Utahns love their college football. We have seen some fantastic games and cutting quotes and have had an opportunity to see coaches with wit and self-deprecating humor. We have seen commercials, videos and billboards all telling us which way we should cheer. Neighbors declare their allegiance with flags and painting the street. Statues are covered and mountain sides patrolled. The fact is, college football fans statewide have a real passion for this game, and that’s what makes it great.
Growing up in Utah, I have had a front-row seat to this rivalry figuratively and literally. Other than 2010, I’ve been to every game since 2001. During Utah’s 2004 magical season, I watched my brother-in-law charge the field from the front row. I’ve seen John Beck miss a pass in the end zone to lose, only to find his target the following season with no time on the clock.
I’ve seen Utah win with three points, and I’ve seen sure Utah wins grabbed by BYU in the closing seconds. The past 10 years have been an emotional roller coaster for both teams.
My family is not much different from many across the state. My mom and dad met at BYU. My wife’s parents met at the U. One brother-in-law played for BYU, while another graduated from both, choosing to don the crimson on game day.
I've seen passion, fueled by family, friends, great competition and hype. And yet with everything this rivalry has going for it, I’ve seen it regress during that same time period. Many fans confuse their passion and love for their team as a hatred for those wearing a different color. I’m quite certain that almost anyone who has attended the game at either Rice-Eccles or LaVell Edwards stadiums knows what I’m talking about.
In 2002, I sat in the middle of hard-core Utah fans. I enjoyed the game, cheered for my team, and found myself enjoying the conversation from the Utah fans sitting just in front of me. Late in the game, one Cougar fan down a few rows made it a point to not sit down. This started getting on the nerves of everyone in the section, including myself. At one point a Utah fan had had enough, and voiced his frustration. I won’t repeat what was yelled, only note that it wasn’t received well. And it was promptly followed by another Utah fan standing and saying, “I won’t stand for that kind of talk, that’s my religion too. And I’m sure quite a few others that support your team.”
It was very uncomfortable, however the point was given. The Cougar fan standing sat down and apologized, the Utah fan that made the comment said nothing more. The game continued without incident. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy thing for the Utah fan to do, but he had my respect and that of the rest of the people in the section.
It was four years later that I came to the realization of just how bad it was getting. I attended the game at Rice-Eccles with my brother-in-law (the one who had played football at BYU). We arrived at the game early and had received some minor jeers and teases from walking through an area set up for tailgating for Utah fans. It was nothing too bad, just good fun from fans getting ready for the game. As we approached the gate, though, it got much worse and the taunts from younger Utah fans became much more personal. It was a relief when we made it into the gates.
I had seen a young couple with two kids coming through the gates at the same time. They looked under stress from the crowd. We both were headed in the same direction, climbing the stairs on the south side of the east stands. The couple had brought two children, the boy had a football uniform and the girl was wearing a cheerleader outfit. It reminded me of my own kids.
As we got to the top of the stairs, I asked the boy who he was cheering for. He wasn’t more than 5 and was dressed in red from head to toe. As the boy spoke, it was the look in the mom’s eyes that made me realize just how bad things were. She was terrified about what could happen. I said to the boy, “Are your cheering for the Utes?”
“You bet,” he said, his voice full of confidence.
“Well, you better cheer hard because I’m going to be cheering for the Cougars.” I smiled at him. “Who’s going to win?” I asked.
“We are,” he replied. I smiled and gave him a high five and told him to cheer his best.
As we turned away, the mother mouthed the words, “thank you” to us. She smiled back and they headed to their seats. I still remember the look that she gave me when I started to talk to her son — a mother's concern about her kids. It worries me that some have taken the rivalry to a point that parents are leaving their kids home, fearful of what they might see or hear.
A friend, Tony Brown, took it upon himself to start a grass-roots campaign at BYU to get fans to wear blue to BYU home games. We have had many conversations about this rivalry, and I like what he had to say.
“It's funny that so many fans feel like everyone hates each other. Remember back in ’98 when BYU basketball was struggling to win 10 games in two years? I was finishing up my degree at BYU. Andre Miller had his Utah team in the national championship game. I was walking around campus at the time, and every TV set I came across had the game on. I found myself, like all the other students there, cheering for the Utes to beat Kentucky.”
He continues, “No one that I knew at the time felt anything was wrong about this. And I’ve found myself doing the same thing in big games the Utes have played in, 2004’s Fiesta Bowl and 2008’s Sugar. I think many a Utah fan does the same for BYU.”
He added, “I think the perception is that most Utah fans do not like BYU and that most BYU fans do not like Utah. The reality is that I think the majority of fans on both sides do not have the angst and hatred that some believe. I believe there are fans on both sides (perhaps 10 percent from BYU and Utah) that fit the stereotypes placed on them, and unfortunately for everyone else, these fans have the loudest voice and are the most disrespectful, giving the rest of us a bad rap.”
I feel similarly to Tony. I think most fans are like my neighbors, they love the U. or the Y. They would like nothing better than to see a great game that their team wins. They are quite happy to talk about the game over the fence with each other. They are quick to say, “Go Cougs” or “Go Utes” and have a good time teasing one another.
Now things are going to change. This is the first game in a new era. I don’t have to remind anyone on either side that these universities are no longer in the same conference. And everyone that has a calendar knows this game will now come much earlier in the season than it has in the past.
I’m quite certain that the passion will continue, but let's hope that the bad blood will pass. I don’t doubt that most of the disrespect comes from a small vocal minority. This is how it is, it comes from both sides and will continue regardless of the score or the program.
Each side has been embarrassed both by the other school's fans and their own. Sometimes our own are the worst. We have all done things we are not proud of and will continue to do the same in the future. However, it's my belief that we can do better and forgive those things we see that we know are wrong.
A couple months ago, I watched the movie "Invictus." The movie is based on true events surrounding South Africa’s election of Nelson Mandela. Mandela had just been freed from 27 years of incarceration. He had spent most of his time in South Africa’s famous Robben Island Prison. His cell was the size of most walk-in closets. Convicted in 1962 of sabotage, he used his presidency to heal a country rather than inflict punishment on those people whose power his party had worked so hard to bring down.
His plan was to use Francois Pienaar to help heal a nation's division right after the abolishment of apartheid. South Africa’s rugby team was hosting the World Cup and Pienaar was its captain. I won’t give the whole plot away, but if you haven’t seen it, I think it's worth your time. One of the underlying themes of the movie was Mandela’s forgiveness for those who had held his people down simply because of the color of their skin.
Mandela is quoted as saying, “Forgiveness liberates the soul.”
On Saturday, 65,000 people will pack LaVell Edwards Stadium. Most will be wearing blue but several thousand will be wearing red. The majority will cheer for their teams and be respectful of those choosing to cheer for the opposite team. However, some fans will not. Hope is that like that Utah fan in 2002, Cougar and Ute fans alike will show courage. That they'll have the courage to tell one of their own when they are out of line and their conduct is unacceptable.
And wise enough to forgive the person in the wrong, knowing that one fan isn’t an accurate portrait of an entire fan base.