Kyle Whittingham, the state of Utah’s highest-paid public employee, reports to work whenever he’s told to be there. Traditionally, that includes the Thursday evening prior to Labor Day.
No questions asked.
That was the case until this week, anyway, when Whittingham suddenly wondered why his Utah football team has staged Thursday games 10 years in a row. During his weekly news conference Monday, Whittingham interrupted his own answer about the Utes' recent history of openers by saying, “I've never really asked the question why we always play on Thursday.”
So he asked the moderator, senior associate athletic director Liz Abel: “Why do we do that?” Told that fans enjoy having Labor Day Weekend for other activities, Whittingham half-kiddingly responded, “Oh, we're big-time, Pac-12 now. They'll show up, no matter what.”
That theory has proven true for the last 50-plus games at Rice-Eccles Stadium, including some memorable Thursday openers.
Utah's run of starting every season since 2009 with a Thursday home game will end next year, when the Utes visit BYU. In 2020, Utah will host BYU to begin the season. In each case, television partners will help decide if the game is played on Thursday, Friday or Saturday.
THURSDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
Utah’s Thursday night season openers of the past 10 seasons:
2009 • Utah 35, Utah State 17.
2010 • Utah 27, Pittsburgh 24 (OT).
2011 • Utah 27, Montana State 10.
2012 • Utah 41, Northern Colorado 0.
2013 • Utah 30, Utah State 26.
2014 • Utah 56, Idaho State 14.
2015 • Utah 24, Michigan 17.
2016 • Utah 24, Southern Utah 0.
2017 • Utah 37, North Dakota 16.
Thursday • Utah vs. Weber State, 6 p.m.
Chris Hill, formerly Utah’s longtime athletic director, viewed the Thursday opener as an an attraction, with a limited college football schedule that night. That certainly was the case in 2015 when Jim Harbaugh made his Michigan coaching debut in Salt Lake City, and remains true this week, even with FCS member Weber State as the opponent. Utah is the only Pac-12 team playing Thursday and the Pac-12 Networks will stage a live pregame show from Rice-Eccles.
Some fans dislike having a 6 p.m. kickoff on a workday, and a Thursday game is somewhat disruptive to campus life. One big parking lot closes at 10 p.m. Wednesday for tailgating purposes, and late-afternoon traffic is an issue on game day.
Other fans enjoy having the season start as soon as possible, two days before most teams take the field. Whittingham sees “a couple pros, couple cons” with the schedule. The players' short break between summer conditioning and the start of practice is moved up, but they get two extra days to prepare for the next game. The Utes have won all nine Thursday openers during this run; they're 7-2 the following week.
With the recent tradition ending this week, here's a look at the Utes' five most memorable Thursday games since 2009:
2015 • Utah 24, Michigan 17
In the buildup to this game, Whittingham and the Utes fielded nearly as many questions about Harbaugh as about themselves, and they were tired of it.
Justin Thomas' 55-yard interception return for a touchdown clinched the victory, aided by an efficient game from Ute quarterback Travis Wilson. Michigan contained running back Devontae Booker, but Wilson passed for 208 yards and freshman Britain Covey made five receptions.
2013 • Utah 30, Utah State 26
In Matt Wells' first game as USU's head coach, quarterback Chuckie Keeton's performance was illustrative of his Aggie career. He tended to do his best work in defeat. Keeton's passing and running enabled the Aggies to post 391 yards as of their first possession of the second half, but they were held to 96 yards the rest of the night as Utah rallied from nine points down in the third quarter.
Andy Phillips kicked three field goals and recovered his own onside kick in his first-ever football game.
2010 • Utah 27, Pittsburgh 24 (OT)
In the Utes' final year of Mountain West membership, with one last chance to host a team from a tier above them in college football, they allowed Pittsburgh to rally and force overtime. But freshman safety Brian Blechen's interception on Pitt's first overtime play and Joe Phillips' field goal salvaged Utah's victory.
Illustrating the Utes' joy in beating bigger programs in that era, scoreboard animation showed a graveyard with dates and scores of their wins over brand-name schools.
2014 • Utah 56, Idaho State 14
Ute receiver/kick returner Kaelin Clay would become more famous for failing to complete a touchdown in a loss to Oregon two months later, but he made a big splash in his Ute debut. Clay returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and took a punt 46 yards for another score.
2009 • Utah 35, Utah State 17
Gary Andersen's first game as USU's coach brought him back to Rice-Eccles Stadium, where he had worked as Utah's defensive coordinator during the unbeaten season of 2008. Utah beat the Aggies for a 12th straight time, by an average of 25 points (USU would break the streak in the next meeting, in Logan in 2012).
Andersen’s return to Utah as defensive line coach will bookend the Utes' 10-year run of Thursday season openers this week.