PROVO — A mix of frustration and anger was etched on the countenance of BYU coach Dave Rose.
During his regularly scheduled press conference at the Marriott Center on Jan. 6, 2016, Rose was fielding questions about the announcement made earlier in the day that Utah had decided to cancel its contracted December 2016 basketball game against the Cougars in Provo — interrupting the longstanding rivalry for the first time since 1944, when World War II shortened the season.
“This doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” Rose told reporters, his face turning various shades of red. “If the game was scheduled to be played in the Huntsman Center next year, the series would still be played."
Nearly two years later, after the rivalry game went on hiatus for one season, BYU and Utah are set to play again Saturday (9 p.m., MST, ESPN2). It marks the Utes’ first visit to the Marriott Center since Dec. 10, 2014.
More national attention likely came to this hoops rivalry with the two teams not playing each other than it would have had they actually staged the ’16 game. Pundits panned the decision.
“Don’t care for the rationale or who’s responsible,” wrote Yahoo.com’s Jeff Eisenberg. “Utah and BYU not playing one another in basketball is flat-out idiotic.”
What was Rose’s reaction when Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak informed Rose of his plans to scrap the scheduled game in 2016?
"I was very surprised. Shocked, actually,” Rose said at the time. “I’ve been doing this for 32 years, in high school, junior college and Division I, and have had hundreds of agreements on games — verbal agreements, handshake agreements, contractual agreements, and this is the first time I’ve had one not fully executed.”
What led to the cancellation?
About a month earlier, Utah had beaten BYU at the Huntsman Center 83-75. With 1:44 remaining, Cougar guard Nick Emery threw a punch at Ute guard Brandon Taylor under the basket. Emery was whistled for a flagrant 2 foul for fighting and was ejected. BYU suspended Emery for one game.
A couple of years earlier, Cougar forward Eric Mika was ejected during a game against Utah for committing a flagrant foul.
Meanwhile, in 2010, before Krystkowiak became Utah's coach, Ute guard Marshall Henderson was ejected from a game against BYU for hitting Jackson Emery.
In explaining his rationale for canceling the game, Krystkowiak said, “The events that have occurred in our recent games with BYU led me to ask athletics director Dr. (Chris) Hill several weeks ago if we could take a cooling-off period and put the rivalry on hold. The level of emotions has escalated to the point where there is the potential for serious injury. Chris said he would support me in canceling next year’s scheduled game against BYU. I called and let Coach Rose know our intentions a few days after our game.”
“Coach Krystkowiak came to me last month and expressed a deep concern about the incidents that have occurred in recent years during our games with BYU,” Hill said at the time. “In the interests of our student-athlete welfare, he requested we cancel the BYU series until further notice. Given his reasons, I agreed to cancel next year’s game. We will revisit resuming the rivalry at some point in the future.”
Not surprisingly, Krystkowiak was mocked by BYU’s student section 24 hours after the announcement when the Cougars hosted Santa Clara. Many students showed up to the game wearing bicycle helmets, construction hats and orange road construction vests. Some held signs that included #SafetyFirst.
Whenever there was a hard foul, BYU fans chanted, "That's not safe! That's not safe!"
As part of the contract, Utah was required to provide BYU an $80,000 buyout, an expense Krystkowiak promised to personally pay for in four payments of $20,000 over four years. So Cougar fans coined a nickname for Coach K: "Coach 80k."
Back in January 2016, Rose had a hard time seeing future games between the archrivals.
“It’s scary, because how do you put another contract together, another agreement together?” Rose said. “That’s how I feel.”
The fate of the BYU-Utah basketball rivalry that began in 1909 — the Cougars lead the all-time series 129-128 though the Utes have won three consecutive games — hung in the balance.
That is, until a little more than six months after the 2016 game was canceled, in July 2016, when it was announced that BYU and Utah would resume their rivalry in 2017. It’s part of a three-game series that includes a game between the Utes and Cougars at Vivint Smart Home Arena in 2018, as part of the Beehive Classic, and a matchup at the Huntsman Center in 2019.
Maybe it was a case of cooler heads prevailing or a case of time healing all wounds. Or maybe those involved felt external pressure to resume the rivalry.
“There was a decision made not to play. (Utah) didn’t want to play. We didn’t have a contract and they came back and we finished off a contract,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said last March about the basketball series. “I had nothing to do with that ... It’s not my business. It’s their business. I’m excited that we’re back with them.”
On Dec. 10, 2016, the day it is believed that BYU was supposed to play Utah, the Cougars hosted the Utes' Pac-12 rival, Colorado. BYU won 79-71.
As things have turned out, Nick Emery won’t play in Saturday’s game against the Utes. He left the program and withdrew from school in November amid an NCAA investigation of allegations that Emery received improper benefits from a booster.
Last summer, Emery texted an apology to Krystkowiak and the two are apparently on good terms now.
“He was super sincere about how he was growing up and didn’t handle it right and that he has felt bad for quite a long time,” Krystkowiak said this week. “Kudos to him for reaching out. To be honest with you, if that had happened a little bit earlier — this is no disrespect to him — we wouldn’t ever have taken any time off. That was part of the holding pattern. I was waiting to see what would take place before I kind of got my undies in a bunch and wanted to put an end (to) it.”
It's not hard to imagine what kind of reception Krystkowiak will receive Saturday at the Marriott Center.
The past two years, a few more tempestuous chapters, filled with strange events and new catchphrases, have been added to an already storied and heated rivalry.
And they haven't even played since Dec. 2, 2015.
Finally, BYU and Utah will be meeting on the basketball court just as they have almost every year for more than a century.
“I’m glad the game’s back on again. It was a long couple of years,” Rose said this week on his coach’s show. “There’s so much that goes on and is said back-and-forth. We don’t have to play Utah to have a really successful basketball program here. But it’s just good to be able to have the people of the state of Utah to have their two premier teams play each other … Hopefully, we can continue playing them.”