New University of Utah athletic director Mark Harlan says that the two biggest topics people have asked him about since he took the job last June are the expansion of Utah’s stadium and the future of the football series with rival BYU.
That’s not a promise that the Cougars and Utes — who meet Saturday at 8 p.m. at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the annual in-state rivalry game — will continue to play after this series’ contract expires in 2022, but it at least shows Utahns haven’t been shy about expressing how much the matchups mean to them.
“I love rivalries,” Harlan said when he was introduced on June 4. “And I know [BYU-Utah] is great for the state of Utah.”
The future of the rivalry is clearly in Utah’s hands, and has been since the Utes left the Mountain West Conference for the Pac-12 and BYU became a college football independent in 2011. The Utes showed that when then-AD Chris Hill left BYU off the schedules in 2014 and 2015 so they could play a home-and-home series with Michigan.
BYU AT NO. 18 UTAH
When • Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • FS1
The schools separated by just 45 miles along the Wasatch Front ended up meeting in the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl, a 35-28 Utah win, and have played every year since. They added two games to the series — the 2021 game at BYU and the 2022 game at Utah — on Oct. 27, 2016, with Hill saying in a school news release that the game “has a great deal of interest throughout the state” and both schools “worked hard” to find dates in 2021 and 2022 “even as long-term scheduling has become very difficult.”
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe has never wavered in saying he wants to play every year, and he repeated those sentiments during his annual Education Week address in August.
“My expectation is that we play [Utah] in every sport that we can, every year,” Holmoe said. “That’s what I would like to do. That’s what we are trying to do. That’s what we are doing. For the most part, we have home and home [agreements]. We go there. They come here.”
Holmoe said most contracts are for two years only and Utah has said it doesn’t want to do any longterm contracts, such as the 10-year deal BYU has with Boise State.
Harlan has said publicly several times that he and Holmoe have a good relationship, and Holmoe acknowledged that in August. Harlan was South Florida’s AD when he negotiated a home-and-home series between the Bulls and BYU for 2019 and 2021.
“Their new athletic director is a really good guy. I know him and we have talked a little bit and we have an idea,” Holmoe said, without divulging details on that idea.
After last Wednesday’s stadium expansion news conference, Harlan left an opening by saying there may be an occasional year “when it makes sense for both schools” to skip the football game. Otherwise, he envisions the game being played annually or very close to it and continues to emphasize its importance.
FUTURE BYU-UTAH FOOTBALL GAMES
Aug. 29, 30 or 31, 2019 • Utah at BYU
Sept. 3, 4 or 5, 2020 • BYU at Utah
Sept. 11, 2021 • Utah at BYU
Sept. 3, 2022 • BYU at Utah
Holmoe agreed that “football has a little bit of a different feel” because Utah has only three games a year to work with “and it makes it hard for Utah to play teams like BYU every year.”
But he mentioned that longtime rivals such as Florida, Florida State and Miami are in different conferences but still play each other all the time.
“They don’t dream about not playing each other in those games,” he said. “And when that happens, it is chaos. So everybody wants it to happen. Every once in a while something bizarre happens and it doesn’t happen. But the expectation is to always play each other.”
It is no surprise that BYU players and coaches want to play Utah every year, especially in November — which won’t happen again for the foreseeable future — after a steady diet of UMass, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Idaho and the like in the final month of the season.
“I grew up watching all the BYU-Utah games,” said BYU offensive lineman Austin Hoyt, who is from Ione, Calif. “Growing up, I never had anything red. It was ingrained in me that we don’t wear red.
My dad was a big believer in the rivalry. Of course, we still respect Utah and it is a great school. But that rivalry has been in me since I was little, which has been fun.”
Provo native Britain Covey of Utah has talked about how he enjoys watching the Utah freshmen as the older players explain the rivalry to them and tell them how important it is. And Utah senior offensive tackle Jackson Barton, a Brighton High product, also loves having the Cougars on the schedule.
“That’s a personal game to me,” he said. “I grew up watching the Utah-BYU rivalry. Having it be my Senior Night is a dream come true.”
BYU safety Austin Lee has seen both sides, having started his college career at Utah before transferring after a church mission.
“When I was over there it was very emphasized that we play BYU, and this is a rivalry game,” Lee said. “It was taught as a rivalry game to the kids from out of state. The people from in state, they view it as such as well. It is a big game for them. Very emotional.”
Tribune reporter Kurt Kragthorpe contributed to this story.