HO HUM, the University of Utah wrapped up another football season last weekend. It was business as usual. The Utes finished with four wins and seven losses.
Another losing record.This is getting to be a habit.
Some people think that Utah's poor showing on the gridiron is a recent phenomenon, like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but, no, actually the Utes have a lot of experience at this. They have been fielding extremely average or worse football teams for four decades. During the 1980s, they were 54-57-3; the 70s 44-67; the 60s 53-48-1; the 50s 54-44-4. Counting this season (so far), the Utes' 41-year record is 209-222-8 - an average of 5 wins per season.
Rarely has there even been the occasional aberration of a winning spell during that time. In only nine of those 41 years did Utah manage to win more than six games in a season.
And the Utes show no signs of improving. They've had only one winning season in the last five years (six wins in 1988). These days they're not only losing, but losing badly.
How the Utes ever became such consistent losers is a mystery. Recruiting to Utah and Salt Lake City, for instance, is not like recruiting to, say, Texas-El Paso, which must convince recruits to spend four or five years in a place that looks as desolate as the moon. Nor is Utah isolated like Hawaii, which is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Nor does Utah have the weather of Laramie or Neptune, which have the same climate except Laramie's is worse. Nor does Utah face any of the size restrictions of Air Force or the inherent recruiting limitations of Air Force and BYU.
Yet all of these schools have produced at least a few winners in recent years and challenged for the Western Athletic Conference championship.
The Utes - who have the WAC's second largest hometown, the third highest enrollment, the fourth highest attendance - have finished in the bottom half of the league standings eight times in the last 10 years (counting this season) and managed just one WAC title (a three-way tie) in 28 years of league membership.
"The bottom line is that (the Utes) are an enigma," says Chris Hill, Utah's athletic director of four years. Hill is baffled by the school's football tradition. So are other A.D.s around the WAC. There is no reason Utah shouldn't succeed in football.
No one is saying the Utes should be perennial conference champs. But they should be able to finish among the top three or four teams in the WAC annually, win seven or so games, and challenge for the title every three or four years.
But they don't. Why? No one can quite figure that out.
This much is known: The Utes have been to coaching what Liz Taylor has been to marriage. Three coaches in the 60s, three coaches in the 70s, three coaches in the 80s. In the time LaVell Edwards has been coach at BYU, the Utes have gone through six coaches.
No doubt this has hurt the Utes' continuity (recruiting, changing offensive and defensive schemes), which has made it tougher for coaches and players. On the other hand, when it comes to dealing with coaches, the Utes have had a real knack for making bad hirings and bad firings, some of them while still trying to decide what it is they want to be.
For instance: They wanted a solid, no-nonsense coach, so they hired Chuck Stobart. He gave the Utes a good, run-oriented offense, strong defense, and an improving team, but no public relations. The Utes changed their minds three years later. They wanted more passing and PR, so they hired Jim Fassel. He gave the Utes a more exciting offense and great PR, but no defense and fewer wins. His teams paled in comparison to Stobart's teams - but he lasted nearly twice as long. Privately, BYU athletic director Glen Tuckett told one Ute official that he rejoiced the day Utah let Stobart go.
The rest of the Utes' dealings with coaches is a similar study in frustration. They should have begged Wayne Howard to stay. They hired Tom Lovat despite an obvious dearth of credentials.
Other problems: Well, the Utes' local recruiting market is small, and the rise of BYU in recent years has made it smaller. But Wyoming fights a similar battle. Financial support? The Utes, again trying to decide what they want to be, once considered themselves a basketball school - one that could never succeed in football - and they funded the sports accordingly. But that was 10 years ago. The financial support for football rates with almost anyone in the WAC now.
In the end, nothing quite explains four decades of lousy football. Still, optimism never dies. The Utes are swearing by (as opposed to at) first-year coach Ron McBride, a former Howard assistant. Unlike Stobart, he was allowed to choose his own coaching staff, and he has the university's support.
"If we can't get it going in the next three or four years, then we've really got problems," says Hill. "I can't see what else we need. Everything is in place."