SALT LAKE CITY
They were at it again over the weekend, 6,000 half-crazed — make that fully-crazed — University of Utah students ruining their vocal cords and eardrums while stomping up and down and screaming for physical abuse.
And it wasn’t on Greek Row at midnight. It was at high noon for Saturday’s football game against Weber State — a game Utah won, by the way and not incidentally.
True, the Utes may have been able to pull this one out — against an overmatched lower division opponent — without help from the stands. But it’s also true the sold-out students-only southeast corner of Rice-Eccles Stadium known as the MUSS — either an acronym for Mighty Utah Student Section or a word out of the school song, take your pick — is in and of itself equally as astonishing as the Ute football program that has gone 99-40 over the past 11-plus seasons, including this year’s 2-0 start.
You don’t have to be all that old to remember a time when the Utes didn’t win so often or attract much of a crowd in the student section, either one. As early ago as 1998 the Ute promotions department hauled a huge Jacuzzi into the southeast stands for a watch-the-game-in-a-hot-tub contest and no one flinched.
Do that now and you’d drown about a thousand students.
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John Fackler didn’t set out to be a legend in his own time when he started the ball rolling that would become the MUSS. He was just trying to figure out how to do his job.
It was the spring of 2002 and he’d been asked to shift his duties in the Alumni Association from director of business relations to adviser to the students. Not quite sure where to begin, he went to his wheelhouse — athletics.
Fackler, by way of background, is a born-again Ute. He came to Salt Lake City from Georgia when he was 6 years old and his father, a rocket scientist, was transferred to Utah by Hercules. Newman E. Fackler Jr. was a Georgia Tech fanatic but Atlanta was a long way to go to see a football game so he started taking his son to games at the U.
John’s dad had a rule that you needed to be in bed at a certain time and the only way that could be extended is if you were reading — and, as John recalls, “The Utah football program qualified as reading material somehow.”
Staying up late, “I learned everything, even the words to the school song,” recalls Fackler. And a Utah man was he. He went on to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Utah in accounting and after working for a time in the private sector he joined his alma mater in the Alumni Association.
Assigned to work with the students, one of his first duties was to help start something called the Utah Football Fan Club.
Vast numbers of people told him he was crazy, for three primary reasons: 1. We’re a basketball school. 2. Kids won’t come to football games, 3. We’re a commuter campus.
Statistics backed this up. The year before, in 2001, an average of 500 students came to the football games.
Undeterred, Fackler contacted a student named James Thorup, who ran the Huntsman Center Hooligans, the basketball fan club, and asked for his help.
“Fortunately, Thorup turned out to be charismatic and aggressive and everybody liked him,” says Fackler. Soon enough, the football fan club had a board, consisting of Thorup, Scott Hammer, Ed Larson, Jason Barlow, Dan Olson, Kevin Stoker, Matt Burgemeister, Rick Henriksen and Rob Henriksen, with Fackler and Kim Raap of the athletic department advising.
At registration that year the lobbying began in earnest: join the football fan club for a nominal fee and receive a reserved seat, a t-shirt and tailgate party before the game.
Anything above 500 would be an improvement. They got 800.
Coach Ron McBride went 5-6 that season and was fired, making way for an unknown coach from Bowling Green named Urban Meyer. Meyer started talking up student involvement from the start and as if on a premonition that Utah would go 10-2 in his first season, registration for 2003 went to 1,400.
That was also the year the Utah Football Fan Club became the MUSS.
“Lest anyone think we had some great plan,” Fackler points out, “it all happened because Ed Larson said to Scott Hammer, ‘I like that word muss in the school song.’”
The old-fashioned word — Webster defines muss as “a confused conflict” — comes in the chorus of “Utah Man,” written in 1904:
We’re up to snuff, we never bluff, we’re game for any fuss.
No other gang of college men dare meet us in a muss.
Larson and Hammer proposed the name change at the next board meeting and it was done.
The transformation to Mighty Utah Student Section came later.
“Thank goodness there was a U in it,” says Fackler.
It all snowballed from there. Registration climbed to 2,800 in 2004 and after the Utes went 12-0 that fall it went to 3,000 in 2005, which was all the ticket office would allow. The hue and cry was so great that the cap was increased to 5,000. In 2010, on Coach Kyle Whittingham’s recommendation, 1,000 standing room only tickets were added, expanding the MUSS to 6,000.
All sorts of traditions have sprouted: the 3rd Down Jump, the False Start Scoreboard, the authentic Under Armour crimson red must-have MUSS t-shirts, the annual spring MUSS flag football game, the MUSS logo on the football helmets.
As for Fackler, he’s twice been named Outstanding Adviser in the country by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), due in no small measure to MUSS and, he is quick to point out, his invaluable assistant and MUSS coordinator Brynn Whitchurch. They might have won the award even more if not for CASE instituting the “Fackler rule” barring anyone being honored in consecutive years. In 2012 CASE bestowed its “Outstanding Tried and True Program” award to MUSS, proclaiming it among the very best student football sections in the nation.
“It’s changed student life up here,” says Fackler. “It’s no longer come to class, get in your car, go home. You just don’t hear people calling us a commuter campus that much anymore.”
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org
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