The University of Utah is moving to the Pacific Athletic Conference in 2011 and there is a lot to consider in this move, including the politics involved, the cultural norms and the dollars involved.
I was a student at Utah (albeit a part-time one by that time) when the two Arizona schools moved to the PAC 8 in 1978. That move was a blow to the Western Athletic Conference and I think with the competition level at the time with the two schools from the south both Utah and BYU fans expected that same west coast conference would come calling within a couple of years for the Utes and the Cougars. At that time the Sun Devils (Arizona State) had dominated football in the WAC for awhile and Utah's program was a loser. Still we all expected it to happen. But even BYU's national championship of 1984 didn't do the trick.
I always thought both teams would be a good fit, making the PAC 10 more even, both geographically, and athletically. The PAC is much like an Ivy League conference however, and they have been pretty snooty over the years, even though their athletic record (other than in football) has not been as strong as it once was. True they are the "conference of champions" because over the last century they have won more national championships than any other league. Still they have not been as strong in recent years in as many sports as they once were.
Now, 32 years later, the PAC came calling and only invited the Utes. I am saddened that BYU was not invited, yet I am happy for my alma mater too. Don't get me wrong; I dislike BYU as any good Ute might from years of taking beatings from them during the football doldrum years of 1971-1990. But I think the "Y" would have been a good addition to the PAC conference.
However, that being said, there has been a lot of crying by BYU fans about the Utes invitation and acceptance, some even saying that BYU would have never done such a thing to the others schools in the Mountain West Conference or their traditional conference mates. While I nor anyone could say what they would have done, I think that line is mostly malarky. Many BYU fans have been saying for years that they were going to be the ones in the PAC not Utah. They probably would have run away from the MWC just as fast had the offer been sent to Provo.
Remember too that BYU isn't the only school upset about this change in the Mountain West. Wyoming has had almost as long a relationship with the Utes as BYU, and some others in the league are going to feel the sting as well. Look on the Internet and read their hometown papers lamenting the loss of one of the signature schools that hallmarked everything from the Skyline Conference to today's MWC.
This kind of move has also happened before, but instead the Utes and Cougars were the ones that left a conference behind-twice. First, because of their defection and others the Western Athletic Conference was formed in 1962 leaving Utah State high and dry without any playmates in a formal setting at all. The Aggies hated Utah for that for a long time and the rivalry continues between the schools to this day.
Both universities also bolted the WAC when it seemed to get too big (and mixed up) 12 years ago, leaving behind some schools they had played for years, thereby forming the MWC. Let's just face it - things change and they will change again.
Why BYU was not invited along with Utah, and Colorado was included instead, has been debated and commented upon endlessly. Reasons from left leaning west coast campuses to Sunday games to gay rights opposition have been cited. All these may have played a part, or for that matter none of them. There is a lot of outright jealousy amongst the Cougars and many have been saying Utah will be a small fish in a big pond in the PAC. Yet by saying that, aren't they belittling their own teams by inferring that Utah has a second rate athletic program, one that has often baffled Cougar athletes in the past decade?
However, I am also ashamed of my alumni brothers and sisters for being so high and mighty about the whole thing as well. Utah deserved the invitation, but without the MWC and BYU's strong athletic programs to compete against, the Utes would never have made the grade either.
Some say the rivalry will go away. I doubt that whole heartedly. The red blood in my veins wants the "U" to beat the "Y" even if it doesn't count in the standings. Whether BYU stays in the Mountain West or gets an invite to the Big 12 at some point, they will still have great athletic programs, which brings me to the point of this piece.
This could be the best thing that ever happened to both schools.
Imagine this: Utah wins the PAC 12 football championship and goes to the Rose Bowl and beats, let's say, Ohio State. BYU goes undefeated in the MWC and is invited to a BCS bowl where they annihilate a Big East or SEC team. Both win. Isn't that great for Utah as a whole? That could never happen as things have been since the BCS came to fruition, because as we know, no matter what their records in the Mountain West, one team or the other was going to suffer in the bowl season because of their loss to the in-state rival. Who knows, if the stars align and other things get moved around a bit, the two could even play for a national championship against each other one day. Talk about blue/red craziness if that happened.
In basketball they very well could face each other during March Madness much easier than in football. What a stage to play on and what a game (or games over the years) those might be.
A hundred years of being in the same conferences in all sports has been good for both schools, but it has also kept them both from being all they could be at some points during that century. Now the Cougar fans have that much more reason to want to beat Utah and Utah will be driven not to lose to a team from a less established conference. Both will get better and fans will benefit.
Money, which drives college athletics much more than anyone wants to admit, will also be more plentiful for both schools if their success continues.
And if the Big 12 does call on the Cougars, how much more fascinating it might all be?