Editor's note: This is the fourth in an occasional series exploring the Utes' move to the Pac-12 Conference. You can also read the first and the second and third parts of the series.
SALT LAKE CITY — For many of Utah's athletic programs, the move to the Pac-12 is a big step.
For the gymnastics team, it's a welcome affiliation with a major conference, but it's also kind of business as usual.
The Ute gymnasts have been a national power since the late 1970s, and since they rarely had a conference, they have always competed on a national basis. They've always met teams of the current Pac-10 on almost a yearly basis.
"We've competed against those people consistently throughout my career here because of the convenience and the type of programs that most of them have," said Greg Marsden, who just completed his 36th year as coach at Utah.
"We've never had a conference or had other teams that were in the conference, other than BYU, that are competitive at the level that we want to challenge ourselves with, so we've always competed with the same institutions that we'll be in a conference with now.
"That's the most exciting thing — now we're in a conference with those teams, the scheduling is going to be much easier because the scheduling is determined for us."
Trying to find top opponents was always a bit of a headache for Marsden because most of the other national contenders were in the SEC, Pac-10, Big Ten or Big 12, and they had full league slates plus a conference-championship meet, meaning it was occasionally hard for Marsden to engage them. He always managed, but it will be easier now.
Marsden also sees his team's new conference membership as a way to strengthen the Red Rocks' relevance to his own school.
"One thing that has always been scary for me is, if you're not in a conference, you're not as important to your athletics department," he said.
"We've continued to be important because we put people in the stands and get a lot of media coverage and that kind of thing, but if not for that, I'm not sure gymnastics would even still be here.
"Being in a conference though now, and a strong conference, I think helps that tremendously."
Marsden said there's no downside to the Red Rocks joining the Pac-12.
"I don't see any cons. I'm only seeing right now positives for gymnastics for us to be going into the Pac-12 conference."
Because Utah has always been a national power, it's always traveled coast-to-coast and recruited the world.
Marsden said, because of that, he doesn't see his budgeting or recruiting changing much.
"We were budgeted and recruiting to try to compete with the Pac-10 teams and the Big Ten and the Big 12 and the SEC, so it's not going to be as dramatic a change for us as it will be for some of the other sports," he said. "For us, it's not going to change any of those things. We're not going to have to recruit more."
Because he's having to recruit kids so early now, he has yet to see any real benefit from having the prestige of the Pac-12 behind him.
He does think that will come once the Utes are actually competing a Pac-12 schedule, but so far, the promise of the Pac-12 hasn't meant much.
And he says even then, it will have less impact than on sports like football because young gymnasts are pretty much competing for themselves and don't think about conferences.
Still, Marsden sees an advantage in being able to tell recruits they'll travel yearly to the many ocean and mountain locales in the Pac-12. "When you look at the places that we go and the environments that we're in, it's just great," he said.
Another positive of having a conference affiliation could be that Marsden's loud voice might be strengthened when it comes to tweaking the sport, something he's always interested in — trying to make it more palatable to the average person who may not want to sit through four-hour postseason meets not knowing who's ahead because of byes.
"I'm hoping that, as a conference, we can take some steps forward and demonstrate how it could be done, and that might ultimately transition to the bigger picture," said Marsden, who'd like to start with the 2012 conference championships.
As a welcoming gesture from the league, the first Pac-12 championships will be held at Utah on March 24. Marsden is hoping to convince the conference to hold the eight-team meet in two sessions, afternoon and evening, so that fans and judges don't have to sit for hours at a time. And if he can do that, he hopes to reshape the NCAA championships, which have six teams in the finals, making for a long competition. "Fast-moving and understandable," is what he's aiming for.
It will be a busy postseason for Ute fans in 2012. Utah had already won a bid to host one of the six NCAA regional meets (April 7), and when the Pac-12 offered the conference championship, Marsden couldn't turn it down.
"To be honest, it's not ideal for our fans in that it's a lot of meets," he said. "What I would have loved to have done was host the Pac-12 (in 2012) and be able to put off hosting the regionals, but we weren't able to get that done, so I'd rather do this than give up one of them."
Red Rocks at a glance
Biggest challenge: Probably just balancing interests within the conference. The regular season will still be mainly used for preparation for the NCAA postseason, but there will likely be a bit of interest in wanting to win a conference championship for the first time since 1993 (WAC). In the past, losing to a UCLA or Oregon State or Stanford was just a loss; now, it will affect conference standings. The Utes will have to get used to that feeling and what they want to do about it.
Biggest opportunity: Being given the honor of hosting the first-ever Pac-12 conference championship, meaning the Utes will have their home crowd behind them when they attempt to win their first league title in 19 years. Utah won every High Country Athletic Conference (1986-1990) and Western Athletic Conference (1991-1993) championship in which it participated.
Numbers: 278-28-1 (record vs. Pac-12 teams) ... the Red Rocks have amassed 278 victories in head-to-head competition, which includes a 50-0 mark against Arizona. Arizona State has fared the best of any Pac-12 team against Utah, with the Red Rocks owning a 61-16-1 mark against the Sun Devils.
Marsden says: "One thing that has always been scary for me is, if you're not in a conference, you're not as important to your athletics department."
Bottom line: With the addition of the Utes, and recent strides by Oregon State and Washington, the Pac-12 looks to have five, maybe six (Arizona finished 2011 ranked 20th), strong teams. 2010 NCAA champion UCLA was national runner-up in 2011 and will be favored in the Pac-12 for 2012. Stanford crashed in the 2011 postseason, fourth in the Pac-10 meet behind OSU, UCLA and Washington, and failing to qualify for the NCAA championships. The Cardinal will certainly be on a mission to regain prestige. Utah will have five freshmen to acclimate but has the championship meet at home. The Utes could lose 2-3 conference meets, but don't be surprised if they're first or second in the Pac-12 championship meet.Utah women's gymnastics
Award type: head count
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NCAA scholarship max limit: 12
Utah actual award, 2010-11: 11.12
Pac-12 women's gymnastics programs: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, Washington.
Note: The University of Utah offers the NCAA maximum for all sports, should the coach want to use them. Numbers reflect not only people who have quit, are cut or withdrawn, but also cases where a coach held back scholarships (or parts of scholarships in the case of the equivalency sports) in one year so that they would have more to use in another.