Let The Holy War(s) Go On! Attempts to Annul BYU-UTAH rivalry should prompt needed changes

By R.B. Scott

Confession:  I grew-up in the shadow of Ute Stadium, now known as Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah. Long ago I memorized all the verses to Utah Man, even the forbidden one that concludes this way: So fill your stein with lager/and light that big cigar/our yell you’ll hear it ringing through/ the mountains near and far.  Before I fled to Manhattan in 1970, I was a sports reporter for The Deseret News and later was its sports editor. The bottom line is this: I have no love for BYU, especially when it’s playing Utah.  However, I once wrote a flattering profile on BYU’s basketball team and its dipsy-doodle Croatian star Krešimir Ćosić for Sports Illustrated, and years later, another on the team I saw upset Notre Dame because of Danny Ainge’s full-court gauntlet run and buzzer beater in the 1981 NCAA playoffs in Atlanta.

The Gane 1907: Harvard v. Yale and the year of the strangled bulldog

The Gane 1907: Harvard v. Yale and the year of the strangled bulldog

San Francisco--Imagine the reaction if Danny Ainge, the president of the Boston Celtics, were to summarily terminate its rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers? Or if John Henry refused to allow his now beleaguered Red Sox to battle the Yankees? Or if Bill Belichick and the Patriots declined to play the New York Jets henceforth because they don’t play nice?

Or, consider Billy Reid, the legendary Harvard captain who is said to have played a pivotal role in 1905 saving the increasingly brutal college game.  He would surely spin in his grave at the mere suggestion of eliminating The Game, The Crimson’s storied annual match with Yale, the only game it lost the year following Reid’s skillful negotiations with President Teddy Roosevelt and the silencing of football’s fiercest critic at the time, Harvard’s own president Charles W. Eliot.

Unchastened, his successor Percy Haughton strangled a bulldog (Yale’s mascot) in the locker room and threw the twisted carcass at his players. No one has confessed whether the dog could breathe beforehand or was just a realistic stuffed toy. Nevertheless the gruesome performance motivated: Harvard prevailed, 4-0.

Yet, at The University of Utah, my alma mater, the state continues to pay rather handsome salaries to an imported athletic director and basketball coach who have neither a solid sense of history and tradition nor an understanding of the local culture. They want to put an end to a rivalry that has provoked family feuds for 120 years because, ostensibly, those Cougars from the "Lord's second university" (of course His first would be Utah, founded by Mormon leaders like Orson Pratt and Brigham Young himself) down south in Provo are dirty players.

The two of them— A.D. Chris Hill and Coach Larry Krystkowiak-- appear to be conspiring to deliver the coup de gras to one of the fiercest, most long-standing and entertaining college rivalries in America , the so-called Holy War(s) between Utah in Salt Lake City and Brigham Young University where Ainge was an All America.

Technically, The Holy War billing applies only the annual football game. Realistically, it extends to basketball and other sports.  Friends who played baseball for both schools claim their contests too, while not as well attended, were just as fierce and explosive.

So, why would an athletic director want to eliminate games that always sell out, generate additional television revenues, and attract considerable  national attention?

Initially,  A.D. Hill claimed that Utah fans no longer wanted to play BYU.  He’d made a similar head-spinning observation as Utah deserted the Mountain West Conference and BYU for the PAC-12 in 2011.  It was bad enough then that he had unceremoniously breached the well-understood, if unspoken, “whither thou goest” pact that had guided the relationship between the two schools for generations.

PAC-12 TV money and prestige talked and Hill listened. Trouble was, the conference only wanted Utah. So sorry. What’s an athletic director to do? Hill seemed only too eager to promote the incredible sophistry that it could drop BYU from its football schedule and create a new equally intense rivalry with Colorado.  

That was the first, but not the only time Hill claimed Utah’s fans had grown weary of the rivalry. A friend in the city reminded that Jim Boylin, Coach K’s predecessor at Utah, had told Cougar basketball coach Dave Rose that Hill simply didn’t want BYU on the schedule. Not only are its players mean and nasty, but apparently its officials are demanding, condescending, self-righteous and arrogant to boot. And, they never ever schedule games on The Sabbath!

A straw poll in Utah's key market, Salt Lake County, would have revealed then and now that many, if not most, of most loyal supporters cheer for BYU when it is not playing Utah.  The reverse is true a few miles down I-15 in Utah County and Provo. Families with divided loyalties are the rule not the exceptions.

When challenged about his latest shenanigan, Hill demurred: he was simply supporting a request from Coach K. For his part, Krystkowiak acknowledged that he was worried that he might not be able to control himself should a game became overheated, as they routinely do. He just might start something or retaliate, as he often did as a player in the NBA.     

Is it coincidental that Hill's and Coach K's  pitiful "poor me" performance came in the middle of the season where the Utes have plummeted from being a favorite to win the PAC-12 crown, to utter oblivion, losing three of its first four conference games?

Coach K is so determined to seal the deal that he eagerly offered to pay the $80,000 cancellation penalty. He may have already written a check for down payment.  Hill disingenuously says he has no choice but to back his coach. So far university president David Pershing, a genial man known for his ability to get along with practically everyone, seems reluctant to intervene.

Until common sense returns to the U. it’s time the governor and members of the state legislature put an end this nonsense. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and time.  Then it should instruct President Pershing to immediately begin a search for a new athletic director. Perhaps a head basketball coach too.

Or, everyone could make nice and allow this latest stunt to add more zany madness to the reliably entertaining Holy War.  Amen!