This place is jinxed! It's impossible to win here. I don't know what it is.
— Wayne Howard, Utah football coach, 1977-81.
There was a time — and not that long ago — when Howard’s statement rang true. The Utes were a riddle no one could solve. Here they were, a team at a large, renowned university based in a major metropolitan area right smack dab in a post-card mountain setting, seemingly a fine place to attract football recruits. Yet the team was mired in almost perfect mediocrity.
During the 54 seasons from 1949 through 2002, they averaged 5.5 wins and 5.3 losses per season. They went through nine coaches. One of them went on to win a Super Bowl as head coach of the New York Giants, but in five seasons at Utah he had a losing record.
Flash forward to today. The Utes are ranked 11th in the national polls this week and that news brought no more than a yawn from media and fans. It’s old news and a sign of the Utes’ reversal of fortunes. They’re acting like they belong here.
How much have times changed? Not only are the Utes ranked 11th nationally, they achieved it with two losses. To get that kind of respect back in the day the Utes had to run the table — and win big.
The Utes’ renaissance is a recent phenomenon, but already there’s a generation that has no historical perspective, as if football has always been a winning proposition on the hill. That is not the case, and this seems like a good time to re-appreciate what has happened here. A history lesson is in order.
The Utes have produced good players for decades — Roy Jefferson, Larry Wilson, Lee Grosscup, Speedy Thomas, Steve Odom, Marv Fleming, Norm Thompson, Erroll Tucker and many more — but not good teams. No less than LaVell Edwards, the former BYU coaching legend, shared the sentiment of many — he thought the Utes were a sleeping giant. And yet …
Do you know how many weeks the Utes cracked the top 25 before 1993? Once, in 1947. A week later they were out.
According to Utah’s own research, until 2003 they managed to sneak into the top 25 in only three seasons. Since then, they have appeared in the top 25 in eight of 14 seasons. In their 123-year history, the Utes have spent only 107 weeks in the top 25 — 85 of them in the last nine years.
Prior to 2003, they appeared in the final rankings only once, in 1994. Since then, they have finished there seven times and seem bound to repeat the feat this season.
Twelve of their 19 bowl appearances have occurred since 2000.
In other words, this is easily the greatest era in Utah football history. It is also one no one really saw coming.
The Utes posted consistent winners from the end of World War I through World War II under Coach Ike Armstrong, and then the era of mediocrity began. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t good. They were a 50-50 proposition. Howard and Jack Curtice had some good seasons, but they were usually negated by an equally bad season, and winning proved unsustainable.
Most pinpoint the Utes’ renaissance on Urban Meyer, but Ron McBride set the stage. He got the Utes into the national rankings a few weeks and took them to their first bowl games in decades. In 1994 — after 102 years of Utah football — the Utes won more than eight games in a season for the first time ever, going 10-2 and finishing with a top-10 ranking in the final polls for the first time. They made the rankings one week two years later and then returned to mediocrity.
Then along came Meyer in 2003, and nothing has been the same since. The Utes were 22-2 in two seasons under Meyer and they finished the 2004 season unbeaten and ranked fourth in the nation. Kyle Whittingham has continued the renaissance. He has won 103 games since taking the job in 2005, which includes the unbeaten 2008 season in which they beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and finished second in the national rankings. He made the Utes strong enough to win an invitation to the Pac-12 in 2011.
Since the Meyer-Whittingham era began 14 years ago, the Utes have averaged 8.9 wins and 3.7 losses per season, became a regular top-25 team, appeared in 11 bowl games (winning 10 of them), and finished in the top 5 twice.
The Utes’ showed up this fall with a rebuilt team, which once meant they were headed for trouble. They’ve hardly missed a beat. They’re 8-2, with one of their losses coming after they failed to score from the goal line at the end of the game.
It seems the riddle of Utah football has been solved.