Amy Donaldson: We need to keep the Utah Utes-BYU Cougars rivalry

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 6:30 a.m. MDT

Utah Utes defensive back Mo Lee (5) knocks the ball away from Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson (13) in what was first called a fumble but reversed to an incomplete pass as the University of Utah and BYU play football Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

"Like the fruits of the season's harvest, the game is a gift. A cycle of life that links generations and bonds hostile neighbors. Because beneath the bitterness that coats their epic feud, the teams grudgingly maintain a mutual and abiding respect.

They are companion pieces in history. Each side's legacy continually tied to the other's."

— Michigan vs. Ohio State:

The Rivalry

SALT LAKE CITY — A smile spread across the face of Utah quarterback Jon Hays when he was asked to describe the finish of Saturday night's 24-21 win over rival BYU.

"I can't describe that ending," he told reporters well after the game's midnight finish. "That's something I'll remember when I'm 85 and with Alzheimer's."

Hays won't be regaling silver-haired women with stories of how a bunch of back-ups out-played an offense led by a veteran quarterback in the third game of the 2012 season just because it was an unusually thrilling finish.

He'll be re-playing the details of the 66th straight meeting (94th overall) between Utah and BYU around in his mind long after his body betrays him because that victory came in the rivalry game.

But for his grandchildren, or anyone else listening to those tales, to understand the significance of what he accomplished with a patchwork of running backs, an inconsistent kicking effort and a never-say-die defense, they'll have to understand what the rivalry game is.

And that may not be possible when Hays is 85.

In July, Utah athletic director Chris Hill announced the Utes would "take a break" from the rivalry and play Michigan instead of BYU in 2014 and 2015.

Some Utah fans were relieved. The Utes, they pointed out, were now in the Pac-12, and had to have loftier goals than what has become an early-season grudge match now devoid of conference implications.

But many others — on both sides of the rivalry — were disappointed. Moving the game to the pre-conference season had already removed some of the luster. But to eliminate the game completely, well, it felt a little sacrilegious.

Just like Michigan and Ohio State, Utah and BYU were blessed with the ingredients for a special rivalry. Yes, it can get out of hand. Yes, it can get too personal. But don't cancel Christmas because some people don't know how to celebrate appropriately.

Former coaches (LaVell Edwards and Ron McBride especially) and players have proved over and over that most animosity ended when the game did (or at least their college football careers finished).

And most of the fans understood the same.

But more often, and more importantly, the rivalry is what brought fans together. Not every fan has the gift of belonging to a rivalry as old and as storied as Utah vs. BYU.

It gave us a reason to talk to a stranger — whether wearing red or blue — because their attire, their allegiance provided a common bond — the rivalry.

Even those outside the state, including reporters, notorious for their cynicism, mourned the loss of what was one of the country's top rivalries just a few years ago.

There are other Utah schools that both teams can play, but it's unlikely any other in-state contest will ever match the magic of the Utah-BYU contest because it's taken decades of heartbreak and heroes to create the rivalry.

It's not just a game to those who know and love it.

Kyle Whittingham understands — as a coach and a player — how unpredictable, thrilling and devastating the rivalry game can be.

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