Dick Harmon: Self-interest at heart of Utah's decision on rivalry with BYU

Published: Saturday, July 14 2012 9:35 p.m. MDT

Fans watch as the two teams face off just before kickoff as Utah and BYU play at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Saturday, Nov. 27, 2010. Photo by Scott G Winterton Deseret News.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

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PROVO — For half a week, it's been hard to go into a restaurant, buy gas or shop for groceries without walking into a debate about the Utah-BYU football rivalry hiatus.

Early Saturday morning at a local golf course, this issue came up again among a group of players waiting to pay and play at the clubhouse, and the guy manning the desk didn't hesitate pitching his opinion.

"Chris Hill is stupid."

Why?

"He's stupid, just stupid," he said.

I don't think Hill is stupid.

In fact, take away a basketball coach hire or two and he's been brilliant over the years. After all, he wore the chief's cap when the Pac-10 called.

Hill is merely protecting his own. This is today's prime directive in college sports.

For an announcement whose main elements were kind of expected for more than a year, this week's news that Utah called a timeout in its BYU football rivalry certainly raised eyebrows.

It surprised only a few.

Utah athletic director Chris Hill had a contract in his desk for the BYU-Utah series since last fall.

It remained unsigned.

Utah had its reasons for not signing. Hill shared a few of those with the media this week, including a great opportunity for a home and home with Michigan. Both Hill and football coach Kyle Whittingham took a simple line of late in regard to the rivalry. Utah has to act in the best interests of its program.

It surprised no one that Hill's announcement ruffled a few BYU fans.

Fiddle with a legacy and folks get bothered. Such emotion is represented in this quote from former Cougar and NFL player Bryan Kehl:

"I personally think it's the definition of a shame. Arguably one of the greatest parts of college football is its tradition, and rivalries make up a huge part of that tradition.

"Here we have one of the great and especially unique rivalries, and we are just going to let it go away, and with it a large part of what makes college football the greatest sport. Just a flat-out shame."

But seriously, if you look at the bigger picture, what we got this week is the face of college football the past 24 months.

And nobody's saying it's all going away.

Anything Utah is doing or will do to enhance and protect its brand is exactly what everybody else is doing. From Texas A&M and Texas to Oklahoma-Nebraska and Buffs and Huskers, rivalries have been shucked aside, discarded as if they meant nothing.

A sign of the times; it's the cost of doing business. Posturing for self-preservation in a game where few programs operate in the black.

I don't fully get Hill's decision, nor understand his agenda. But I don't blame him for looking after the Utes, as he says.

Nobody with a brain could blame Utah for eagerly accepting a Pac-12 invite upon expansion two years ago.

Conversely, who could blame BYU for going independent, propping up its own ESPN TV deal and hatching out BYUtv to a global audience?

Utah, BYU and TCU dumped the MWC and Mtn TV coverage like a ripe basket of bad apples.

All that could be called "shameful" in Laramie, Fort Collins and Albuquerque.

But that was all business.

This is what universities do these days.

From San Diego to Fort Worth, Columbus, Lincoln or Boise to Honolulu and Logan, athletic directors have scrambled to take care of their own.

Both Hill and BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe say it is the intention of both parties to get the football game back on track.

I believe them.

But neither can predict what might happen after the shakeup summer we saw in 2010 and the fallout that came in its wake.

Both would be stupid not to have contingencies or flexibility with some contracts. Change and protect yourself, this is today's mantra. Just this week a Pac-12/Big Ten scheduling agreement fell through. Who is to say BYU might be headed back to a conference in a year or so?

Change and self protect.

It appears Hill and Holmoe have been consistently in one another's ears in a friendly respectful way over this rivalry deal.

That's good enough for me.

Let's just hope they play it right.

You can't just dial up an opponent on 1-800-Rivalries.

The intense passion that propels players and fans in the Utah-BYU deal is as unique as anywhere on the planet.

You can't buy it.

You can't schedule someone to find it.

You can't force it or fiddle too much with it.

Many schools would die to find such a die-hard game to traditionally ride every season. The fever, the emotion, the tradition? It must develop over time, take on a spontaneous kind of combustion on its own.

To let it perpetually slide? That really would be stupid.

And a shame.

email: dharmon@desnews.com

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