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Gordon Monson: Utah fans are everywhere, worshiping at college football’s cathedral

The Rose Bowl is steeped in history. After Saturday, the Utes will forever be a part of that.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

Pasadena, Calif. • Walk up and down Colorado Blvd., Lake Avenue, Green Street, Los Robles Avenue, East Delmar Blvd., Orange Grove Blvd., Walnut Street, Fair Oaks Avenue, Union Street, all around Old Town, and from Vroman’s Bookstore over to the Wrigley Mansion to Bistro 45 and back to Rusnak Maserati, and what do you see?

Red. You see red, that’s what. Bits and pieces here, pockets there.

Crimson, not scarlet. Well, OK, there’s some scarlet, too.

All of that may be a slight exaggeration, I mean, crimson isn’t everywhere. But after rain showers on Wednesday and Thursday here, the sunshine came out on Friday and so did Utah fans.

They’ve arrived in the city of roses and they are appearing loud and proud. Seems like they’re all around Southern California, from Bel-Air to Santa Monica to the grounds around the old bowl in the Arroyo Seco.

Even in the face of a pandemic — let’s hope this game actually gets played — Utah football has brought its partisans, by land and air, so many of them descending from the mountain snow.

Somebody guessed there’d be 60,000 of them on hand on Saturday.

In the run-up, talked to a family on Thursday, straight in the still-dripping precipitation. They were from Phoenix, but had kin in Blanding. Ute fans. Talked to a father and a son in a restaurant just off the parade route. Ute fans. Talked to four guys loading into an elevator at a hotel with a stash of six-packs of beer. Ute fans. Talked to a woman planning to get a picture of a rose permanently applied on some untold body part at a tattoo parlor. Ute fan. Talked to a diminutive woman buying Utah gear at a pop-up souvenir shop. Not a Ute fan.

“Nope,” she said. “I just think this is a pretty sweatshirt.”

Even saw a happy middle-aged couple wearing Ute shirts and caps. Um … BYU fans.

We may not know yet how strong the Utes will play against Ohio State on Saturday, even with the Buckeyes’ opt outs, preparing now for the NFL draft, but if those Utes show up in the same manner as their fans, and their band-wagoners, pretty sweatshirts and all, they’ll be just fine.

And whatever attendees or absences Ohio State presents on the field, not a single Utah player will care. That’s the Buckeyes’ deal, their problem, not Utah’s.

There’s something about the Rose Bowl and its mystique, its history, its draw that brings people in, especially fans from faraway places, cold places, eager to support teams that don’t often get to the classic, iconic stadium. Which is to say, this isn’t just another Shamrock Meats Bowl.

Not completely sure about the Buckeyes and their followers, although they usually travel in large bunches, even if their draft-eligible players don’t. It’s easy to figure they’ll be here en masse — unless some combination of COVID and eager Ute fans have crowded them out.

Ohio State is one of those teams that has long been associated with the Granddaddy, from decades back. Who doesn’t remember as a kid, looking out the window at the snow on the ground, the temperatures freezing, the ice hanging from the roof, then tuning in on Jan. 1 to watch the Buckeyes go up against USC under the warm rays of sunshine and on vast stretches of green grass, and feel more than a bit of envy?

Hey, Mom and Dad, why do we live in this frozen hellhole when we could live … there?

Well, I did end up living there. More on that later.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham and Ohio State coach Ryan Day at a Rose Bowl news conference in Los Angeles, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021.

I still have a pair of cleats worn by an unknown Ohio State player, a tight end, some 50 years back in the Rose Bowl game, given to me by a friend who got them from who knows where, but … I kept them because of the turf upon which they had run.

The Rose Bowl is one of those holy locations for college football, a place where legends were formed, and ghosts still roam, where echoes of Keith Jackson’s voice can still be heard. Utah has played in that building a number of times previously, it being the regular-season home of the UCLA Bruins. But on New Year’s Day, the old battle axe transforms from whatever it is normally into a kind of sanctuary.

It is the place that continues a tradition, according to the Pasadena Tournament of Roses, that started on different ground in 1902 in the college game’s first postseason contest — between Michigan and Stanford, a game in which Michigan romped, winning 49-0. It was such a crushing that football was subsequently replaced by chariot races.

Football made a comeback in 1916, usually pitting a team from the West Coast against a team from either the East or the Midwest, eventually becoming an annual contest between a team from what is now the Pac-12 and the Big Ten. The Rose Bowl itself was built in 1922 and since has become a National Historic Landmark, a landmark of tackles and touchdowns, of wins and losses, of that green grass and blue skies.

It is a football cathedral.

Think about what’s gone on here, who’s coached here, who’s played here, and then think some more. It isn’t only about football.

Kyle Whittingham will coach on Saturday on the same sideline, in the same space and game where Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes and John McKay and Knute Rockne and Howard Jones once coached. And the Utes will romp across the same ground where the Four Horsemen ran, where Archie Griffin and Anthony Davis carried the ball, where Warren Moon and Gary Beban and Jim Plunkett threw it and Don Hutson and Lynn Swann caught it.

Other things have happened in the building, as well. Everything from Super Bowls to Olympic events to World Cup soccer Finals to Brandi Chastain’s famous shirt removal when the U.S women beat the world, to massive dance festivals to concerts ranging from Metallica to U2.

It’s not just a place where college football is played. It is the place, a designation Utahns can appreciate. This is the place!

Having a personal connection to Pasadena, living there for a decade, the city where my wife, Lisa, was born and raised, where three of my daughters were born and started school, where I gained friendships and witnessed two fistfuls of Rose Parades and Rose Bowls, especially after having admired it from the East Coast as a young person more than a half-century ago, underscores it as meaningful for me.

I’ve played Brookside Golf Course — Nos. 1 and 2 — the tracks where many Ute fans will park for the game — more than a hundred times, having hit golf balls into the bowl from the tee box where there’s a sign that reads: “Please do not hit golf balls into the Rose Bowl,” makes it all the more significant. I’ve covered a wide swath of events in and around the building, from football to rugby to Olympic competitions. Lisa’s high school graduation, mixed with a couple other Pasadena high schools, was in the Rose Bowl.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Utes pose for a team photo at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021.

I took my dad, a huge sports fan whose been gone now for 20 years, there four decades back for a fireworks show on one occasion and for a game on another. Blessed memories.

The bowl is a grand dame, to me and to a whole lot of other people.

Maybe it will be or become that for Utah fans, too, as the Utes take centerstage against the Buckeyes there.

And for those fans, after they’ve experienced the planet’s most famous parade, a six-mile spectacle in which its cheerleaders and band will march, a celebration that draws millions on TV and millions more to the streets of Pasadena (you can get an up-close view of the floats in the hours and days after the parade, as they are parked for further perusal, if you’re so inclined), it’s time for them to converge, to soak in the tradition, the history, the glow of the sun, and to worship at the altar of college football’s duomo.

It’s a place where anyone fortunate enough to walk across the field should lean over and touch the ground, just to say they did it. Hopefully, no golf balls will fly in that day.

Enjoying a win wouldn’t be half-bad, either.

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