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Doug Robinson: Do Utes, fans yearn for Mountain West days?

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 6:34 p.m. MDT

Utah and Oregon play Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013 in Eugene. Oregon won 44-21. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Utah and Oregon play Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013 in Eugene. Oregon won 44-21. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

With two days to go until the Utes face the start of another early offseason in Year 3 of their Pac-12 adventure, this seems like a good time to ask this question:

Is anybody — fans, coaches, players, administrators, cheerleaders, marching band members, drill teamers — having more fun than they did in the pre-Pac-12 era?

Yes, they’re building for the future. Yes, they’re going to pull in more money through Pac-12 membership. Yes, they’re going to get more TV exposure. Yes, they’re going to play more big-time opponents and in more big-time venues. Yes, yes, yes.

That was not the question.

Is anybody having more fun? (That is why we do this, right?)

Before joining the Pac-12, the Utes had assembled eight consecutive winning football seasons.

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham  reacts after the touchdown at the end of the game was called incomplete in Salt Lake City  Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013.  UCLA won 34-27.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham reacts after the touchdown at the end of the game was called incomplete in Salt Lake City Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. UCLA won 34-27. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

They had earned 10 consecutive bowl bids, easily the longest streak in school history.

And won 10 of them.

They had played in two BCS bowl games.

And won both of them.

Twice they finished the season ranked among the elite in the national polls — No. 4 and No. 2.

They were on their way to becoming a fixture in elite college football circles. Life was good. 13-0 one season, 10-3 the next, then 10-3 again. They were on a roll. It was the best stretch of football in school history.

Then they joined the Pac-12 and everything changed. Ever since then it’s been like watching the air gradually leak out of a balloon — 8-5 their first year, 5-7 the second year, 4-7 the third year (with one game to go). It's the first time in 23 years they've had consecutive losing seasons.

Their conference records in that span: 4-5, 3-6, 1-7, respectively — a cumulative mark of 8-18.

The Utes will finish the 2013 season Saturday with a game against lowly Colorado, a team with an identical record. They need a win to avoid their sixth consecutive loss.

For the second straight season, the Utes are not going to a bowl game. They’ve disappeared from the national football conversation.

Some fans are calling for coach Kyle Whittingham’s job. Talk about sad irony. He’s the guy who got the Utes into the Pac-12 by building a top 20 program and now some are wanting him out. Thanks, Coach, but what have you done for us lately?

Does anyone miss the old days when the Utes played in the Mountain West Conference and, before that, the Western Athletic Conference? Does anyone miss the natural rivalries?

Does anyone miss contending for a conference championship? Or a BCS Bowl bid, which, ironically, was more easily accomplished in the lesser at-large leagues than in a BCS conference such as the Pac-12?

Meanwhile, Utah State, which lost to Utah and BYU, is playing for the Mountain West Conference title — and a bowl berth.

BYU, an independent team that lost to Utah, will play in the Fight Hunger Bowl against a middle-of-the-pack Pac-12 team. (You could also ask the same question of BYU: Is life more fun as an independent than it was as a conference member?)

But, wait, competing in the Pac-12 takes time, money and patience, we're told. But do football fans really want to think of their team as a 401(k)? Arizona and Arizona State left the WAC for the Pac-12 more than three decades ago and they have rarely enjoyed as much success as they did formerly. It’s the old question: Big fish in small pond or small fish in big pond?

This is not to pick on or criticize the Utes. (Some U. fans are bound to think so anyway.) They got swept up in a high-stakes game of musical chairs when the big conferences executed hostile takeovers. Since 2010 at least 32 teams have changed conferences or become independents. The game has been turned on its head. The loss of century-old rivalries was just one symptom (BYU-Utah, Texas-Texas A&M, West Virginia-Pitt, Kansas-Missouri, Oklahoma-Nebraska).

You can’t blame the Utes — no school is going to turn down millions of dollars. The blame lies with the instability of college football and the lack of a true, centralized overseer that considers the health of the entire sport, not self-interest. (It’s certainly not the NCAA or the BCS.) College football needs to be run like college basketball, or even the National Football League, but it’s too late now.

So, the question: If you are a U. fan, are you still glad the Utes made the leap to the Pac-12? Is it worth the price of admission — fewer bowl games, fewer national rankings, fewer wins, fewer championships, fewer reasons to celebrate?

Reality is setting in. Are you in for the long haul?

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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