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Utes have definitely, and finally, hit the big time

SALT LAKE CITY — As pep rallies go, it was all anyone could want. OK, maybe there was no marching band. And certainly nobody painted a block U on his bare chest, which made sense. It was, after all, to announce the Utes' admission to the Pac-10.

When you join a conference that has produced more than 100 Nobel Laureates, not to mention 390 NCAA titles, you want to act like you've been there. Still, it wasn't easy, mainly because they haven't. But after 118 years of athletics on the hill, the University of Utah finally joined a big-name conference.

From the moment Chris Hill opened the proceedings by saying, "My name is Chris Hill, I'm the director of athletics at the University of Utah," the crowd was applauding prodigiously.

No cheer works better than cheering for yourselves.

"May I be the first to say the best is yet to come," added university president Michael Young.

So the U. is in the Pac-10, which is actually now up to 12 schools.

All that remains is to go ahead and win, which is usually always the hardest part.

"This," said Young, "is a great day to be a Ute."

Fact is, on Thursday it was tough to find anyone that wasn't a Ute, at least for a day. Gov. Gary Herbert, himself a common figure at BYU athletics events and a Utah County native, showed up wearing a dark suit and a crimson University of Utah tie.

"I'm proud to be here on this momentous occasion," said Herbert. "All I can say is, 'Go Utes!' "

If not the biggest day in the university's sports history, it was close. Depends on whether you count your victories on the field or off. There was the 1944 NCAA basketball championship, not to mention numerous gymnastics and skiing titles. There were also the Sugar and Fiesta bowl wins and the 1998 run to the NCAA Tournament championship game. At the same time, even when they were winning titles and BCS bowls, the Utes were still mostly just a cute story. Networks and big conference people treated them like commoners at a mansion. Good evening, so nice of you to visit. Jeeves will take your coats. Would you care to wait in the conservatory?

No matter what the Utes did, or who they beat, soon they were back in their cottage in the woods.

By any measure, the university had on its best face Thursday. Three levels of the press box at Rice-Eccles Stadium teemed with fans, media, officials and dignitaries. There were red carpets, red balloons and every imaginable shade and pattern of red neckties. The scene was set just so. There was a distinguished rostrum to showcase the distinguished officials from the government, university, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl. A thicket of TV cameras bordered a roped-off section of seats for media, coaches and special guests, not the least being football coach Kyle Whittingham.

Behind the rostrum, the high rises of the city sparkled in the sun, the Great Salt Lake sprawling beyond.

"I got the right color here," said Herbert, tugging at his tie. "It's a red-letter day, isn't it?"

Whether it was the biggest day of all is debatable. Both Hill and Whittingham deflected such questions, saying it was apples and oranges. On one hand, winning the big bowls and beating big conference teams is what got the Utes where they are. There's no discounting that. Just two years ago, a win over a weak Michigan team was considered a huge deal.

Who knew they'd soon be abusing Alabama and lining up with USC?

At the same time, until now there were always limits. In the sport that mattered most, a glass (concrete?) ceiling prevailed.

With admission to the Pac-10, the story changed. The Utes are now in a conference that has won over 100 more national titles than any other. In football, there's the all-important automatic BCS bowl berth.

Go undefeated in this league and a title shot is a probability, not a wish.

And there's no need to go home after touring the mansion.

"We don't have limits now, so we can take a full swing," said Hill. "High risk, high rewards. We can go for it."

Judging by Thursday's production, they've already begun.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com