Brad Rock: Heated Utah and BYU rivalry started with a brawl in 1895

Published: Wednesday, May 26 2004 6:55 a.m. MDT

If your're a fan of BYU or Utah, you might remember Buster Matheney's 1976 tip-in that beat the Cougars. You probably recall Brandon Doman's game-winning drive in 2000 and Luke Staley's sideline dash in 2001.

Who could forget Chris Yergensen's hit and Ryan Kaneshiro's miss?

If you're old enough, you might even remember BYU's first football win over Utah in 1942.

But can you remember when and where the rivalry started? Of course not.

That's because you weren't alive.

Today's Mountain West Conference tournament baseball game between Utah and BYU continues a long tradition. Before Virgil Carter and Marv Bateman, Roland Minson and Arnie Ferrin, LaVell Edwards and Ike Armstrong, the rivalry was going strong.

Yet it didn't even start with a field goal or a layup.

It began, as the saying goes, between the white lines.

The earliest sporting event between Utah and BYU was in 1895. A history of BYU's College of Physical Education indicates that 109 years ago, Brigham Young Academy and Utah met for a baseball game. Though details are sketchy, two things about the event were recorded: it ended in a scoreless tie, and there was a bench-clearing brawl.

"Boy," says former BYU baseball coach Gary Pullins, "did that ever portend the future."

It's been that sort of rivalry. Name a sport and there's bad blood involved. Football and basketball are the two most visible, but that doesn't mean the others don't get worked up, too, including swimming, golf, tennis, softball, soccer, volleyball and, of course, baseball.

Does this mean they could turn a game of marbles into a rivalry?

"Easy," continues Pullins. "Marbles, debate, anything. It's a rivalry, and sometimes it's healthy and sometimes it gets out of control as rivalries are wont to do."

All you need to know about the rivalry is this: Last week an employee in a Fred Meyer photo department discovered pictures of Utah baseball players painting the block Y red.

He or she turned them in and criminal mischief charges ensued.

It might have been a well-intentioned citizen, but the open suspicion at Utah is that it was a rabid BYU fan.

Intensity, of course, doesn't always translate into parity. There was the half-century of domination by Utah football, followed by two decades of BYU control. At the moment, BYU has won 13 straight baseball games against the Utes.

But that doesn't mean losing hurts any less when the rivalry is lopsided. Sometimes domination by one team only makes things more intense. That's why Ute fans tore down a goal post in 1988, then made it into commemorative key chains after Utah upset BYU 57-28.

As former BYU athletic director Glen Tuckett once described the trip to Salt Lake: "I get half-mad about the time I get to Point of the Mountain."

Pullins has experienced that feeling firsthand. When he transferred to BYU from Arizona Western in 1967, he knew little about Utah-BYU. As the first game with Utah neared, all he heard from teammates was how a Ute hitter intentionally clubbed BYU's catcher with a bat the previous season.

Later, as head coach, Pullins began experiencing an annual occurrence.

"The most nervous week of my baseball season was when we would play Utah," he said. "We would play 60-70 games, but the week we played the Utes I'd find myself getting nervous. I'd ask myself, 'Why am I getting butterflies?'

"You could go 50-0 and lose to Utah and someone would think you were having a terrible season."

In the mid-1980s, during a game in Provo, BYU players began razzing Utah's pitcher. He went into his stretch, then abruptly wheeled and unloaded a fastball directly into the BYU dugout. Both benches emptied.

In the same era, the teams were playing at what is now Franklin Covey Field. With two outs and two on in the bottom of the ninth, a Utah player got a hit that would have scored the winning run. The runner easily could have crossed the plate untouched, but instead, as Pullins recalls, "he decided he couldn't handle the temptation" and went out of his way to bull down BYU's catcher who was on the first-base side of the plate.

He ended up being called out and ejected, as BYU went on to win in extra innings.

"Just a friendly little Utah nudge that was so unnecessary," says Pullins.

So if Utah wins today, after 13 straight losses, it would be a surprise. But if there's a fight?

No surprise.

One-hundred-nine years of tradition is hard to break.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com

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