Brad Rock: Rivals and pals, Kyle Whittingham and Bronco Mendenhall drive through Mountain West Conference one last time together
If you're hoping for emotional farewells, football practice is the last place to look.
Ask Utah coach Kyle Whittingham about his final go-round in the Mountain West Conference and he'll start flexing his jaw muscles. Then he'll start talking about the season-opener against Pitt. Meanwhile, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall will appear exasperated and remind people that he's worried about THIS season, not next, and HIS team, not someone else's.
Still, it's true they're both moving on, in one form or the other. The Mountain West Conference is changing, the longtime relationships gone like a faded romance. If you grew fond of watching Utah and BYU in the homey WAC.
MWC format, this season, is sure to bring a sigh of nostalgia.
Cue the soundtrack for "The Way We Were."
In the new Pac-12, the Utes will still visit the West Coast, just as they did when they played San Diego State. Only now the beach stops will be at USC and UCLA. They'll still take trips to the arid Southwest, but rather than New Mexico, it will be the radiating heat of Arizona.
For BYU, the transformation is ongoing; grand plans for worldwide TV coverage are making sure of that. The Cougars have looked into leaving the MWC to become an independent. They've looked into staying, too. Late reports this week even said they were talking with the WAC about cobbling together a conference with several Conference USA teams.
In any event, it won't be the same mix as it has been. The annual Utah-BYU games will almost certainly be played when the flowers are still in bloom.
So it's farewell to the old familiar places and faces; the gang is growing up. Remember when you were in high school and you told your buddies you'd always stay friends? You vowed to continue playing hoops five times a week, even after you got married. But then five games became one, then none, and the years passed and you weren't really angry or upset. You just had different responsibilities.
And once in awhile it made you feel a little wistful.
Of course, you won't hear such sentimentality coming from either BYU or Utah. Asked if this year will be different, Whittingham says, "Nope. Same ol' same ol', as far as the routine goes. We have a fall camp model we've used for several years now, working through the system."
To him, this isn't a historic season, just the current one.
Similarly, Ute defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake — who played at BYU — says, "Right now, I mean, we don't think about next year. We haven't even played in our conference yet."
BYU defensive back Andrew Rich says, "It's just football. We can only worry about what is going on inside this program, and as far as what happens outside, we can't control that. So we're happy to be playing football, glad to be at a great university and happy to compete."
One thing seems certain, especially for Utah: No more road trips to Wyoming, staying in motels with doors that open into the wide open spaces. One year, the Utes left Denver in 72-degree weather; by the time they made Laramie the snow was piling up. In 2004, a blown fuse at Wyoming darkened the stadium for 99 minutes.
"We're sitting in their locker room for an hour, guys falling asleep, they were bringing in makeshift snacks to keep us going," says ex-Ute player and current assistant coach Morgan Scalley.
In 2000, the Utes played Wyoming in four-degree temperatures on a frozen field.
"I was ice skating," said one Utah player.
Another year, it snowed so hard on BYU and Wyoming that the TV cameras could barely pick up the action.
You build such memories when you play the same teams for decades. Counting their time in the WAC, Utah and BYU have been playing the same basic schedule for 47 years.
"I guess it's all we've ever known," Scalley says. "All I can look at right now is this season. I think at the end of it is when we'll be saying, 'Geeze, wow, that Air Force game was always a grind,' and obviously the rivalry with BYU will continue on, so that's there. I think as long as you're a part of a conference, you have loyalty to that conference."
How much loyalty and to what conference is the question. For Utah, at least, it's adios to the balloon festival in New Mexico, the garishness of Las Vegas, the fly-overs at Air Force. Thanks to the unsettled summer, this fall should produce some interesting games for both Utah and BYU.
"Teams that have proven themselves in the conference always get everyone's best shot," says Scalley. "TCU gets people's best shot, BYU gets people's best shot. So we don't treat this differently than any other year."
The players and coaches are saying it's just another year.
For everyone else, it's a season for the books.
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