Picture this. The year is 2003. It's a sunny, sweltering afternoon in early September, and spectators are jammed into Cougar Stadium for the opening of another football season. On this day, BYU faces a familiar non-conference opponent.
But the foe is not Washington or Arizona State or Texas A&M. It's the University of Utah.Suddenly, tradition is tossed out like yesterday's newspaper. Instead of winter coats, the crowd wears suntan lotion. No championships or bowl bids hang in the balance, no seasonlong hype leads up to the big game. Players are just relieved two-a-days are over. Fans are still trying to learn the names of their team's starters.
Could it be that this is where the future of the BYU-Utah rivalry is headed?
When the college football landscape shakes up in the next few years, the Cougars and Utes might switch to different league addresses. If that happens, the dynamics of this annual grudge match could be altered considerably.
The athletic directors at both schools, BYU's Rondo Fehlberg and Utah's Chris Hill, acknowledge that an untraditional scheduling scenario is not out of the realm of possibility. They also note there is no rule stating that hotly contested rivalries must be played late in the season. They insist that different conference affiliations would not diminish the game's impact and appeal.
At the same time, however, they are actively seeking ways to keep the series in November.
And heaven forbid the rivalry be disrupted altogether, due to scheduling conflicts or other extenuating circum- stances. Imagine a football season without a BYU-Utah game. Local fans would riot in the streets.
"I hate to speculate on speculation," said Hill. "We hope to continue playing each other. This is something that is important to a lot of people in this state. Both BYU and Utah would find ways to keep playing.
"The game is important for school pride," Hill continued. "It keeps the general heartbeat of Ute fans going."
Same goes for Cougar fans. Of course, Hill and Fehlberg would like their schools to be a package deal that would send them to the same conference. But there are no guarantees.
Still, despite an uncertain future, the BYU-Utah rivalry is thriving. While this year's matchup doesn't offer the glitz and glamour that the schools fashioned in recent seasons, the 78-game series is enjoying a Golden Era of sorts in the 1990s.
In fact, the BYU-Utah rivalry has probably never been in better shape. The coaches from both sides, LaVell Edwards and Ron McBride, are buddies. In the '90s, both teams have enjoyed lofty national rankings. The games have been close as well as intriguing (BYU owns a slim 4-3 advantage this decade). Interest in the rivalry might be at an all-time high. Mutual respect abounds. And the school's ADs are working together to reach shared goals.
"I think it's as healthy as it's ever been," said Fehlberg. "I prefer a rivalry that is intense without the nasty undercurrent that can creep in. And that's what we have."
Fehlberg and Hill foresee BYU-Utah showdowns in the next several years becoming even bigger and better. Despite their well-documented differences, the two schools have at least one similarity. Both are looking at greener pastures. They want to make BYU-Utah synonymous with Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn and USC-UCLA.
"Chris and I have discussed ways to get the rivalry up on the national radar screen," said Fehlberg. "We're seeking all kinds of opportunities to increase our exposure while taking into consideration the downsides. We believe we both benefit when we both thrive. I'd like to see this rivalry become more visible on a regional and national scale. We'd like to play the game on a set day every year."
And given the right opportunity, Thanksgiving is that day. Both BYU and Utah have had chances to have their game showcased on national television. ESPN approached Utah about hosting the game on Thanksgiving in 1996. While BYU loved the idea, Utah turned the offer down due to local television commitments. Plus, the Utes, already coming off a bye week, believed they would lose a competitive edge by waiting an additional week to play the Cougars.
This year, Fehlberg drew up a proposal for a multiyear deal between BYU, Utah and ESPN for a series of made-for-TV Thanksgiving games. The cable TV giant obliged by offering a three-year pact but stipulated that the games be played at 7:30 p.m., so as not to conflict with the televised NFL games. BYU haggled for an earlier kickoff - 4 o'clock was ESPN's best compromise.
Utah was ready to sign this time, but BYU balked. Concerns about a late start interfering with a family holiday determined the decision to decline. But should a network offer a late-morning or early afternoon kickoff, the Utes and Cougars could become part of a Thanksgiving tradition quicker than you could say candied yams.
Not that playing on Thanksgiving Day would be an entirely new concept for local schools. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Utah and Utah State frequently met on Thanksgiving, back when BYU didn't pose much of a challenge to Utah.
But even the Cougars and Utes have played once on Thanksgiving Day, in a 1953 nationally televised game, the first for both schools. Utah, a heavy favorite, downed BYU in a pulsating 33-32 game in Salt Lake City.
Maybe someday soon, the NCAA stage will belong to the Utes and Cougars on the fourth Thursday in November. For the time being, BYU and Utah are content with what has been built up to this point.
"We are where we are," said Hill, "and that's the way we like it."