Eighteen ninety-four was a big year for the University of Utah. It was the year the school changed its name from the University of Deseret. It was also only the second football season in history. Manned with a new official-sounding name, and bearing the reputation of the Great State of Utah, hopes were high.
Headed by a coach whose name has been lost in the mists of time, the university embarked on a ambitious three-game schedule. OK, maybe not exactly ambitious, but it was a start. There were two games against City High and one against the YMCA. It seemed rea sonable to assume the team that would one day be known as the Utes had a good chance at a perfect season.But to the Utah men's surprise, it never happened. They ended up losing the first game to City High, 20-4, then got blanked 14-0 by the YMCA. They did recover to beat City High in the season-finale, but the year had been ruined.
As it turned out, it was the start of a bad trend.
More than a hundred years later, the Utes are still struggling against teams they should beat.
They're making ambitious plans and then losing to inferior opponents. They've progressed beyond the years when they would win only one or two games, and even attended some minor bowl games, but not so far as to be taken seriously.
The fact that the Utes remain the Not Ready for Prime Time Players came through vividly last Saturday night when they lost 31-28 to Boise State. Not only did they lose, they lost in a nearly impossible way. They pinned the Broncos on the 1-yard line late in the game; even a field goal couldn't have hurt the Utes. All they had to do was keep Boise State out of the end zone.
But, of course, they couldn't, and the Broncos - rated the 100th best team in the country in Sports Illustrated's preseason poll - beat Utah for the second time in four meetings. All over the Salt Lake Valley you could hear people groan.
And all across the country you could hear AP voters scratching the Utes off their checklists.
By now the Utes should be out of excuses for losing to teams like Boise State. They have great practice facilities, including an indoor bubble. They have a state-of-the-art weight room. They have wonderful airline connections - since Salt Lake is a Delta hub - which helps recruiting. They have ample booster support, including some loyal, committed and wealthy donors. And though there are larger stadiums, theirs is as fine a facility as any in the country.
So why do they lose to teams like Boise State?
This behavior has been going on for a long time. The Utes have made a habit of losing games they shouldn't. Not just games against run-of-the-mill WAC teams; we're talking about flat-out inferior programs. In 1997 and 1996 they lost to Utah State. In 1993 it was a loss to I-AA Idaho. In 1988 and 1992 they managed to lose to UTEP, which is even worse. In 1990 they won their first two games and then lost four straight and six of the next seven. They weren't matched against a lineup of killer teams; they faced a string of ordinary WAC games than landed them with a 2-6 conference record.
In 1994 they were making big strides, nationally ranked and 8-0, until they lost back-to-back games to New Mexico and Air Force - despite being favored in both.
All time, the Utes have a mediocre or bad record against some mediocre, bad or just lower-division teams. They are only 15-12 against Hawaii, 14-12 against Idaho, 4-5-1 against Nevada, 0-1 against Pacific, 1-3 against Rice. And, oh, they're 0-5 against the YMCA.
True, some of those losses came in a long-ago era when the Ute program wasn't so big or well-established. Still, neither were the opponents'. Now it's the 90s, and the Utes have no excuses. It's also true the Utes have been plagued by injuries some years, including this one. But other teams suffer injuries, too. By now the Utes should be deep enough, and confident enough, to weather injuries.
As the Utes approach the next millennium, they are dying for respect. They want to be considered among the big-time programs in the country. Yet to date they have only two WAC titles to their name, in 1964 and 1995, and both were shared with other teams. If you didn't win a title one of those years you probably didn't have a team.
The new stadium is up and running, but thousands of tickets go unsold. The reason is, the Utes haven't done anything important enough to sell out.
If the Utes ever expect to be taken seriously, and fill their stadium, they must change the course. They can't lose to the YMCA and they certainly can't lose to Boise State. Ever. They'll need to play and beat big-name opponents on a fairly regular basis. And they'll need to win some championships.
In short, they need to do something they have rarely done since 1894: give people a reason to believe.