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University of Utah’s Pac 10 dream began years ago, materialized in months

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Dick Harmon spoke with ESPN about Utah's move to the Pac-10 and his thoughts on why BYU wasn't chosen. See the video here.

SALT LAKE CITY — It all began Monday, when University of Utah President Michael K. Young got the call he'd been waiting for: Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott wanted to talk, in person.

The next morning, Young and athletics director Chris Hill boarded the private jet of a longtime booster and flew to California to hammer out the details of fusing with the Pac-10. They met with Scott and other officials at Pac-10 headquarters, in Walnut Creek, just outside San Francisco, for four hours and flew back to Utah that night. Young later finalized arrangements with Scott over the phone.

Any potential roadblocks — revenue sharing, approval from each of the Pac-10 presidents, timing of the move — were quickly overcome.

Young's and Hill's negotiating skills moved the school's entrance into the conference from 2012 to next year, according to Randy Dryer, chairman of the U.'s Board of Trustees.

At 1 p.m. Thursday, it became official: The University of Utah will join the Pac-10 in 2011.

The U.'s trustees met Thursday at Rice-Eccles Stadium and agreed unanimously to leave the Mountain West Conference, thrusting the school into a big-time league with the allure of an automatic Bowl Championship Series bid.

The move, mulled for years — and quietly in the works for months — also promises to raise the U.'s profile in other ways, including academically. The switch became a possibility and then quickly a reality this week after four Big 12 schools turned down an invitation to the Pac-10.

The NCAA's conferences have undergone seismic shifts in the last month, with the University of Nebraska joining the Big Ten and the University of Colorado preceding Utah into the Pac-10.

Under the agreement, the U. will build up to being an equal revenue-sharing partner over three years. Young said the rapid-fire negotiations over the last week were "cooperative."

"We didn't want to walk in and take bread out of the mouth of the other (Pac-10) presidents," he said.

Competing against schools with greater athletic income won't be anything new for the U. According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education and USA Today, the Utes in 2008 ranked seventh out of nine Mountain West Conference schools in athletic revenue.

In 2010-11, Utah will receive about $1.2 million from the Mountain West Conference's television contract. By comparison, Pac-10 teams will get $8 million to $10 million from their TV deal.

Dryer emphasized that inviting the U. was not simply a fallback plan for the Pac-10. "It didn't just happen by default. We had to have a good product to sell," he said. "They wanted us, and we wanted them."

Scott and university officials said the U. would be a good fit, with Dryer promising the commissioner he would be welcoming a "high-integrity, scandal-free" athletic program.

At Thursday's news conference, U. and Pac-10 officials announced that competition would begin in the 2011-2012 academic school year. Students, alumni and boosters whistled and applauded as Young signed an acceptance of the Pac-10's invitation.

They also cheered as a representative of the Tournament of Roses presented Young with a bouquet of roses. "You will see us again," Dryer said.

Young saluted the U.'s student athletes, noting the success of the football team and the women's gymnastics program. "If you didn't take care of business on the field, the Pac-10 would have had no interest," he said.

Scott said the conference is done expanding but has several issues to resolve, including its name ("There are a few conferences with math problems"), divisions, a potential championship game and whether to form a Pac-10 TV network.

The U. will have its own questions about whether to add new athletics programs, expand the football stadium and upgrade other facilities.

For Spencer Eccles, a longtime booster and U. treasurer whose name adorns the stadium, Thursday was the culmination of decades of effort and hope.

"This is a historic day for the U. It acknowledges the excellence we're building here by virtue of really moving to the big time," he said. His only regret was that his old friend Bob Rice, the other stadium namesake, wasn't there to see it.

Gov. Gary Herbert called it a "red-letter day" and said the Utes were the "original BCS-busters."

U. officials expressed their appreciation of the U.'s time in the Mountain West Conference. Hill said he expects BYU and Utah to continue their rivalry in football and other sports, and he hopes to still go down to Provo each year to speak to the Cougar Club.

"We all need to be dreamers with no limits and no rearview mirror," Hill said. "This is one of our dreams, to be here. We'll work hard every day to make the Pac-10 proud we're a member."

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said they would not relax their criticism that the BCS is anti-competitive.

"Utah moving to the Pac-10 doesn't mean that the BCS is suddenly good for college football," Hatch said in a statement. "Most reasonable people agree with me, that a fair playoff system would benefit all schools, regardless of what conference they're in."

e-mail: pkoepp@desnews.com