Opinion: In BYU-Utah rivalry, does thrill of victory still trump the agony of defeat?
The two schools aren’t scheduled to meet on the gridiron again until 2024, but talk continues about whether this game is still needed
Each Saturday as a young boy I would watch ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” on Channel 4. The show always started with the announcer’s voice declaring over spectacular video and heart-pounding music — “The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat!”
Sadly, as I have grown older, it seems avoiding the “agony of defeat” has taken precedence over earning the “thrill of victory.” The anticipated pain of a potential loss has caused us to want to avoid playing the game all together.
Working 20 years as a sportscaster/news anchor in Las Vegas I saw prize fighters dodge more challenging fights for easier ones. It was more important to protect their record and keep their fans happy, than to face a dangerous opponent who might beat them.
Brad Pitt’s famous line in the movie “Moneyball” captures the notion best — “I hate losing more than I even want to win, and there’s a difference.”
Retired tennis star Jimmy Connors said the same thing when reflecting on his exceptional career, “I hate to lose more than I love to win.”
What a sad place to be.
Both fan bases have lived through phases of the modern rivalry that was lopsided. The Cougars went 19-2 against Utah between 1972-92. Growing up a BYU fan, it was still the “biggest” game on the schedule, but at the same time, it didn’t cause much anxiety because we knew the Cougars would win — and they often did.
Utah enjoyed a run of nine straight wins between 2010 and 2019, where Ute fans, including the Salt Lake-based McCanns, fed themselves with similar self-assurances that no matter what happened in the game, their team just wasn’t going to lose — and they didn’t.
Last season, BYU turned the tables and defeated Utah 26-17 in a game where the Cougars dominated the line of scrimmage and never trailed. Afterward, the fans stormed the field in a manner that hadn’t been seen in Provo since BYU upset No. 1 Miami in 1990.
One day before the Utah game, the Cougars accepted an invitation to the Big 12 Conference and the welcomed P5 status that comes with it. When the teams meet again in 2024, they will do so on even ground for the first time since 2010 when Utah and BYU played their final seasons in the Mountain West Conference.
So why is there so much conversation that the teams shouldn’t play each other on a regular basis in the future? It’s almost as if this game is becoming disposable, even an afterthought.
Radio talk shows and social media sites go back and forth with fans, and hosts, from each side, declaring individual ideology that “the game doesn’t mean anything.” “The schedule is already too tough.” “It’s too risky to play” or “I’d rather play someone else.”
How can this be so? What happened?
This is the game that has delivered iconic battles on the field and tremendous quotes off of it. Below is a sampling.
“It will be a crusade to beat BYU from now on.” — Utah coach Wayne Howard, 1977
“All those guys think that’s all there is to life. But when I’m making $50-60,000 a year, they’ll be pumping my gas.” — BYU defensive lineman Lenny Gomes, 1993
“Even our cheerleaders are kicking your butt.” — Utah receiver Steve Smith, 1999
“I really hate them.” — Utah QB Alex Smith, 2004
“Obviously, when you’re doing what’s right on and off the field, I think the Lord steps in and plays a part in it. Magic happens.” — BYU receiver Austin Collie, 2007
“I hate them. I hate everything about them.” — BYU QB Max Hall, 2009
“This is Utah’s world and BYU’s living in it.” — Utah punter Tom Hackett, 2015
“I would have bet my house going into the game that we wouldn’t lose the line of scrimmage.” — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, 2021
BYU-Utah is among the most storied rivalries in college football. It is the Super Bowl of the state. It has been a game played annually, for the most part, since 1922.
It’s bigger than Jim McMahon, Steve Smith, Steve Young, Scott Mitchell, Ty Detmer, Eric Weddle, Robbie Bosco, Jamal Anderson, Max Hall, Alex Smith, Taysom Hill, Paul Kruger and Jaren Hall.
It’s bigger than radio play-by-play voices Paul James, Bill Marcroft, Greg Wrubell and Bill Riley.
It’s bigger than the biggest fan.
No outside regular-season opponent means more to more people inside the state of Utah and to the respective graduates who have moved elsewhere than the BYU-Utah game.
For example, in 2015, Utah and BYU agreed to a two-year pause in the rivalry so the Utes could stage a home-and-home series against Michigan. Utah won the first game in Salt Lake 24-17 and spoiled Jim Harbaugh’s debut as the Wolverines new head coach.
The moment was huge for the Utes. However, I don’t suspect any Utah fans wore their shirts and hats around town the following 12 months in hopes that a Michigan fan might see them and be reminded of their anguish.
The game was big, but not that big.
During BYU’s independence run, the Cougars enjoyed wins at No. 6 Wisconsin, at Michigan State, USC (twice), at Nebraska, Texas (twice), at Tennessee and at Ole Miss. They played Michigan, LSU, UCLA, Baylor, Washington, Mississippi State, Virginia and West Virginia — all on national television.
The games were big, but not that big.
In contrast, whoever wins the BYU-Utah game also controls the fashion world, the water cooler conversations, the radio and social media content, even some church discourse, family one-liners, and the cherry on top — they get the last word.
It is a 12-month state of joy for the winner and a yearlong sentence of disappointment for the loser — and it’s awesome.
I had to sing “Utah Man” on the steps of the state capitol with my KSL-TV colleague and BYU grad Mike Headrick for nearly a decade. It was deeply disturbing. However, listening to our Utah grad and TV colleague Deannie Wimmer belt out “Rise and Shout” last September — on those same steps — brought the spirit of renewal and yes, some redemption to our souls.
BYU and Utah have again agreed to break away from the annual showdown in 2022 and 2023 to accommodate the Utes playing a home-and-home series against Florida and so BYU can entertain Big 12 champion Baylor on Sept. 10 and play at Arkansas in 2023.
I’m all for taking a break on occasion, but not on a regular basis. There just isn’t a bigger game out there that means so much to so many across the state that it shouldn’t be played as often as possible.
If the Pac-12 and Big 12 require each team to play nine conference games, it will allow for just three nonleague games. Scheduling a pair of P5s in nonconference play is something both programs will avoid — as they should.
Everybody wants to win a national championship and as a P5 member, each program has a chance. But, in reality, there are typically just four teams in the running — Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Ohio State, with Notre Dame always close by.
By defeating Utah and winning the Big 12, BYU’s strength of schedule would bolster its big bowl credentials. The same goes for the Utes if they were to defeat the Cougars and win the Pac-12.
The two teams won’t face each other again until Sept. 7, 2024, in Salt Lake City. They are scheduled to play each year through 2028 pending any revisions.
In this writer’s opinion, the upside of winning the rivalry game is worth the risk of losing it. Wrote the great C.S. Lewis, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.”
Utah still made it to its first Rose Bowl after losing to both BYU and San Diego State last season. The Cougars still went to nine bowl games during their nine-game losing streak to the Utes.
If chasing a national title is the only motive, with both teams as perennial top-25 programs, then facing and beating the other would only aid the cause — just as defeating the Utes in 1984 helped BYU win its national championship.
If it doesn’t, then both teams should get out of college football all together.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.