Utah’s Mark Harlan understands fans’ disappointment in not being able to attend football games this fall
If the Pac-12 seeks scheduling balance, the Utes will likely face Cal, Oregon State or Washington State in crossover game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah athletics director Mark Harlan acknowledged that not all the news that came out of the Pac-12’s decision to resume football in November was positive. The conference announced that no fans will be permitted to attend games this season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It was the bad news on an otherwise “great day” as Harlan noted. He understands there is some real disappointment for the fans.
“We have, no question, the best fans in this conference — our sellout streaks and everything that they’ve contributed to,” Harlan said. “And quite candidly, they’ve helped us win so many football games and of course in the arena as well. So that was tough I have full respect for the decision, understand it, but, you know, I know some of our students I’ve talked to just can’t imagine not having them there.”
Utah has an ongoing streak of 64 consecutive sellouts at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The facility is currently getting an $80 million expansion and renovation that will raise capacity to 51,444 and include several state-of-the-art amenities. It’s expected to be finished in time for the 2021 season opener against Weber State.
Although the old locker rooms were demolished in September, Harlan noted that the stadium is still equipped to host games. He said an opposing athletic director told him that a tent would be better than the locker rooms that existed.
“We might have to ask for extended halftime because we might have to walk a little bit further, but all those things are are certainly doable. We’re going to create the best possible environment for our students and officials and, and everybody else. But I have no worries at all that we’ll be able to ... accomplish that.” — Utah athletics director Mark Harlan, on playing at a stadium currently under construction
“We might have to ask for extended halftime because we might have to walk a little bit further, but all those things are are certainly doable,” Harlan said. “We’re going to create the best possible environment for our students and officials and, and everybody else. But I have no worries at all that we’ll be able to ... accomplish that.”
Harlan expects everything to be ironed out with the seven-game football schedule in the coming week. He confirmed that the regular rotation with Pac-12 South opponents will remain intact. That means Arizona and USC are coming to Rice-Eccles Stadium. The Utes, in keeping with a rotation that has been in place since joining the conference in 2011, will travel to Arizona State, Colorado and UCLA this season. As for the scheduled crossover game with the North Division, opponents will be lined up so that every team in the league has three games at home and three on the road before championship weekend. Utah needs another date at Rice-Eccles Stadium and the three North teams available in that scenario are California, Oregon State and Washington State.
There are apparent rumblings around the conference, though, as to making things fair in terms of crossover opponents. Should the top teams play each other in the regular season? Should it really count like a game within the division? What about possible rematches later when the Pac-12 Championship Game is played in December and every other team in the league is also set to get a seventh opportunity to play through a seeding process?
Harlan joked that it’s one of the great sports debates that is raging through living rooms across the conference. However, he explained that a great deal of time has been spent on the matter and that concerns that not every game would get played because of COVID-19 was a big factor with athletic directors and coaches.
“I’m not going to say every person agreed with that by any means,” Harlan said. “But the idea of us playing a crossover game and it not counting and then the following week, let’s say, we play a South Division opponent that we can’t play because of the virus, then all of a sudden we have two noncountable games.”
And in a shorted season without schedule flexibility, there’s simply no wiggle room. Harlan said there’s also a concerted effort not to interfere with 2021 plans, either. The conference, he continued, is being “very careful” in that regard.