SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s defeat of BYU Saturday night was one more confirmation of the obvious — the Utes have surpassed the Cougars in football. That would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, but there it is: The Utes have won 12 of the last 15 games between the teams, and Saturday’s 19-13 win made it seven in a row.
A series of events turned the rivalry, which has been prone to giant mood swings anyway (Utah was 34-2-4 against BYU from 1922 to 1964, and then LaVell Edwards took over as head coach at BYU in 1972 and the Cougars won 19 of the next 21 games). Here is a look at the factors in the rivalry’s reversal of fortune.
When Ron McBride became head coach of the Utes in 1990, the Utes had lost 16 of 18 games to the Cougars. They would lose three more before things changed. Then McBride’s teams won five of the next nine games and made the BYU-Utah game a true rivalry again. The Utah program was still inferior to BYU’s, but the tide was turning. BYU and Utah have met 26 times since McBride became head coach; Utah has won 16 of them.
McBride was able to do this because he was a brilliant, charismatic recruiter. Unlike his predecessors, he embraced the LDS Church missionary program and tapped into the Polynesian pipeline. He had a knack for finding good players. Anthony Davis, a junior college transfer who showed up late to McBride’s first training camp, was so good that he won the starting job before he practiced a down. He went on to become a fine NFL player.
Other future NFL stars followed: Jamal Anderson, Mike Anderson, Kevin and Andre Dyson, Luther Elliss, Steve Smith, Jordan Gross. The talent level at Utah spiked under McBride, resulting in bowl bids (previously seldom seen at Utah), bowl victories and wins over BYU.
Everyone knows about Urban Meyer now. Utah caught him on the rise. He showed up at Utah from Bowling Green — his first head coaching job — and turned the place upside down, winning 22 of 24 games, two conference championships, the school's first BCS bowl bid by a non-automatic qualifying school, a 35-7 Fiesta Bowl win over Pittsburgh, and a No. 4 national ranking in the final polls. Oh, and his teams beat BYU both years.
Before leaving for Florida, Meyer recommended defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham to replace him. Whittingham added another unbeaten season, a shocking Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, and a No. 2 finish in the national polls. He has collected 106 wins and 10 bowl victories in 13-plus seasons.
The Talent Decline
The talent of football players at BYU regressed considerably under Bronco Mendenhall. Here’s one way to quantify the decline:
— Current players in the NFL: Utah 27, BYU 9.
— Players in the NFL when Mendenhall became head coach in 2005: BYU 24, Utah 5.
— Draft picks during Mendenhall’s 11 years as head coach: 11 (from the spring of 2006 to the spring of 2016).
— Draft picks during the previous 11 years: 31.
The talent drain has been reflected on the field. The Cougars have won a lot of games in recent years, but, since 2009, they are 14-23 against Power 5 conference teams and 3-12 against ranked teams.
Mendenhall — impersonal and dour — was not a good recruiter, but most of the blame for the decline in talent should probably be directed to the events of the early 2000s and the reaction to those events. Gary Crowton was a fine coach and a superb recruiter who failed to win at BYU. He signed talented players, but his plans collapsed in a controversial, ugly mess. Crowton resigned at the end of the 2004 season following a year in which 14 players were disciplined for honor code violations and/or alleged criminal acts. The allegations ranged from assault and robbery to rape.
If the Cougars were going to represent the school and the LDS Church, things had to change, and Mendenhall was clearly mandated to do it. He “raised the bar” — one of his pet sayings — looking for players and coaches who were completely committed to the honor code, if not the tenets of the Mormon faith. This has continued under second-year head coach Kalani Sitake. For better or worse, it has cut out a big segment of talent among both players and coaches.
A lot of talent that once would have been claimed by BYU has joined the other side, starting with the head coach. When Meyer and Crowton left Utah and BYU, respectively, following the 2004 season, both schools bid for Meyer’s defensive coordinator, Whittingham, as the replacement. Whittingham was a former BYU all-conference linebacker. His father was a former BYU player and coach. His two brothers were former BYU players. The Whittinghams were raised in Provo.
Whittingham chose Utah.
Since then, coaches and players with significant BYU and/or LDS Church connections have followed. Among them were former BYU players who chose to coach at Utah — Kalani Sitake, (now BYU’s head coach), Aaron Roderick, Justin Ena, Fred Whittingham Jr., — as well as recruits such as Jake Murphy (son of Mormon baseball great Dale), Bradlee Anae (whose father starred for BYU’s football team), Chase Hansen (son of a former BYU player), Britain Covey (whose brother and uncle played for BYU and whose grandfather worked for BYU), Samson Nacua (whose brother played for BYU), Dimitri Salido (whose father played for BYU). The Utes also have signed many recruits from Utah County, which was once BYU turf — among them, Pita Taumoepenu, Evan Moeai, James Empey (he transferred to BYU when his father, Mike, became a coach there), and the Kruger brothers, Paul, Dave and Joe.
The Conference Reshuffle
BYU was already falling behind Utah when events conspired to widen the gap between the schools. College football underwent massive conference realignments in the scramble for TV money, and Utah received an invitation to join the Pac-12 in 2011. The Cougars received no such invitation from a major conference, at least partly because of political considerations. Rather than remain in the Mountain West Conference, they chose independence.
Utah has reaped the benefits of Power Five conference membership and not just financially. Players have signed with the Utes who probably would not have done so if not for the conference affiliation — Devontae Booker, Troy Williams, Darren Carrington, Dres Anderson, to name a few. BYU enjoys none of the benefits of conference membership — no league championship, no automatic bowl berth, no all-conference honors. Independence also has added to their recruiting challenges, which were already difficult because of the honor code.
BYU Loses its Brand
BYU made its reputation with quarterbacks and a prolific pass offense that blazed the way for today’s pass game. The Cougars were passing the ball before it was cool and doing it better than anyone. From 1973 to 1995, the Cougars ranked No. 1 in pass offense eight times, the top five 18 times, and 21 times in the top 10. In the last 22 years, they’ve ranked in the top 10 only five times. The country has caught up to the Cougars and left them behind.
The reason Edwards adopted the passing offense was because it was the great equalizer — if you couldn’t recruit five-star recruits, then you had to use finesse to win games. Unable to run over teams, they picked them apart with passing.
The Cougars have lost their brand. They have lost the thing that they did better than anyone.
Can they find another niche to return them to a top-25 program? Only time will tell.