Even in its best years, the University of Utah finds itself in the shadow of its nemesis. It is called Brigham Young University, and it is located an hour south of Utah’s campus.
Shadows such as that are headaches, especially when a university strives for its own identity and recognition--at least in the world of athletics.
Exhibit A is the 1986 football season prospectus. Utah, which will play host to San Diego State Saturday night, is picked by coaches and the media to finish second in the Western Athletic Conference.
Guess who is picked to finish first . . . again?
“The first thing I noticed when I came here is that everything is BYU, BYU, BYU,” said Loren Richey, Utah’s top receiver who transferred from Torrance’s El Camino College a year ago. “That fires us up. It’s more of a hatred than a rivalry. There’s more to it than the schools being so close. They think they’re so good and by the book. The way we look at it, the only way we can get back at them is to beat them.”
That has been a long time in coming. Utah’s last victory against BYU was eight years ago, 23-22.
Although Utah has yet to play in 1986, it already has scored a major recruiting victory over BYU. Quarterback Mike Mitchell, the state’s most valuable 3-A high school player last year, chose to attend Utah instead of BYU.
“We did very well recruiting against (BYU) within the state,” said Jim Fassel, Utah coach. “It’s a matter of not conceding anything to them. We have to beat them in recruiting if we hope to beat them on the field. We don’t tell kids they shouldn’t go to BYU or San Diego State for this or that. We tell them why they should come to Utah.”
One of Utah’s major recruiting pitches is its up-and-coming status in the WAC. Utah finished 8-4 in its first season under Fassel in 1985, placing third in the WAC behind BYU and the Air Force Academy.
Fassel’s most impressive accomplishment may, indeed, have been the recruiting of Mitchell.
As a child, Mitchell attended all BYU games and participated in the university’s youth football camps. His grandmother is a cousin of LaVell Edwards, BYU’s head coach.
Mitchell’s decision was based primarily on the fact that he is also an outstanding baseball player. Because BYU is so strong in football and baseball, Mitchell thought he would have to choose one sport at BYU. However, he will play both sports at Utah.
“I always heard nobody went to Utah unless you are crazy,” Mitchell told the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. “Ever since I was a little kid, people told me there was one choice to make (BYU). My grandfather was a little upset when I chose Utah. He’s a staunch BYU fan. Even now he will ask, ‘Are you sure you know what you are doing?’ ”
Within the state, Utah still faces major obstacles in terms of recognition. BYU has sold out all 65,000 seats for every home game. Utah, which has a 36,000-seat stadium on campus, expects 30,000 for its season-opener against SDSU.
“The problem here is that BYU has been winning for so long,” Fassel said. “A lot of people drive from Salt Lake City to Provo to watch BYU. People say that BYU is winning, so they will support them. It’s a continuing thing. It’s nothing we can solve in a year or two.”
When Fassel arrived at Utah last season, his major goal was to establish credibility.
In the preceding three seasons, Utah had a 16-17-1 record. That only darkened the shadow cast by BYU.
Fassel, who previously coached at El Camino, brought along some help. Jack Reilly, the offensive coordinator from El Camino, followed Fassel. So did quarterback Larry Egger and Richey.
Immediately, Utah switched from a run-oriented offense to a pass-oriented one. Egger set seven Utah records, including passing yardage (2,988) and total offense (2,890). Richey caught 73 passes, also a record.
However, the most prominent player may have been kicker Andre Guardi. He won three games with field goals in the final three seconds. One was a 42-yarder on the game’s final play as Utah beat SDSU, 39-37.
“They had problems winning in the fourth quarter before,” Fassel said. “More than anything, they needed an attitude change. They needed to be upbeat. There had been a negativeness of ‘don’t do this, this or this, or we’ll lose.’ Now, we ask what we can do to win.”
Utah won its first five games in 1985 before losing at Arizona State, 34-27. The Utes were 8-2 before losing their final games to Colorado State (21-19) and BYU (24-14).
“Everyone wants to be optimistic before the season,” Richey said. “I think we took a lot of people by surprise (last year). In reality, I don’t think people could have projected that we would go 8-4.”
Going into 1986, there seems to be some uncertainty among the locals.
Lee Benson, sports editor of the Deseret News, said people think the Utes may be on the threshold of something big. But there’s also a wait-and-see attitude, as evidenced by the fact that Saturday’s opener is not a sellout.
“Once we win, people will jump on the bandwagon,” Egger said. “We’re still in our first two years here. We’re building a foundation so others can ride it in the future. We definitely think we have a chance at a bowl game this year. We don’t play anybody we don’t think we can beat.”
For a change, that includes BYU.
YEAR WINNER SCORE 1978 Utah 20-18 1979 San Diego St. 17-13 1980 San Diego St. 21-20 1981 Utah 17-14 1982 San Diego St. 21-17 1983 Utah 27-24 1984 San Diego St. 24-24 1985 Utah 39-37