LARAMIE, WYO. — So this is how they decided to handle the breakup.
It's a pleasant 65 degrees at kickoff, with just enough of a breeze blowing off the Snowy Mountains so you can smell the ribs barbecuing out on the tailgates.
You want to play in sissy Pac-10 weather, the Wyoming Cowboys seem to be saying as their 106-year football-playing relationship with the University of Utah slams to a halt, OK, we'll play in sissy Pac-10 weather.
Heaven knows, as do the Utes, it's not always like this. Matter of fact, it's almost never like this.
In a town on the high plains that got its name from someone dying (In 1810 Jacques LaRamie was a French fur trapper who reputedly froze to death in the vicinity that now bears his surname), the atmosphere has always been, well, let's say threatening — liable to turn on you at any moment, unpredictable, ornery as an old heifer.
Ute coach Kyle Whittingham knows. He was a sophomore linebacker on the 1981 BYU team that traveled to Laramie and amid clear skies at kickoff raced to a 14-0 lead. Then a blizzard rolled in from Montana. By halftime the stadium was a whiteout. By the end of the game the BYU players could barely see the scoreboard to make out the final score: Wyoming 33, Cougars 20. Jim McMahon lost four games in three years as a quarterback — that was the last one.
"I couldn't feel my feet," remembers Whittingham.
That was the game after which BYU coach LaVell Edwards made Laramie and its hospitable weather even more famous. After blowing the lead and getting beat, the Cougars had to load in their buses and negotiate the drive over the pass to Denver for their plane ride home, not making it back to Provo until three in the morning.
A few hours later, the coach woke up to a crystal clear Provo morning, with the sun rising over Squaw Peak behind his home on the east bench.
He turned to his wife, Patti, and said, "I'd rather lose and live in Provo than win and live in Laramie."
He did not add, "That's off the record," which explains how the quote, uttered in the early a.m. in his bedroom, ended up in a national magazine.
"She'd heard Sports Illustrated was paying $100 for a quote," LaVell says. "So she sent it in."
LaVell, being LaVell, turned it into just another way to make friends. The next time BYU went to Laramie he agreed to do tongue-in-cheek promos for the university and the Chamber of Commerce — "Come to Laramie, enjoy the great weather." The Cowboys took it as a compliment.
Almost 30 years later, he looks back on it all with fondness.
"I always liked going up there," he says. "You knew it would be windy a little bit, but you got a lot of wind other places too. And you know, like a lot of things, I think maybe the weather thing's overplayed."
Overplayed or underplayed, Saturday's game marked the end of the trail for football trips to Laramie by either of Wyoming's longtime Utah rivals — the last roundup, as it were. After this year the University of Utah will join the Pac-10 Conference and BYU will become independent, abandoning Wyoming and the rest of the old Mountain West Conference gang. No longer will "Wyoming" be an automatic on the schedule.
It's like breaking up with your girlfriend — after 106 years.
Utah and Wyoming started playing football in 1904. In 1921 they became part of the same league, the Rocky Mountain Conference, which also included BYU. For the next 89 years, as the Rocky Mountain morphed in varying alignments into the Skyline Conference (in 1937), the Western Athletic Conference (in 1962) and finally the Mountain West Conference (in 1999), Wyoming, Utah and BYU were the three constants.
There aren't many longer athletic relationships in the entire country. Utah and Wyoming have played 83 times in football — and virtually every year for the past 72 years — with the Utes up in the overall series 51-31-1. BYU began playing Wyoming in 1922, the first year the school fielded a football team; the Cougars and Cowboys have played 76 times, with BYU ahead in the series, 43-30-3 — they will meet for the last time as league rivals this Saturday in Provo.
Utah's second football road trip was to Laramie in 1904.
Being a nostalgic guy, and wanting a nice steak at the Cavalryman (now renamed, I discovered, "The Cav"), I got in a four-wheel-drive Chevy Traverse Friday morning with Deseret News sportswriters Dirk Facer and Brad Rock, photographer Tom Smart and, to do it up in real style, retired Utah sports information director Bruce Woodbury. We steered east on I-80 and made the 390-mile trek to Laramie.
For years, back when I wrote sports, I made this trip. Knowing there might never be another excuse, I wanted to make it again.
It wasn't hard to talk Woody into going, even though he made at least 50 treks to Laramie during the 35 years he was working for the Utes. "Some of my favorite people in the world are there," he said. "Kevin McKinney (longtime Wyoming sports information director and now an associate athletic director) is one of my best friends in the business. I love going to Laramie.
"When you go there you expect to see Bronko Nagurski walking down the street," Woody continued. "The people are tough and they love their football. They are cowboys. It's a cowboy town. And they're as fine a people as you'll find anywhere."
We rolled in on Friday. We checked out all the old haunts, the Foster's Country Corners Motel (now a Best Western) where you had to put a towel or your bedspread at the bottom of the door to stop the wind from blowing in; the Cowboy Bar; War Memorial Stadium — at 7,220 feet, the highest elevation for a college football field in America; the Cavalryman, where we indeed had that steak (16-ounce ribeye, with baked potato and a nice green salad).
The world has changed plenty over the last 40 years, but Laramie hasn't. The population in 1970 was 17,000. Forty years later it's 27,204.
The scenery, the weather, the food, the people, it couldn't have been nicer — including, much to the chagrin of the locals, the Wyoming football team, which fell to the 10th-ranked Utes like a lamb at branding time.
Walking after the game through the fall leaves to the car, gulping in the pure if rarified high plains oxygen, I conjured up my favorite memory of all the road trips to Laramie — a signature only-in-Wyoming moment. It was at a basketball game in the middle of the winter. Bitter cold outside, but that didn't stop 15,000 people from packing the arena.
At halftime, they played a Garth Brooks record over the speakers and turned it up loud. It was "I've Got Friends in Low Places," a song that has been voted the No. 1 bar song by country music devotees.
Then, suddenly, 15,000 people were on their feet, singing along, every single person, at the top of their voices: "I've got friends in low places."
Kinda sad, that no longer includes us.
Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to email@example.com