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BYU-Utah rivalry resounds far, wide

Deseret Morning News graphic

Who knows if bickering Beehive State residents need counseling, condolences or congratulations, but just so you know, Utahns, your little in-state argument over a simple game is so loud it can be heard outside state borders.

And we're not just talking about being overheard by exported alumni from Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, whose colors and colleges will collide on the gridiron today in Provo. Nope, word about this vitriolic and vociferous rocky relationship has traveled all the way from the Wasatch Front to Wall Street, where one of the nation's top newspapers is listing the Utes and Cougars as being "the best of enemies."

When it comes to rating rivalries — which is precisely what The Wall Street Journal has done — there couldn't be a better compliment, of course.

This weekend, The Wall Street Journal concocted a formula to try to "figure out which rivalry delivers the best football." They evaluated rivalries over the past nine seasons, looking at lead changes, margins of victory, teams' records, box scores, numbers of upsets and quality of the overall rivalry.

The "Holy War" — as some are wont to call the annual BYU-Utah contest, which starts today at 1 p.m. in LaVell Edwards Stadium — finished in a tie for fourth among riveting rivalries with the annual Michigan-Ohio State brouhaha.

That ranking isn't quite as high as the Florida-Florida State feud (No. 1), but Utah's red-versus-blue bout finished well ahead of the annual Lafayette-Lehigh shootout and edged out more-highly publicized rivalries in California (USC-UCLA and Cal-Stanford), the Midwest (Nebraska-Colorado and Oklahoma-Oklahoma State), Arizona, Washington and Oregon.

Ute fans might claim this high ranking is a result of last year's dream season, during which Urban Meyer and Alex Smith helped Utah become the national Cinderella BCS-busting darlings.

BYU fans could counter by saying this recognition is due to a Cougar tradition that includes Hall of Fame and Heisman quarterbacks, a coaching legend and a 1984 national championship.

In neither red nor blue print, the Journal report simply called it "an unexpectedly good matchup," which has been decided by a touchdown or less in seven of the past nine years. The Journal was enticed by the fact that the 6-4 Cougars and 5-5 Utes "produced an unprecedented five thrillers in a row ending in 2001" and had an average scoring margin at halftime of just over six points.

In other words, the paper loves something that gives rivals heartburn and heartache: close games.

Locals know all about this uncivil war, which splits some families, neighborhoods and church congregations and pits state- and church-owned schools, staff and supporters against each other — not to forget football players and fans. The Journal mentioned Melinda Dawson of Lehi as a prime example of that. Things got a bit uncomfortable at her house during last season's lopsided Ute victory. The reason? Her dad is a U. fan, but her husband is a Y. guy.

"It nearly started a family war," she said.

Former BYU defensive tackle Jim Hermann, who played in Provo during the early 1980s, told the Morning News that his team experienced some incoming bombs — verbal and physical — when they made the trek to Salt Lake City. The Cougars were bombarded in and outside of the U. stadium with, imagine this, "profanity and people throwing things at us." Coach Fred Whittingham, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham's late father who was then with BYU, was smacked in the head by a banana.

During the game, Kyle Morrell made a hit out of bounds, which Hermann said sparked "a fight, with coaches throwing fists and everything. Yes, this is a rivalry and it is intense. The four years I played, no matter what the records were, players came out to play, and it was the biggest game of the year."

That's why Reno Mahe, the former BYU running back who's now playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, loves the rivalry.

"It's like a championship game every year, no matter what the situation was, a season could be made on this game," he told the News. "No matter what is going on with the standings, something can be salvaged from this. It's bragging rights, man, whether you go over the Point of the Mountain with your head up or head down."

Matt Thomas, the radio voice of the Utes, is a relative newcomer to the rivalry, but he's liked what he's seen so far. And that's not just because Utah stomped BYU in the first game he covered as Bill Marcroft's replacement.

"Growing up in Texas and watching the intensity of the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry, this rivalry is every bit as good as that," Thomas said. "The reason I say that is because it's a 52-week, 365-day-a-year competition between the two schools. Not only about the football teams, the heritage and families — it goes beyond that. That's why I equate it to the Texas rivalry."

Believe it or not, BYU-Utah is considered even bigger than the Texas-Texas A&M "thermonuclear rivalry," which didn't make the Journal's Top 15 because it's been so lopsided in the Longhorns' favor for so long.

Marcroft, a fixture in the U. booth for decades in the rivalry opposite Cougar broadcaster Paul James, called the Utah-BYU game "the best week of the year" and the most fun part of his work.

"I don't think there's anything like it in all of college sports because of the way religion creeps into it," he said. "Utah-BYU . . . there's nothing like it."

Even rivals — and The Wall Street Journal — won't argue that.

Contributing: Deseret Morning News sports staff