Despite their best efforts, BYU and Utah could be getting back together.
If and when the Big 12 votes to admit the Utes, after the once-mighty Pac-12 collapses like a house of cards, the love-hate relationship will come full circle. Both rivals, connected at the hip in history, just might reunite as conference foes as early as 2024.
The way it could work out gives credence to the way it was meant to be.
Brigham Young, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, established the University of Utah in 1850 in Salt Lake City. He founded BYU in Provo in 1875. Utah was to be a state-run and publicly funded, secular institution, while BYU remained privately owned by the church.
On an administrative level, BYU and Utah share a relationship that is much closer than fans care to admit, or even know. But on the field of competition, just like two insecure brothers who are close in age, they have always been feisty. In fact, sometimes they even argue over which brother is the oldest?
The first BYU-Utah baseball game, in 1895, ended in a bench-clearing brawl. One year later, in the first football game, or practice scrimmage as BYU calls it, the fans brawled with each other.
Two games — two fights!
Despite the audacious beginning, the years have been good to both programs, with the ebb and flow of winning and losing producing a flurry of spectacular moments.
It was BYU and Utah that headlined the Western Athletic Conference for nearly four decades, and it was BYU and Utah that orchestrated the WAC expansion to 16 teams in 1996. It was also BYU and Utah that planned and executed a surprising exit from the WAC to form of the Mountain West Conference in 1998.
A defining separation came in 2011 when Utah left the Mountain West to become Colorado’s travel partner in the Pac-12. Not wanting to be left behind, BYU also left the Mountain West to become independent in football and a member of the West Coast Conference in most other sports.
For Utah fans looking to finally get “one-up” on BYU since the Cougars 1984 national championship and 1990 Heisman Trophy winner, this was it. They shouted from the rooftops — and with BYU in their rearview mirror, some even disputed the need to keep playing the Cougars.
BYU fans responded by defending past glories and touted occasional upsets on the independent front. But it was a long-term debate they knew they couldn’t win. Even the BYU football coaches admitted that the Utes’ Power Five status was a recruiting dagger they frequently used to win over a kid considering both schools.
Bronco Mendenhall and Kalani Sitake fought that unfair fight for 11 seasons until the Big 12 called and invited the Cougars to join the conference on July 1, 2023. BYU celebrated the leveling of the playing field with Utah, including full access to all that college football offers, both competitively and financially. Some on the BYU side even questioned the need to keep playing the Utes.
Utah fans quickly pointed out that the only reason BYU was being elevated was because Texas and Oklahoma were leaving for the SEC, and losing those bluebloods would water down the Big 12 and keep it well below the titanic-like vessel of the Pac-12.
Their position certainly had merit. However, in a deep twist of irony, a phone call like the one that rocked the Big 12, came to the Pac-12.
Longtime partners USC and UCLA, the bedrock of the conference, abruptly announced they were leaving to join the Big Ten and before the Pac-12 could schedule an emergency Zoom call, the Trojans and Bruins were voted in as new members.
Like hitting an iceberg in the Atlantic, the once-considered unsinkable Pac-12 began taking on water.
Suddenly, it was the Utes who were scrambling for a life jacket and rescue boat and while many Cougars fans appeared supportive and empathetic, others celebrated and reiterated the notion that “what goes around, comes around.”
The Utes were left with a wide-ranging forecast of potential memberships in the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, a wounded Pac-10, or being relegated to a non-Power Five conference with the G5 status it once held as a member of the Mountain West with the likes of UNLV and Utah State.
How quickly things can change.
Seizing the moment to further strengthen its hold as an emerging super conference, the Big 12, including BYU, is considering extending the arm of fellowship to others, including Utah.
As incoming commissioner Brett Yormark said Wednesday at the Big 12 football media day, “The Big 12 is open for business” and is “exploring all options.”
When the dust settles, the Utes, and possibly as many as five other Pac-12 teams, could join the Big 12 in time for the 2024 football season — one year after BYU, Houston, Central Florida and Cincinnati become members.
Is BYU helping save Utah? Cougar fans will say “yes,” even though they know it’s a stretch. But what the reunion will not do is keep each rival from trying to one-up the other. They can’t help themselves. The ever-present effort to belittle, discredit or disrespect has been the B-12 shot that has kept the football rivalry vibrant and growing, and sometimes exhausting.
When BYU hails its 1984 national championship, Utah fans clamor about the Cougars’ weak schedule.
When Utah makes headway in the Pac-12, BYU fans note the weakness of the conference.
When Zach Wilson earns the No. 2 overall pick in 2021 NFL draft, Ute fans credit a pandemic-plagued season.
When Utah celebrates its first Pac-12 championship, BYU followers point out that the Cougars not only beat the Utes, but beat all five Pac-12 foes it faced during the 2021 season.
When Utah fans boast of finally reaching the Rose Bowl, Cougar fans note Ohio State played without 24 scholarship players and still ran up 683 yards of offense to win the game.
Back and forth. Back and forth. No matter the year or the success, or the insecurities, BYU and Utah fans will always go back and forth.
Now that both programs seem destined to be back under the same roof, the debate over whether they should play each other every year on Thanksgiving weekend should be a moot point. Despite their best efforts, the Cougars and Utes could be back together — almost as if they were meant to be.
To quote my mother, and just about every mother who raised boys at home — “stop fighting with your brother and play nice!”
Like the pioneer trek across the plains led by Brigham Young, it hasn’t been an easy road to get here. Yet, the famous saying by the founder of both universities certainly fits the moment — for BYU and Utah, the Big 12 “is the right place.”
The deal isn’t done, but if it does come to pass, just imagine the mega battles ahead as the Cougars and Utes fight over more than just instate bragging rights. A late November game for the Big 12 championship? That’s a far cry from their rivalry in the WAC, the Mountain West and whatever we call these last 12 years.
Yes, despite their best efforts, BYU and Utah could be getting back together — a notion that once seemed as farfetched as USC and UCLA leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.
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.