Dapper in a casual, nondescript suit and tie, J. Bernard Machen admitted he was dressed by his advisers for a Friday meeting with Utah County business owners.
"The one thing I was told by my staff was not to wear red or blue," said the yet-to-be inducted president of the University of Utah at a Provo/Orem Chamber of Commerce lunch. "This is, literally, the only non-red, non-blue outfit I own."Avoiding any overt clues of red (for his own Utes) or blue (for the Brigham Young University Cougars) put Machen on a level field for a freewheeling talk with Utah County folks.
Machen, a personable man who prefers to be called Bernie, made an appearance in Cougar territory Friday. He was chosen to head Utah's flagship institution some 10 months ago.
And despite a bitter, long-standing rivalry between the U. and Brigham Young University, Machen said he "shares a special kinship" with BYU President Merrill Bateman and speaks of the school owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as "a sister institution."
"We have quite a special relationship with BYU," Machen said. "The institutions have many things in common."
Socially, students at the two schools are perceived to be quite different. Academically, the two schools both offer comprehensive undergraduate classes while also boasting graduate degrees and research opportunities.
Machen also gave a small nod to the remarkable growth of Utah Valley State College, which has matured from a technical trade school to an accredited, four-year liberal arts institution in about 10 years.
In addition, much to UVSC President Kerry D. Romesburg's delight, enrollment at his school increased nearly 12 percent this year, making it the fastest-growing school in Utah's system of higher education.
"I think UVSC is complementary to the University of Utah," Machen said, adding that total enrollment at the U. is down slightly because of a large graduating class last year. A system-wide semester conversion pushed seniors to complete degrees early, he said.
At about 25,000, the U. has the largest student body of any of Utah's public institutions of higher education.
"But it may not stay the largest if UVSC continues to grow," Machen quipped.
Machen's relationship with Bateman was cultivated when both presidents saw the need to break away from the Western Athletic Conference and start a newer competitive league.
Machen, perhaps because of his personality, appears to have taken the lead in the rebellion against the established league. But that isn't quite so, he told chamber mem-bers.
"It was really (Bateman's) interest in seeing change and my realization we were headed nowhere," Machen clarified. "And I'm happy with the way things are shaping out."
This is the final year for the 16-team Western Athletic Conference. Presidents of eight schools, including the U. and BYU, announced in May an intention to withdraw on June 30, 1999, and form a new conference.
A name for the fledgling league, Machen said, will likely be announced in a week.
Dave Checketts, a BYU graduate and president and chief of New York's Madison Square Garden, has agreed to consult with officials from the schools in the moniker-selection process, he said.
According to league insiders, three favorites have emerged: American West Conference, Great West Conference and Mountain West Conference.
Machen, while speaking frankly about funding debates with the Board of Regents and Utah lawmakers, the impact of the 2002 Winter Games on the U. and the possibility of expanding a health-care system into Utah County, seemed to please, even win over, some ardent BYU fans.
"Except for that one November afternoon," he said to laughter, "I'm a big BYU fan."