College football preview: Golden Age of Utah college football
On the day in November when Utah coach Kyle Whittingham turns 50, some 110,000 fans will fill the stadiums in Provo and Salt Lake City where he once played and now works.
Such a vast following for college football in this state would have seemed unimaginable, even as of Whittingham's freshman season at BYU. In 1978, on a pleasant October afternoon with the Cougars moving toward a conference championship in coach LaVell Edwards' seventh season, barely more than 23,000 fans attended BYU's non-televised home game against Texas-El Paso.
Well, it was the opening weekend of the deer hunt.
"The pheasant hunt was also a problem," marveled Glen Tuckett, formerly BYU's longtime athletic director.
Hunting season is not a scheduling issue anymore. Football's popularity is at an all-time high in Utah, a state once owned by college basketball and recreational pursuits. For the first time, both Utah and BYU are ranked in the preseason Top 25, resulting in record season-ticket sales during a convergence of success for the rival programs that's highly unusual.
"If you look back in history," said Whittingham, with strong ties to both schools, "it's usually one or the other."
While many fans of each team are completely happy only when the other is struggling, having both Utah and BYU at the top of their games makes this era of football delightful to Salt Lake City's Kathy Nelson. She is known to proudly wear a homemade, red-and-blue jacket -- even to the BYU-Utah game, where disgusted Ute fans once insisted she pick one school or the other. "We are going to be watching some great football this fall," Nelson said. "How can you not get excited for all the teams?"
Indeed, all five of the state's Division I programs are trending upward. Weber State is coming off a Big Sky Conference championship and a trip to the national quarterfinals under coach Ron McBride, Southern Utah is progressing in coach Ed Lamb's second season and Utah State, the only school where it could be said that basketball is still a bigger deal than football, has huge hopes for a revival under new coach Gary Andersen.
The Aggies briefly ruled the state in the early 1960s. Before that, Utah dominated for decades. In the '70s, BYU took over for a 20-year run that was slowed by Utah's resurgence under McBride. Yet only lately have both programs become great at the same time. What kept it from happening until now is a mystery to the current coaches, who are convinced that each program can win simultaneously, and that keeping up with the other serves as motivation.
Last season marked the first time since November 1996 that both schools appeared in the Top 25, with Utah joining BYU after the first game and staying there. More commonly, they have been at extremes. In 2003 and '04, while Utah was 22-2 with coach Urban Meyer, BYU was 9-14 under Gary Crowton. Even in 1994, when the schools were a combined 20-5, neither won a conference championship.
Between them, the Cougars and Utes have posted three consecutive unbeaten seasons in Mountain West Conference play, highlighted by Utah's 13-0 record last year with a Bowl Championship Series victory.
If one school was knocking the other down in the past, the rivalry is "really working in favor of both teams," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall.
The growth of high school football in Utah is making better players, and more of them, available to college programs. "This state is becoming a very, very good football state," Mendenhall said.
That helps explain why the Utes and Cougars are finding success at the same time, and the interest level in the programs has risen to a degree that stuns Tuckett, a Murray native. "You'd have to stretch your imagination, for sure, to think that football would overtake basketball," he said. "There was a time when we thought basketball was invented in Utah."
In 1971-72, when the 22,700-seat Marriott Center opened, BYU averaged 21,818 fans for basketball. In '73, Edwards' second season, the Cougars drew 22,852 for football.
College basketball's mutual popularity peaked in 1981 when BYU's Danny Ainge and Utah's Danny Vranes and Tom Chambers were the stars. Football's dual resurgence should have much more staying power, with excellent recruiting resulting from the on-field success of both schools.
"It's good for the state of Utah, for sure," Whittingham said.
Even better, for the school that wins Nov. 28 -- the week after Whittingham's birthday.
For three Saturdays this season, the combined attendance for BYU and Utah home games should approach 110,000.
» Sept. 26 -- Colorado State at BYU; Louisville at Utah.
» Oct. 24 -- New Mexico at Utah; Texas Christian at BYU.
» Nov. 21 -- Air Force at BYU; San Diego State at Utah.