Gordon Monson: As Pac-12 Bad Boys, nobody laughs at Utah football, not anymore

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah Utes wide receiver Kaelin Clay (8) celebrates with wide receiver Tim Patrick (9) after scoring the game winning touchdown, with 8 seconds left in the game, giving the Utes a 24-12 victory of the USC Trojans in Pac-12 action, at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, October 25, 2014.

It was one of the better things ever to happen for sports in Utah, ranking right up there at least within shouting distance of the arrival and thriving and community appeal of the Utah Jazz and the successful execution of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

The memory of it, framed in red-and-white balloons, is etched into anyone’s brain who happened to be on hand.

The Utah Utes' invitation to join what was to become the Pac-12.

It happened in a large suite atop the West stands at Rice-Eccles Stadium, complete with a gaggle of dignitaries of the day — the governor, Pac-10 officials who were eager to increase their number by two, a Tournament of Roses honcho, titans of state industry, wealthy boosters, university leaders, administrators, coaches, players and raucous fans who applauded every minute, every movement, every speech, every sound, every indication that the Utes had both arrived and were about to depart on a strenuous journey.

The packed house even cheered now-embattled conference commissioner Larry Scott.

How long ago was that?

Well … it was 10 years and four months ago, when the Utes were asked into their new home, a league that by today’s measure lags behind a few other P5 conferences, but that back then — and at present, still — was a major step up for Utah athletics, football in particular.

And now, the Utes lean into their 10th football season in the league, that initial climb starting with another memory, their first Pac-12 game against none other than USC on Sept. 10, 2011, a 23-14 loss at the Coliseum.

Utah’s quarterback at the time, Jordan Wynn, having driven his team to the SC 24-yard line with 11 seconds left, setting up a field goal that was blocked and returned for a Trojan touchdown as those last seconds slid off the clock, said afterward: “There’s no happiness in a loss.”

There was happiness in playing at a whole new level.

What the Utes had achieved in the past was kind of cute, a couple of unbeaten seasons, mostly made up of victories over lesser teams, with a handful of toughies mixed in. Suddenly, now, they were jumping into an association that mattered, that might not have been the SEC, but that was advanced from the Mountain West, giving Utah the chance to establish itself among college football’s historical elite, if it could make the ascent.

It has, with heights yet to scale.

While the Utes have not won a league title, they have improved over that span, taking the South the past two seasons, each time being defeated in the Pac-12 championship game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

They bumped and skidded for a time, evidencing what most objective observers already knew — that playing a regular dose of better competition, week in, week out, challenged a program in a way that playing in a lower sphere, occasionally required to rise up, could not accomplish.

Kyle Whittingham looked on that first day up in that celebratory suite like a man who wanted to party at the launch onto his new ocean of opportunity, but who also was fully aware he needed a bigger boat.

So the Utes bounced around a bit, seeing some early success and suffering through periods of failure, among them two 5-7 seasons in which Utah struggled to conquer conference opponents.

But as time went on, Whittingham’s crew recruited more, better players — note the plethora of guys they’ve sent to the NFL — and he improved as a coach, too, settling into a philosophy and a rhythm that transformed the Utes into a consistently formidable foe. Not just proved in the recent South Division titles and consecutive trips to the Pac-12 championship game, but in the manner in which Utah plays its football.

Ask around the league what program is the toughest bunch of hombres, who might from time to time slip a bit, but who are most likely to cause not just hesitancy in the form of second thoughts, but bashing and bruising on the field, particularly on the defensive side, and Utah often is the first name mentioned. They are Pac-12 Bad Boys.

That’s quite an achievement for a little football outfit in the Rocky Mountains somewhere that a decade ago was seen by some as little more than a cheap replacement for the Big 12 defectors, such as the Texas and Oklahoma schools, that decided, ultimately, not to defect.

If there’s a cheap replacement, it’s on the east slope of the Rockies, not on the West side of the Wasatch.

There’s work yet to be done, goals yet to be fulfilled, such as qualifying for and winning a Rose Bowl game and making a college football playoff.

But few football programs around the country have grown in reputation, and, more importantly, in legitimacy the way Utah has — in the handful of seasons before the Pac-12 invitation and the nine since. Heading into Year 10, it is making much out of an increased emphasis on football and the money generated from Pac-12 membership. It wasn’t that long ago that the Utes were getting laughed at, kicked around in backwater leagues.

Nobody laughs at and kicks them around now, not anymore.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.

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