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Why BYU football is putting a spoke in the Old Wagon Wheel, suspending a 100-year rivalry with Utah State

Utah State and BYU canceled their games after 2022, ending the rivalry for the foreseeable future

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU celebrates the win as the Utah State Aggies host Brigham Young University Cougars at Maverik Stadium Oct. 1, 2021. The Cougars attempt a second straight win for the Wagon Wheel, the trophy of the in-state rivalry, while the Aggies will try to recapture the trophy.

Upon the occasion of Gary Andersen’s first Utah State-BYU rivalry game in Logan, the former head coach got a heads-up from a longtime equipment manager. Steve Wiley came up to the coach’s office to let him know about the Old Wagon Wheel trophy.

The late Wiley, with his long handlebar mustache and slicked back white hair, didn’t know if Utah State would win. Admittedly, after getting shellacked 41-7 by San Diego State the week before, the odds seemed long. But, with BYU coming to town, he wanted Andersen to at least be prepared to accept the trophy in the case of a miracle.

“That was the first I’d heard about it,” Andersen recalled Thursday.

The Aggies hadn’t seen the trophy in a while. USU hadn’t beaten BYU since 1993. Then that Saturday, the miracle happened that shocked even the longtime manager: Utah State beat BYU 31-16 on ESPN.

But when it came time for the Cougars to hand over the trophy to Utah State’s head coach, BYU officials said they didn’t bring it north.

“I told him, ‘Go get it Steve,” Andersen said. “So he took off back to Provo. As the story is told, the wheel was stuck up in some room up there at BYU and he found it. He brought it back and we brought that sucker up and found a special place for it for everyone to see.”

Now, wherever the Old Wagon Wheel ends up this fall will likely be its home for the foreseeable future. On Thursday, Utah State and BYU both announced they will be suspending their century old rivalry after their meeting this fall.

“As we prepare to enter Big 12 membership, we’ve had to make many adjustments,” BYU athletics director Tom Holmoe said. “We are grateful to Utah State for being a willing partner in scheduling games throughout the years, especially the last decade as we’ve navigated independence.”

The Cougars and Aggies were scheduled to face one another four more times through the 2026 season. The cancelation of those games “disappointed” Utah State athletics director John Hartwell.

“Utah State and BYU have a long-standing history of annual competition on the football field and our goal is to continue the rivalry,” he said in a statement. “While we are disappointed to see the series go away for now, we are committed to working with BYU to find scheduling opportunities in the future.”

Change, though, felt inevitable.

As soon as BYU was admitted into the Big 12, Holmoe knew he would have to preside over scheduling attrition — getting rid of up to nine games every year to make room for a conference schedule. The longtime athletics director said he would prioritize keeping in-state rivalries and, for a while, it looked like BYU might be able to follow through on that wish.

Even as USC and South Florida fell by the wayside, soon followed by Rice and UCF, the Utah teams stayed on the calendar. Southern Utah and Dixie State were there. Utah remained in 2024. And then there was Utah State, wedged firmly on BYU’s plate every year from 2023-26.

Eventually, the Utah State series would reach the same fate as the others. Language in the scheduling contract allowed BYU to avoid a $1 million buyout if it entered a new conference. As BYU head coach Kalani Sitake has said, these decisions are “all based on contracts.”

But, for a rivalry like this, it meant more than a contract.

The two schools have met 90 times, spanning several conferences and eras. It was also a rivalry that helped create quarterbacks and fire coaches.

Steve Young took over for an injured Jim McMahon in the famed 1981 game, leading BYU to a 32-26 win. On the opposite end, BYU defensive coordinator Jaime Hill was famously fired after the 2010 game where Utah State put up 31 points and ran for nearly 250 yards in an Aggie win.

And although the game did not live up to the stature of the Utah-BYU rivalry, it had its own place, full of history and sellout crowds.

Looking ahead, BYU opted to keep non-conference games against SEC foes Arkansas and Tennessee in its first year of the Big 12. The only game the Cougars will pay an opponent to play will come against Southern Utah at home.

That was another reason why Utah State likely had to go. With a Big 12 conference schedule and two SEC teams, BYU wanted to include at least one tune-up game, and Utah State didn’t qualify. Utah State was also scheduled to be a road game in 2023, whereas Southern Utah was to be at home.

BYU will continue having to reschedule games in 2024-27, but its first year in the Big 12 is now set. And for the first time in decades, it won’t have Utah State on the schedule.

The tale of the late Steve Wiley and the Wagon Wheel — along with 100 years of stories that border on local folklore — will stay in the past.

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