SALT LAKE CITY — The faraway voice shook Chris Hill like an unexpected gust. The University of Utah's director of athletics was in Paris last June when a contact "close to the (University of) Colorado situation" called to tell him ground had shifted.
Wherein the schools had previously been informal partners in the push for Pac-10 admission, a light was winking out for the Utes. Colorado was indeed joining the conference. Hill's contact said the Buffaloes were going to announce it the next day, but the Utes wouldn't likely follow. The Pac-10 was making a play to add five more Big 12 teams, to form the country's first true super conference.
For the Utes, that meant the grand plan had failed. Au revoir, as they say in France, to the big time. Howdy, Fort Collins and Laramie.
"It was a little bit shocking," says Hill.
Then the picture changed again in a matter of days. Although Colorado signed on, Texas later withdrew from Pac-10 consideration and four other Big 12 schools followed, leaving one position open for Utah. When it was finally done, the Utes had pulled off the unthinkable by joining a conference they could only previously imagine.
The conference will today announce its plan for divisional alignments. According to most reports, Utah will be matched with Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, USC and UCLA in a Southern Division of the expanded league that will become the Pac-12 next year. If so, that's great news for the Utes. It means they'll be playing UCLA and USC annually, and with it will come the accompanying exposure, not only in talent-rich Southern California, but nationwide, too.
On the other hand, be careful of what you wish. Each of the aforementioned teams except Arizona has an all-time advantage against Utah. The Utes are a combined 53-75-2 against them.
Still, Utah has done fine against those same schools in recent years, going 2-2 against Arizona, 1-1 against UCLA and 1-0 against Southern Cal since 2001.
Exactly how close the U. came to missing the Pac-10 train is debatable. One highly placed source from a Mountain West Conference school said that as late as the night before the presidents' vote on Utah joining the conference, there were some who had reservations.
According to Hill, that wasn't the case.
"No, I didn't hear any of that," he says.
He does know the situation changed almost daily. Hill had planned the vacation to France months ahead. When he did go, he had his cell phone handy at all hours, fielding updates from both Pac-10 and Big 12 contacts even as he and his wife strolled the famous Champs-Elysees.
"First you feel you have the situation you want, then you don't, then you have what you want, then you don't," says Hill. "So really, it's very much a yo-yo effect. You think it's going to happen, then it's not. You're excited, disappointed; it's such a fluid situation."
Hill did the normal tourist things on the trip: sidewalk cafe dining, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre. But never was he really off work.
"We were ready to fly home on a moment's notice," he says. "That's part of the deal."
The Utes started seriously looking into the Pac-10 last fall when stories of expansion began to surface regularly. He says he and university president Michael Young tried to approach the situation by being "tactfully aggressive."
Things escalated through the winter, when he made dozens of calls and several trips to the West Coast. As June arrived, he says he felt confident. But at one point, Hill says, "somebody said it looks like it will be the Pac-16, and the question was were we in or was Kansas in."
Hill also entertained calls discussing the possibility of leftover Big 12 teams joining the Mountain West.
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