying. There’s just bigger fish to fry,” said Jim Dahle, a doctor who lives in Sandy.
Cupcakes and touchdowns
Kaylee Brimhall left the cupcakes on the doorstep, rang the doorbell and bolted.
She doorbell-ditched her in-laws. It was rivalry week a few years back, and the BYU graduate who married into a Utah family wanted to find a way to lighten the mood before the game. So she baked some cupcakes, but didn’t do so without paying homage to her alma mater. While she frosted the top white with a red “Block U” on top, she baked a blue cake.
Brimhall stayed silent as she eventually returned and saw her in-laws partaking in the mystery treat. When a sister-in-law realized there was a blue center, she panicked. She thought she’d immediately jinxed Utah, that the Utes would lose to BYU. They didn’t. And after unveiling who left the cupcakes and why, it since has become a tradition.
“I need to get my stuff ready for this Saturday,” said Brimhall, who now lives in Seattle with her husband and child.
Brimhall graduated from BYU but eventually moved to Salt Lake City with her husband and got a job working at the Utah business school. Like Matthews, Brimhall said it’s easy to fall in love with a school and become a fan when you work there. So, come rivalry week, she tunes in wearing blue but is happy regardless of the outcome.
Sarah Sorenson, conversely, said she tries to wear purple. Or black. Another BYU graduate suddenly part of a Utah family will hear the roars for the Utes inside her home Saturday night, but if Tanner Mangum connects for a long touchdown, she’ll cheer and accept the immediate dirty looks. Sorenson, who grew up in Salt Lake City, attended BYU, but was part of a group that bought season tickets to Utah games during her years in Provo.
The years? 2003 to 2005. Not a bad time. When a member of her Provo Mormon ward, or congregation, found out, he was disgusted. He’d seen her wearing a red sweatshirt around town. He was one of BYU’s break-dancing Cosmo the Cougar mascots.
“He gave me the most grief about it,” she said.
Defending their stance
Chriss Anderson’s father is in the Cougar Club. She was raised on BYU sports. But she attended Utah, was a sportswriter at The Daily Utah Chronicle, and when fans of either side pipe up and accuse her of being a phony fan, she scoffs.
“They can say what they want,” she said, “I don’t care.”
For as much flak as these folks receive, deflecting both sides all year — not just during rivalry week — proves they’re up for it for the long haul. Christensen bought tickets to Utah’s Oct. 28 game at Oregon. He’ll be in attendance Saturday night in LaVell Edwards Stadium, even though he wanted to buy tickets to BYU’s home game against Wisconsin. He’s out of town that weekend.
The one-sidedness of the rivalry in recent years — the Utes have won six straight against the Cougars — has several fans yearning for a BYU win.
“If I were Utah, I would be afraid,” Sorenson said.
“It’s needed,” Anderson said. “For the rivalry.”
Klekas, who played high school football at Bingham, said some of his best personal sports moments through the years have come during Utah-BYU. And he plans on further diversifying his wardrobe, too. Along with his polos, he has both a Utah and BYU hat. Next on the list: BYU athletic socks. He already has some for Utah. Regardless of the outcome Saturday night, he’ll be ready to go back to work — in red or blue — in the near future, prepped for the water-cooler hysteria to commence.
“I’m totally OK with being that guy,” he said. “I’ll gladly continue repping both polos. Back to back even, one day after the next.”
This story was informed by sources in the Utah Public Insight Network. To become a news source for The Salt Lake Tribune, go to: bit.ly/PINTribune.