Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah athletics director Chris Hill has announced that the football rivalry game between the Utes and BYU will not be played in 2014 and 2015 — interrupting a series that has been played each year since 1946.
During an informal gathering with the media on Tuesday, Hill explained that the hiatus in 2014 and 2015 was not about killing the rivalry. It's more about other opportunities and circumstances that have come up since Utah joined the Pac-12. The Utes have scheduled a home-and-home series with Michigan during their break with the Cougars. They'll meet in Ann Arbor in 2014 and in Salt Lake City the following year.
"When we joined the Pac-12 Conference, we knew there would be opportunities for Utah athletics that were never available before. A home-and-home series with Michigan is an example of something that we would not have envisioned even a few years ago and felt we could not pass up," Hill said in a released statement later in the day. "It made our already tough schedule that much tougher and I did not think it was fair to our football program to schedule BYU on those years. We are solidly committed to play BYU in 2013 (in Provo) and 2016 (in Salt Lake City) and are close to finalizing a contract. Our intent is to continue to schedule BYU unless unusual circumstances dictate otherwise. In no way does this signal an end to the rivalry."
Last year's game in Provo marked the first time in 105 years that Utah and BYU squared off as non-conference foes. Both schools left the Mountain West Conference on July 1, 2011. The Utes departed for the Pac-12 and the Cougars opted to become a football independent.
With the move, Utah's annual schedule now includes nine conference games, alternating between five at home one year and four the next. A proposal for Pac-12 teams to face a Big Ten opponent each season is scheduled to take effect by 2017, further limiting the Utes' two available non-conference scheduling options. So, too, does Utah's desire to eventually play at least seven home games each year.
All said, it made the Rivalry Game vulnerable to change and an uncertain future.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who is on vacation and unavailable for comment, addressed the situation earlier this summer by noting that things couldn't be compromised for the sake of the rivalry.
"Just like every other program in the country, we have to do what's in our best interest," Whittingham said. "I'm not anti-rivalry, but with all the complications involved in scheduling it appears it's going to be difficult to make it work on an uninterrupted basis."
At the end of the day, he added, it's a decision that would be made by the athletic directors.
BYU's Tom Holmoe made it clear what he would prefer.
"As a former player and coach I love the BYU-Utah rivalry. It is one of the great rivalries in all of sports. There is so much history and tradition in the game," he said in a released statement. "I understand that Utah has some challenges with scheduling, but as I have indicated on several occasions it is our preference to play the game every year. In the future, I know we can find a way to make that happen."
At BYU's recent football media day, head coach Bronco Mendenhall also indicated a desire to keep the annual Rivalry Game going.
"I can say, from where we are, we'd like to play them every year," Mendenhall said. "I think that the game itself has such a fantastic tradition — a number (of) past games have gone down to the very last play. It's an intriguing matchup, one of the best rivalries in world, in any sport, and to think it might go away doesn't make a lot of sense to me."
Battles aren't just limited to the football field. The schools also dispute how the all-time series stands. Utah maintains it holds a 55-34-4 advantage. BYU, though, doesn't count six meetings during its years as an academy and calls it 51-31-4.
Whatever the case may be, the game has evolved into the state's biggest sporting event and one many on both sides want to preserve.
"BYU not playing Utah, to me that's a major mistake," former Ute coach Urban Meyer said recently. "You have a lot of former players, student bodies, alumni, that's part of their heritage."
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who led the Utes to national prominence in 2004, also weighed in.
"As close as those schools are," he said, "you have to play that game."
Reaction to Tuesday's news that a two-year hiatus is approaching drew significant fan responses on local sports radio shows and the Internet. While some folks are hopeful the break will temper down what has become one of the nation's most-heated rivalries, many more were critical of Hill's decision not to keep the game going on an annual basis. The only previous interruption in the series since 1922 was during World War II.
In other scheduling news, Hill said that Utah has bought out a scheduled trip to Utah State in 2014 — leaving this September's game as the last contractually agreed upon meeting in Logan. The Utes and Aggies, though, are slated to play in Salt Lake City in 2013 and 2015.
The 109-game football rivalry is coming off a break of its own. Utah and Utah State haven't played each other since 2009.
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