If Utah’s offense starts slowly Saturday morning vs. Northern Illinois, the players won’t be able to use the unusual kickoff time (11 a.m.) as the explanation. Ute quarterback Mark Stevens removed that excuse 36 years ago against Wyoming.
And if the Utah defense performs as poorly as in another home game that began in the morning, 23 years ago vs. BYU, coach Kyle Whittingham won’t cite the kickoff time as the reason. He loves it.
“As coaches and players, you want to get up and play right away,” Whittingham said.
The Salt Lake Tribune’s informal survey of 75 fans this week produced almost an even split about the 11 a.m. kickoff, dictated by the Pac-12 Networks as part of a Saturday quadrupleheader. Some conference home team had to play in the 10 a.m PDT slot; Utah, in the Mountain Time Zone, made the most sense. Colorado will take that position next week, with the Utes moving to 2:15 p.m. vs. Idaho State (Utah’s other five Saturday home kickoff times this season are TBA, based on the TV networks’ selections 12 days in advance).
This subject is timely, because Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott this summer raised the possibility of the conference’s occasionally filling the valuable noon Eastern Time position on FOX, perhaps in 2020. That’s 9 a.m. on the West Coast and 10 a.m. in Utah, Colorado and Arizona (in November), as an alternative to games that have kicked off as late as 8:26 p.m. in Utah and lasted until nearly midnight. Both schools likely would have to agree to an early start. Some Pac-12 coaches, notably Washington State’s Mike Leach, are opposed. Whittingham and UCLA’s Chip Kelly are among the proponents.
Saturday's 11 a.m. kickoff won't be the earliest in Ute history, with at least two documented 10:30 a.m. starts. In October 1983, Utah hosted Wyoming on CBS and Stevens accounted for five touchdowns in the first half of a 69-14 victory. In November 1996, a Utah defense coordinated by Whittingham allowed 366 rushing yards in a 37-17 loss to BYU on ESPN.
Ute fans who disapprove of Saturday's morning kickoff point to several factors: conflicts with youth sports, the September heat, the compressed tailgating schedule, late-arriving students and patrons and the absence of the Rice-Eccles Stadium nighttime environment.
“That atmosphere is at its best when the sun is down and the lights are on,” said Randy Jensen, of Riverton.
Utah is 18-18 in Pac-12 home games over eight years, including 12-8 at night. Whittingham is not deterred. “As great as our atmosphere at Rice-Eccles is at night and as electric as that place is, it’s tough to sit around all day waiting to play,” he said. “I’m not saying play at 10 a.m. every week, but we wouldn’t mind playing a 10 a.m. game or two every season.”
A morning kickoff shouldn’t require a big adjustment for Utah’s players, even though their season opener at BYU last week kicked off at 8:25 p.m. and ended at 12:20 a.m., partly due to a weather delay. The Utes practiced in the mornings for two-plus weeks of preseason camp in August.
Fans in favor of morning kickoffs note that Big Ten schools in the Central Time Zone often have 11 a.m. starts and say late-night games are difficult for young families. “I'd welcome at least one 10 a.m. kickoff a season,” said Billy Hesterman, of Bluffdale. “How are we supposed to build the next generation of Ute fans if the games are too late for [children] to watch? Let's mix it up. Why not give an early start time a try?”
Other fans wish the earlier starts would occur only later in the season and some, such as Justin Whittaker, of Sandy, want the kickoff-time window to go only from noon to 7 p.m. That's not satisfactory, though, to networks that need programming until 11 p.m. Pacific.
Todd Hainsworth, of Midvale, is among 30 to 40 members of a tailgating group that will show up at 6 a.m. Saturday. “The good news,” he said, “is we will be home around around 4 p.m., unlike the 1 a.m. or later arrivals after night games.
Aaron Hunter, of Sandy, remembers his childhood in the '80s when Ute games rarely were nationally televised and mid-day starts were the norm. “The memories of walking up the stadium on a bright, sunny, crisp Saturday afternoon still sit with me every time I go to a game up there now,” he said.
Ute fans residing east of Utah appreciate earlier kickoffs, with the time difference. That’s especially true for Jonathan Bowen. Saturday’s game will start at 6 p.m. in London, where he lives. He likes that a lot better than 3 a.m.