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Hey ESPN, don’t call the BYU-Utah rivalry a ‘Holy War’

Calling the BYU-Utah rivalry game the Holy War doesn’t fit, but it’s a reference with a catchy phrase that’s mostly used in marketing. Here’s why the time has come to dump it.

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BYU fan Mike Newsom, left, and Utah fan Bill Newsom, right, cheer at the 1998 rivalry game. The brothers, were featured on the cover of the Deseret News the day after the game.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

PROVO — Somewhere along the line, the BYU-Utah rivalry game started being referred to as “The Holy War.”

But in today’s divisive, name-calling world, should it be?

These days some would say that political correctness has gone off the rails, but this one is worth a look. This isn’t about believers vs. non-believers.

The game hasn’t always been called the Holy War. The expression has become more popular in recent years as a way to market the game. I remember first hearing it in the early ‘90s with the advent of sports talk radio in Utah.

For those — both inside the state of Utah and out — who tune into ESPN on Thursday night and hear the term “Holy War,” understand that some love it, some hate it, and some are indifferent.

But what it’s not is simple. Lines are definitely drawn between red and blue. But what about religious lines? That’s not always the case.

Here’s the setting. BYU is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a prominent cultural and religious presence in the state. The University of Utah, while founded by Brigham Young, is a state school. Fans and opinions about the schools can be divided down religious lines. But the reality is that there are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on both sides of the rivalry. One of Utah’s best players last year, Chase Hansen, was a returned missionary. So is current wide receiver Britain Covey. Likewise, BYU has players on its roster each year that are not of the school’s faith.

Is there nastiness on both sides rooted in culture? Sure. As there is with other rivalries, too. Take, for example, the Notre Dame-Miami game in 1988 that became dubbed Catholics vs. Convicts.

Is it time to adapt to the times or just keep calling it something that it really is not?

A decade ago, Deseret News editorial leaders made a conscious effort to keep “Holy War” out of news stories and commentaries by staff writers. Since then, it remains a term for promotion by some in the media, most notably radio and television. It’s both a catchy phrase and a reference that’s stuck.

Most associate the term “holy war” with medieval times when European Christian crusaders were invading the Middle East for land and relics. So is this modern-day football game really a holy war? 

“Heck, no,” said ABC4 sportscaster Wesley Ruff, who has covered the rivalry game for 34 years as a TV sports anchor. “It’s not a war and it isn’t holy.”

In fact, if you measure a lot of contention and fiery back and forth among rabid fans, it is anything but holy. In some 45 years of covering the rivalry, I’ve seen a lot of the great passion surrounding it, and witnessed much of the bad. And some of the bad does have religious overtones. But Holy War?

The New American Oxford Dictionary defines holy as “... dedicated or consecrated to God; sacred.”

The rivalry game I’ve covered makes that definition sound kind of absurd. 

In 1997, Salt Lake Tribune sportswriters Phil Miller and Dick Rosetta co-authored a book titled “The Unholy War.” That title was closer to hitting the mark. 

I took a poll this past week on Twitter. I asked if this game should be called the Holy War. In three days and 657 votes, 66% voted yes, while 34% voted no.

With fans, it may not be a big item, or there’s indifference.

“What’s wrong with everyone,” tweeted Reid John Fuller. “Holy War is awful.”

Aaron Walker agreed. “There’s only one Holy War and this isn’t it.”

TimBrraquito posted, “No to Holy War. I always prefer something like ‘Between Church and State.’”

Brent Fredrickson wants it called the “Wasatch War.”

Former BYU player and current ESPN college football analyst Trevor Matich doesn’t have an issue with the nickname.

“I love it,” said Matich. “College football fans are accustomed to branding big rivalry games with cool names like the Iron Bowl (Auburn-Alabama), the Backyard Brawl (Pitt-West Virginia), and the Bedlam Series (Oklahoma-Oklahoma State). It adds flavor to some of the biggest events in the college game. For BYU and Utah to be called the Holy War is good, clean, fun, and not far off the mark.”

BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki grew up in Provo and went to Timpview High. He has coached at Utah and BYU, has worn the red and white and now dons Cougar colors.

Tuiaki says you don’t even have to be from the state of Utah to have the label “Holy War” mean something. “It means something to everyone. So, I think to start naming it something else to be politically correct is like, whatever. Sure. If you want to change it, go ahead.

“But to me, it’s even on video games back when I was still in college. You pick rivalries. That’s what shows up, ‘Holy War.’  EA Sports and all these other people call it the Holy War. So I think it’s been cataloged digitally that way and you can’t just change it.”

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake has lived the rivalry all his life — as a kid, a fan, a player, a coach. His approach is different.

“I just love this game. I love the rivalry. I think it’s so exciting and I don’t care what you call it,” he said. 

“I don’t even know who dubbed it the Holy War,” he continued. “I just like the game altogether. For me, that’s ‘The Game’ right? Everyone may refer to it as something else and I’ve heard people call it the Holy War, so, yeah, I guess it all fits me. This is an important game.

“You don’t have to feel one way or another if that’s what it’s called. I personally don’t refer to it like that, but I can see the concern. I can see why people don’t think it’s appropriate, but I just like them (games) altogether. So, as to the actual name of it? I’d rather call it ‘The Game.’”