Brad Rock: Utah State has paid price for standing pat
When Utah and Utah State finish playing for the 109th time on Thursday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, it will usher in the first gap in the series in 65 years. What began in 1892 grew even more serious after 1944, when the game became an annual event.
Yet as long as they have been playing — it's the 12th-longest rivalry in the nation — they're taking a break. By mutual agreement, the teams won't meet again until 2012. Utah can continue its assault on the BCS, and USU is free to schedule games it can win.
In a way, it's a shame they're breaking up. The teams played uninterrupted through a dozen presidential administrations and 30 coaching administrations. Through the last three decades, though, the overriding theme has been that it wasn't really a rivalry as much as an execution. USU has lost the last 11 games to Utah, 19 of the last 21 and 25 of the last 30.
There have been famines that were less one-sided.
"Yeah, it's a rivalry — the Beehive Boot," said Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, referring to the trophy for instate supremacy. When a writer expressed surprise he would even know what the Boot is, Sylvester added, "I better know what it is."
While the aforementioned statistics have been duly noted, every autumn, one thing is seldom addressed: Why?
How did USU become a second-class citizen?
By standing still, that's how.
As BYU, and later Utah, were arming themselves, USU was battening down the hatches. Over time, the Aggies became perennial underdogs. Worse yet, they became irrelevant.
In the 1960s and '70s, USU was arguably the top program in the state. It sent a steady string of players to the NFL, from Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen and MacArthur Lane, to Rick Parros, Rulon Jones, Louie Giammona, Greg Kragen, Hal Garner, Bob Gagliano and Eric Hipple. How good was it? Cornell Green was a five-time Pro Bowl selection — and he was a basketball player in college.
USU was producing NFL players by osmosis.
Certainly it has generated pro players in the modern era, too, like Kevin Curtis, Chris Cooley and Shawn Murphy. But the overall program had tanked. The Big Blue became the Big Phew!
Contributing factors included:
Outdated facilities. While USU has lately been upgrading its stadium, weight rooms, meeting offices, etc., it was a long time coming. For four decades not much moved.
In 1968, Romney Stadium was the best and most modern in the state. Recruits liked what they saw. But as the years passed, things changed. BYU's passing attack moved the Cougars forward, as did its stadium expansion, which made way for home games against traditional football powers.
Meanwhile, Utah moved steadily forward under coach Ron McBride, then hosted the 2002 Olympics. The IOC donated millions to stadium expansion. Urban Meyer arrived.
BYU and Utah built indoor practice facilities, weight rooms and student-athlete centers while USU hung on to what it had — and the long winter continued.
Conference affiliation. USU began losing ground when it remained one of the last independent teams in the country. It couldn't get TV exposure, bowl payouts or conference revenue-sharing.
When it did join a conference, it was in the lightly regarded PCAA, which became the lightly regarded Big West. Then came the truly forgettable Sun Belt, before finally joining the WAC.
It's hard to put down roots when you don't have a stable home.
Leadership turnover. The Aggies have had six athletic directors since Ladell Andersen stepped down in 1982, thus hindering continuity. Meanwhile, USU is on its seventh head coach since 1985. By comparison, BYU has had three coaches and Utah four during that span.
Recruiting deficits. As the Aggies' fortunes declined, so did their recruiting — and vice versa. They were no longer in the running for the state's elite players, which should have been the program's bedrock. Coaches, in large part, tried to get by on fringe Division I players and junior-college transfers.
Donor shortages. With the notable exception of the Laub family, which has propped up the USU program for decades, wealthy boosters have been hard to attract. There are no LDS Church ties, no billionaires backing USU's programs. Thus, the facilities they put up in the '60s didn't receive a major face-lift until recent renovations, like the addition of the Laub Athletics-Academic Complex.
The aforementioned factors have produced two programs meeting today that have traveled opposite directions. Utah is nationally ranked and coming off a No. 2 finish last year. USU is attempting to change its image as one of the worst programs in America.
Satchel Paige's admonishment was right — you really don't want to look back.
But you don't want to get caught treading water, either.
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