SALT LAKE CITY — Hey, kids, you won't believe this, but Utah used to be a basketball state.
No kidding. Football was the warm-up act and basketball was king.
Then the state converted to football. It happened so gradually that the older set didn't even notice. They just woke up one morning and wondered what happened.
Football is hip. Basketball has fallen out of favor, like the Atkins diet and baggy jeans.
You can't even blame it entirely on the fortunes on the court. BYU, Weber and USU all produced winning records and then some this season. For whatever reason, basketball no longer seems to inspire the passion or the ticket sales it once did, Jimmer notwithstanding.
Anyone for spring football?
Times have changed. Utah once ranked among the great basketball states in the country. There was Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina — and then Utah.
If there were four home college games on Thursday or Saturday, there were 50,000 to 60,000 fans in the stands. There were four good basketball schools within a 100-mile radius and they featured a number of memorable players — Cosic, Nemelka, McGill, Ferrin, Vranes, Chambers, Ainge, Estes, Gardner.
From the '40s through most of the '80s, this was hoops heaven. The arenas were packed and the teams were strong. Nearly two dozen times Utah has sent at least two teams to the NCAA tournament in the same year. Six times the state qualified three teams for the same NCAA tournament. On two occasions, they qualified four teams — BYU, Utah, Utah State and Weber State.
NCAA tournament appearances were frequent: 14 for Weber State, 20 for Utah State, 26 for BYU, 27 for Utah. In the '40s and '50s Utah won the NCAA tournament and BYU won two NITs. Who knows what the Utes might have accomplished under Rick Majerus if they hadn't continually run into Kentucky, which beat the Utes in the '05 region semifinals, the '03 second round, the '98 national championship, the '97 regional final, the '96 regional semifinal and the '93 second round.
Basketball in Utah probably reached its apex in 1979. That year the New Orleans Jazz moved to Utah, BYU hosted the West Region finals and the University of Utah hosted the NCAA Final Four, which, as fate would have it, matched two of the game's greatest players ever, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, in the championship game.
During that same era, BYU and Utah featured three future first-round draft picks in Danny Ainge, Danny Vranes and Tom Chambers. Ainge would go on to become the national player of the year in 1981, leading BYU to within one game of the Final Four.
Football, meanwhile, was just something to kill basketball's offseason during the '50s, '60s and most of the '70s. The media didn't even cover spring football. On the opening day of the deer hunt, local schools didn't bother to hold home games. Football couldn't even compete with deer.
Maybe Utah's conversion to football began with BYU's emergence in the late '70s and '80 and the national championship in 1984. Ron McBride gave football another boost by turning a chronically mediocre University of Utah program into a winner and beating the Cougars enough to create a genuine rivalry with BYU. McBride set the stage for Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham to take the team to two top-5 national rankings, two unbeaten seasons and two BCS bowl victories.
Maybe it was the competition from the Jazz and the proliferation of televised pro and college games. Whatever the reason, football has never been the same in this state since then — and neither has basketball. In the early '80s, BYU was putting 22,000 fans in the Marriott Center. Attendance for the last decade has dropped into the mid to low teens, notwithstanding the Jimmer-powered boost the last two years into the 18,000-range. The Huntsman Center at Utah can seat 15,000, but it's had sub-10,000 crowds for years (and less than 7,000 for conference play this season).
Arnie Ferrin, the former Ute athletic director and All-American basketball player, thinks it's all cyclical. "There is a real competition for the sports dollar in Utah, " he says. "Fans want to spend their money on something that is exciting and competitive."
On the other hand, BYU has produced teams good enough to qualify for the last six NCAA tournaments and still didn't draw the crowds. Even Jimmer's team didn't approach the crowds of the Ainge era in the early '80s. Eight of the 10 biggest crowds in Marriott Center history are from the '70s and early '80s.
"Interest has definitely diminished," says Ferrin. "But it could come back."
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