Clearly that goes back to the discussion that Utah State is a very emotional, very hard game. There’s times you can schedule too much competition. —Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill
SALT LAKE CITY — Few American traditions compare to college football on Thanksgiving rivalry weekend.
Across the country, rivalries steeped in tradition that reach back to the 19th century are being discarded as college conferences realign.
When Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference in 2012, the Aggies' annual rivalry with Texas on the football field died after 118 meetings.
In 2010, Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Big Ten Conference. Nebraska's departure leaves its rivalry with Oklahoma in doubt: Despite playing 86 times, including the Game of the Century, the two schools are not scheduled to meet again on the football field until 2021.
Utah is no different.
As the Utes forgo century-old in-state rivalries to manufacture new ones with foes in the Pac-12, something has been lost. If the Aggies had taken on the Utes for the Battle of the Brothers in week one, the season could have started with an instant classic.
Actually, it was supposed to be that way. The Aggies and Utes were scheduled to open this season in Logan. Utah instead paid Utah State $500,000 not to play, according to documents Deseret News Sports received through an official GRAMA request with the University of Utah. The Utes then went out and paid Idaho State $400,000 to play in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The next week, the Aggies paid $250,000 to play Idaho State on Merlin Olsen Field, according to documents obtained through a state records request with Utah State University.
Why couldn’t the Battle of Brothers have added another edition to its 111-year rivalry, the 12th longest in the country, and saved $1.15 million from changing hands?
“Clearly that goes back to the discussion that Utah State is a very emotional, very hard game,” Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill said. “There’s times you can schedule too much competition.”
David Berri, former president of the North American Association of Sports Economists, co-author of 'Wages of Wins,' and current professor of economics at Southern Utah University says buying out tough competition for a lower-division Football Championship Subdivision team makes economic sense.
“Utah is trying to maximize its chances of making a BCS bowl game. That’s it,” Berri said. “The main thing they’re focused on then is performance in the Pac-12. When it comes to your non-conference games, it makes more sense to schedule easier opponents. Because all that really matters is that you win. Strength of schedule doesn’t matter all that much. You get into a BCS game just by winning the Pac-12. You get into a better BCS game by having a better overall record. It doesn’t make any sense to schedule any difficult, non-conference games.”
The Utes of 1996 might disagree. After losing to Utah State 20-17 in Logan in week one, Stanford loomed in week two.
“Utah State, they caught us,” former Utah quarterback Mike Fouts told the Deseret News. “It was a big wake-up call.
"I think we had a lot of high hopes coming into that season. That was a pretty tough blow. But it made us determined that we could not lose to Stanford. I think it probably shocked people. We then went on quite a run from there for the next six or seven games. Losing to Utah State, it might have actually helped us.”
This year, the Utes rolled through non-conference play. They beat a middling Idaho State, a softer-than-usual Fresno State, and a Michigan team in crisis.
After jumping out to a three-touchdown lead by halftime at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the Pac-12 opener against Washington State, Utah crumbled late to lose, 28-27.
Was Utah prepared for Pac-12 play?
“Big disappointment in our game on Saturday,” Whittingham said after the loss. “A game that we had complete control of and let it get away from us. You can't do that. Once you get control of the football game you have to maintain it, and we weren't able to do it. If we just found a way to make one more play in the fourth quarter, one stop ."
Whittingham added: "It wasn't great, but it wasn't bad. For whatever reason, we weren't in sync and we weren't executing."
Before he was Utah's athletic director, Hill captained Rutgers’ basketball team. In 1869 on College Field in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Hill’s alma mater and Princeton played the first-ever football game. Despite playing each other 71 times, the two schools haven’t met on the football field since 1980.
“It’s because of the different leagues they’re in and stuff,” Hill said. “There’s always something lost when all these changes happen. I wish we could do it all.”
Berri thinks the Utes’ move to the Pac-12 will jettison old traditions as they form new rivalries.
“Utah will now establish rivalries with Pac-12 teams. That’s the idea,” Berri said. “There will still be rivalry games. They will always be there. Utah will just establish new ones.”
Hill was asked if Utah fans are OK with longstanding rivalries not continuing as they once did.
"Are you talking about our fans?" Hill said. "Our fans are really excited about who we are playing now. We play USC, which we would never have had the opportunity to have USC come to the University of Utah. Our fans are very excited about those teams."
Later, Hill added, "We’ve got to do our best we can to keep Utah State and BYU alive as rivalry. This, we want to do. And we want to do that — boom — end of discussion. At the same time, life is different for us now. It’s harder."
Mississippi State's Dan Mullen once coached Alex Smith and other Ute quarterbacks at Utah with former Utah coach Urban Meyer. Last weekend, the No. 4 Bulldogs went up to Oxford to take on No. 19 Ole Miss. Mullen talked about how losing 31-17 in the 110th edition of the Egg Bowl mattered.
“This is as tough as it gets,” Mullen told reporters after the game. “I do not care about the [national] stakes. This game is for bragging rights in the state. It is the most important game we play. So it is obviously a devastating loss because of that.”
This Thanksgiving break, the Utes rallied to knock off the 2-10 Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder, Colorado. Most Utah fans aren't very excited about this game, but Hill says give it enough time and Utah versus Colorado has what it takes to become a great new rivalry.
“There’s no fixed rivalry that has to be there,” he said. “You can just form any rivalry you like. I think fans adjust. Sure, rivalries are nice. But you can manufacture rivalries. The most important thing you want to provide your fans is wins. That’s what they want.”
Jim McElwain, Colorado State’s head coach, though, said there’s something magical about real college rivalries that can't be re-created or manufactured. Coaching in these type of games helped lure him back to the college ranks from the NFL after a season working with the Oakland Raiders' quarterbacks.
“Rivalry games are what make college football so great,” McElwain said. “It’s these rivalries that, when I coached in the NFL, I missed the excitement these games brought.”
When asked about Utah and Utah State not playing, McElwain said, “What about that? Or Texas A&M not playing Texas? There's something wrong with that, isn’t it?”
Maybe Utah and Utah State will meet in a December bowl game. There is a slim possibility the Utes and Aggies could meet in the Las Vegas Bowl, where the Pac-12 and MWC have bowl ties.
“That’ll create a stir in the state, won’t it for you guys?” Utah State head coach Matt Wells said when asked about the possibility. Now coaching at his alma mater, Wells quarterbacked Utah State to the upset over Fouts and the Utes in ’96.
According to Utah State Athletic Director Scott Barnes, the days of Utah, Utah State and BYU each playing are becoming rare. "Next year we’ll play both BYU and Utah," Barnes said. "That’ll likely be the last time we’ll ever play both teams in one year.
"We’ve asked, we’ve reached out to Utah the last couple years," Barnes added. "The last time we played down at their place and it was right down to the nail. The year before that, we beat them, and those were the last games we played. You know, quite frankly, they haven’t shown interest in playing (since)."
Even if the Aggies and the Utes meet sometime in December, another question remains: Are the Utes so flush with cash that dropping nearly a million to schedule an easier game is worth it?
While the Pac-12 gave Utah the annual legitimacy it sought, the Utes have also seen booming TV receipts in switching conferences. In the Mountain West, Utah got $1.2 million in TV money per year. Utah will receive $17.07 million next year from the Pac-12 TV deal, in addition to $4.82 million in other conference distribution, according to documents obtained through an official GRAMA request with the University of Utah.
“People have the illusion that there’s more money influx that we really have. We’ve had to really gear-up to be competitive,” Hill said about making the Pac-12 move.
Multiple conference rankings have the Pac-12 as the second best college football conference. In Olympic disciplines like swimming, Utah swimmers compete against four-time Olympic champion Missy Franklin in the backstroke and freestyle events. Next year, Franklin is hardly guaranteed to win her conference. Olympic gold medalist, world champion and reigning world record holder Katie Ledecky is slated to swim for Stanford, just down the road from Franklin at Cal-Berkeley.
In 2013, Utah ran an operations deficit of $2.66 million. Like most athletic departments, Utah benefits from student fees ($6.255 million) and direct institutional support ($4.18 million). Last year, this $10.23 million of Utah’s $49.520 million accounted for a 21.85-percent athletic department subsidy.
"I think people think we’re too big for our own britches," Hill said in regards to Utah's old rivals. "I can’t tell you how often I try to discount that. We don’t want to forget our roots. But it’s a new day in college athletics."
In comparison, Utah State ran an operations deficit of $617,000 in 2013. Last year, $13.690 million of Utah State's $24.30 million was subsidized (57.8 percent), according to documents obtained through a state-records request with Utah State University.
Is the Aggies athletic department comfortable with such a sizable subsidy?
"Yes, absolutely," Barnes said. "We are the front porch of the university. We’re not the most important room in the house, but we’re the most visible. With that visibility comes unbelievable opportunity, and certainly responsibility. Our greatest opportunity comes in carrying the flag of the university.
"We think we get a great return on investment. You can see it, it shows up in so many ways," Barnes added. "That subsidy, given the size of our market, is necessary."
According to USA Today’s college finances database, only seven of 230 top-division NCAA organizations do not rely on operation budget subsidies.
“Given that it guaranteed them a victory, it's probably not a horrible investment,” Berri said in regards to the Utes' return on investment on buying out their rivalry game. “It’s winning that they’re focused on. Maximizing your wins, that’s the best thing to do. That’s primarily what the fans want.”
But was the best bang for their buck for the University of Utah?
“That’s another question entirely,” Berri said.