|(Obviously, this cartoon doesn't apply to this football season. This is from 2009, the year of Andrew George.)|
Obviously, people do root for them, so there must be some reasons. And I'm sure some of the reasons, maybe even most of them, are good. I certainly understand if someone grew up in Salt Lake City and the Utes are their hometown team, or if someone's family has been going to the University of Utah for generations.
Of course, if all you care about in choosing a football team is if it wins, then Utah would be the clear choice. Utah has beat BYU three years in a row, for the first time since 2004, and since the rivalry started in 1896 Utah has won 60 percent of the time. And now, Utah is a BCS school, which by default makes its wins more valuable in the eyes of many beholders.
But it's hard for me to imagine how someone would consciously choose to support the Utes, when so much of what they stand for is the polar opposite of what BYU stands for.
What makes BYU football unique is that it doesn't even stand for football. Tradition, spirit, honor, character, morality, service, intellect, faith, family, friends and everything else aren't just marketing buzzwords. I have seen evidence of it time and time again. Coach Bronco Mendenhall doesn't just pay lip service to these ideals because otherwise he would be fired. It is honestly a part of who he is and the program he runs. And the grand majority of BYU's athletes are exactly the same way.
It makes BYU pretty strange, I'll admit. And probably even annoying to some. BYU sports won't play on Sunday, and the Honor Code severely limits BYU's recruiting possibilities.
Maybe another football program and its fans are glad or relieved to not have those additional hoops to jump through. But programs outside of BYU at the very least should admire BYU's methods, even if from afar.
Many, if not most, college football programs across the country are also admirable and deserve their devoted fan bases. But there is also an ugly side to college sports. With the inexhaustible drive to increase profits, campuses with football stadiums on the side are increasingly mutating into football stadiums with a campus on the side. From my vantage point, it seems like President Samuelson is the only university president who has duties other than dealing with conference realignments and clashes with the NCAA. The zeitgeist that puts football on a pedestal and says it can do no wrong has caused a lot of wrongs. Penn State isn't the only college culture that needs a reality check.
In some ways, Utah isn't any more at fault than a typical university, because it is a typical university. It tries to build a football team that will win championships any way it knows how within NCAA rules (begrudgingly or not), largely because that's what fills the coffers. But Utah has made a deliberate effort to contrast BYU.
The university and the athletic department go out of their way to hire coaches who aren't members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It's in the name of "diversity," but it also gets all those pesky standards out of the way. (The school made an exception for Kyle Whittingham, mostly to keep him from accepting a job offer at BYU. And I'm sure Whittingham does keep those standards. But he isn't exactly forthright with it, even to the point of mocking BYU's no-Sunday play that you would think he would hold some respect for.) The athletes are more at the mercy of the university, where they and their coach don't have as many conflicts. No one has a problem with playing on Sunday or selling beer around the sporting events. The campus community makes money, no one complains, everybody wins.
Whittingham and the University of Utah don't hold back in appreciating their "flexibility" in recruiting. When a coach only has to look for players with talent, character and maturity optional, it does make his job easier. They join the ranks of other schools to whom laws and bylaws are no longer the bare minimum of decency, but bothersome inconveniences. (And even then, it's only a bothersome inconvenience if a cover-up is uncovered.)
And then there are the fans. I know there are rude and ruthless fans on both sides of the Point of the Mountain, which I'll talk about in a minute. And I also know that many Ute fans are respectable human beings. A couple of my favorite mission companions are Utes. But when a fan base is, again, cheering for all that BYU is against, it causes embarrassing, immature, senseless and extraneous outbreaks. I know a few BYU fans, including my own mother, who were hit with beer cans for no reason other than they were wearing blue at a football game. A few journalists two years ago were pegged with ice and snow, ice and snow that was aimed at coach Mendenhall. (If you click on the link, go to page five.) It's one thing to have a snowball fight with another fan. But to hit someone just trying to do their job, while aiming at one of the most well-known figures in the state of Utah? These kids might as well have thrown ice at Gov. Gary Herbert or Larry Miller. And these are just the few incidents that I am distantly connected with. Add to it the breadth and depth of all other blows struck by Utah fans, and it becomes more and more natural to sympathize with Max Hall.
I know BYU fans can be just as harsh, although from another direction. I would guess that a lot of Ute fans' animosity toward Cougar fans is caused by the perceived "holier-than-thou" attitude coming from Provo. And I'm sure there are a few BYU fans who exemplify that. I apologize for their behavior and don't condone it at all. BYU fans shouldn't step down from their higher ground and rub it in the faces of Utah fans, and when they do I believe they are no longer true BYU fans.
But I still believe a true BYU fan is on higher ground.
BYU isn't perfect or beatified by any means. The school still does things that I disagree with and that get on my nerves. But when a football coach's routine the night before a game is to give a fireside and spiritually uplift the community (if you click on the link, go to the bottom of page one), or a basketball program keeps its standards even at the risk of cutting short its run in the NCAA Tournament, or a women's rugby team forfeits a tournament because a game is scheduled for Sunday (go to page three), I am grateful for a university that makes an eternal perspective part of its very core. There are plenty of Utes with that same perspective. But when the eternal scheme of things is a part of a university's DNA, the sinews that hold it together, the fibers of its being, it makes a difference.
Whether these words consoled you in the wake of a heartbreaking loss, or only fueled your fire of rage against BYU, you gotta admit: the two-year hiatus in the rivalry after 2013 might help everyone just simmer down.