SALT LAKE CITY — Good morning, Ute fans. If everyone would please be seated, we’ll get started. I’ve invited you here to ask you a question while your football team is waiting for its date with West Virginia in something called the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Has the Pac-12 been a good thing for you, the fan?
OK, quiet down, everybody. There’s no cause to bring my ancestry into this. Let me explain.
I get it: If someone invites you to the Power 5 Party, you don’t turn it down. Would an actor refuse a role from the Coen brothers? If the Pac-12 asks you to sign up, you sign up. Just ask a BYU fan. But has it really been a good move for Ute Fan?
Yes, I hear you. It’s good for bragging rights, and holding it over a certain southern neighbor. Yes, it’s prestigious and you get to run with the big boys. Yes, it enables you to watch a parade of big-time opponents on your home turf. And the financial advantages — a cut of the Pac-12 TV pie — is nice. Ca-ching.
But, again, has it been better for Ute Fan? OK, no need to throw things. Think about what you’ve gotten in the deal.
During the eight years before joining the league, from 2003-10, the Utes were 89-22 (a winning percentage of .801), which included two unbeaten seasons. They finished in the final national rankings five times — 21st, 4th, 2nd, 18th, 23rd. They won three conference championships and played in eight consecutive bowl games, including the Fiesta and Sugar bowls, beating Pitt and mighty Alabama (and, more importantly, Nick Saban) handily.
In the seven years since joining the Pac-12, the Utes are 52-36 (.590 winning percentage) and have finished in the final rankings three times — 20th, 16th, 21st. They have won zero conference championships. They have been invited to five bowls — no big deal in this era of bowl inflation — and none worth bragging about: Sun Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl (twice), Foster Farms Bowl, Heart of Dallas Bowl.
The path to a big-time bowl game is a lot more difficult than it was in the pre-Pac days. So is everything else. The Utes were once a rising elite team and part of the national conversation; now nobody is talking about them.
Meanwhile, there’s a price that Ute fans have to pay. The cost of tickets has climbed. This is to pay for increased coaching salaries, cost of living stipends for athletes, the video scoreboard, practice facilities — and now discussions are underway to expand the stadium. Get out your checkbook, Ute Fan. Again.
The Utes have never made it to the Pac-12 championship game. In the South Division standings, they have finished, in order, tied for third, fifth, fifth, fifth, tied for first (but second in the tiebreaker), third and fifth.
Get used to it. Life in the Pac-12 is always going to be an uphill battle for the Utes, just as it is for all teams that aren’t based in California. As noted here previously, the Utes’ membership in the Pac-12 is inherently problematic. They face a huge disadvantage in trying to recruit players largely from the recruiting hotbed of California (as most schools must) because their top conference rivals are based in California.
The vast majority of Utah’s recruits are going to be those passed over by the California schools. Unless they move the school to the coast, the Utes face a big geographic disadvantage.
If you want to see the future, look at the Arizona schools, who went from being big fish in a smaller pond (the Western Athletic Conference) to being pretty much ignored in the Pac-10. After 40 years in the Pac-10/12, they have won three conference football championships.
There will be fewer wins, fewer bowls of consequence. The Utes have made life more difficult. There are no easy weeks, not when the schedule includes Stanford, USC, Cal, UCLA (a sleeping giant), Washington, the Arizona schools, the Northwest schools. It’s always going to be an uphill run.
Certainly, there is no going back now, but there definitely was a tradeoff when the Utes joined the Pac-12.