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Is rivalry healthy or harmful?

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For many people in the Beehive State, the phrase "BYU vs. Utah" evokes strong emotions and powerful memories.

"The fans are passionate about the game, which is very difficult to describe," said Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall. "They care who wins. They consider it having an effect on their lifestyle, I think, for an entire year."

The BYU-Utah rivalry pits neighbor against neighbor, father against son, brother against brother. It has church vs. state undertones. Some refer to it as "The Holy War." It is a rivalry that is not always civilized.

During one hotly contested meeting between the two schools, a vicious brawl erupted among spectators. A group of policemen arrived on the scene to break it up. That particular incident took place, according to written accounts, in 1896. Unruly fan behavior, in fact, was one of the major reasons BYU dropped football from 1898 until 1922.

These days, during the week leading up to the big game, the Cougar statue outside LaVell Edwards Stadium is covered with Visquine as a protection from would-be vandals. There are BYU fans who have painted the block U in Salt Lake City blue and Utah fans who have painted the block Y in Provo red, resulting in thousands of dollars in damage.

One of fans' favorite pastimes is to propagate negative stereotypes about, and unleash pent-up hatred for, the rival school on sports radio talk shows, or on the Internet — usually in anonymous fashion.

Which prompts the question, is BYU-Utah a good, old-fashioned rivalry, or is it culturally unhealthy?

"I think there's a lot of fans from both sides, BYU and Utah, that cross the lines individually," said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe. "But I think it's a pretty traditional rivalry. Obviously, you can't go a day without talking to somebody that wants to bring something up about it. That's good. Most of the people just think it's a great rivalry and appreciate the two schools. You may not like the other school, but you appreciate the rivalry."

"Among those who are on the team and close to the team, it's regarded as a good, old-fashioned rivalry," said Utah athletic director Chris Hill. "Some people feel the rivalry crosses the line, but we want to make it healthy, not nasty. What's special about the rivalry is there are friends and family on both sides of the fence. It's unusual. It's hard to go anywhere without people taking one side or the other. It's an all-encompassing rivalry."

Before he became an athletic administrator four years ago, Holmoe was immersed in the California-Stanford rivalry. During his coaching career, he served as an assistant coach for the Cardinal and, later, he became the head coach of the Golden Bears. A common thread runs through most fierce rivalries, Holmoe said.

"There are a lot of similarities in rivalry games. They're all a little unique and different, but the alums always think their rivalry is the best," he explained. "BYU and Utah is one of the better ones because it's gone on for a long time, the schools are so close and they both play in the same conference. BYU and Utah play each other so often in so many sports, (the intensity) never lessens."

Some bizarre incidents live on in rivalry lore, like in 1992, when Utah officials cleared snow from the field before the game, but not from the stands. The student section hurled snowballs at BYU players before and throughout the game. One snowball struck Cougar center Garry Pay in the face.

In 1993, Utah players and fans attempted to raze BYU's goalposts after the Utes had defeated the Cougars in Provo for the first time in 22 years. Several BYU players strapped their helmets back on and defended their goalposts before order was restored.

That event fueled one of the most infamous quotes in rivalry history. "All those Utes think that's all there is to life, but when I'm making $50,000 to $60,000 a year, they'll be pumping my gas," said Cougar defensive lineman Lenny Gomes. "They're low-class losers."

Five years later, BYU linebacker Derik Stevenson jumped into the stands after a Cougar win and began punching a Utah fan who had been embroiled in a fight with Stevenson's father.

In 1999, a BYU fan leaped out of the stands and tackled a Utah cheerleader during the game in which the Utes were leading and eventually won. The cheerleader responded by tackling his attacker and landing several punches before security officers intervened and ended the fracas.

Former KSL broadcaster Paul James saw the rivalry from both perspectives. He is a Utah graduate who broadcast Ute games for six seasons before becoming the voice of the Cougars, a job that lasted for 37 years.

"It's a great rivalry," said James, who is retired and living in Salt Lake City. "It's one of the best in the West."

During his years calling the BYU games, Utah students arrived at his home on the eve of the Cougar-Ute game to "decorate" his house.

"The first year, they came at 3 a.m. and toilet-papered it," he said. "After that, every year, there was a theme. One year they brought a smashed-up station wagon, painted red, with (an effigy of quarterback) Robbie Bosco at the wheel. Other years they brought toilet seats, tires, dumpsters and a missile. It was something different every year. When Ty Detmer was BYU's quarterback, they 'tied' my house. They must have gone to Deseret Industries and bought a thousand ties."

To James, who owns the distinction of being the only Utah graduate who is a member of the BYU Athletic Hall of Fame, it was all good, clean fun for rivalry's sake.

Utah students called him recently to say they are going to decorate his house again this year. "They haven't done it since I retired from broadcasting (in 2000)," he said.

Extreme fan behavior is isolated, James said.

"Once in a while, fans get too adamant. BYU fans accuse Utah fans of bringing drinks to the games and getting tipsy," he said. "Utah fans think BYU fans cross the line by getting so into it. A few times, fans have gone overboard."

He remembers a game at Utah in the 1970s, when BYU running back Jeff Blanc suffered an injury and Ute fans cheered.

During his BYU broadcasting days, James and his Utah counterpart, Bill Marcroft, were rivals. Not only did they broadcast for rival schools, but they also worked for competing radio and TV stations. "We're a lot better friends now than we were then," James said of Marcroft, who retired two years ago. "Our relationship was strained when we were broadcasters."

Holmoe and Hill enjoy an amicable relationship.

"We're competitive, both of us individually, as well as our associates who work with us," Holmoe said. "I have a great respect for Chris. He's been there for a long time and has done very well. We talk about how important it is for our schools to be together and do well. We do as best as we can leading up to the game, then we watch and cheer. We die with our teams. That part of it is healthy, for sure."

"I've gotten to know (Holmoe) and we talk quite a bit about issues that affect our conference. He's a solid guy," Hill said. "The rivalry's important to the league. The schools have a lot in common. There are more similarities than differences between the two schools."

Yet on game day, Holmoe and Hill admit their pregame greeting in the press box is a little awkward. They exchange handshakes, then watch the game in separate loges.

"It's difficult," Hill said. "You want to be gracious, but we're competitive. We both anticipate winning. There's no time for small talk before the game."

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com