A New Era For Utah
By Sean Reynolds, BlockU.com
We all remember the new kids in school. They would awkwardly stand in front of the class, often meagerly introduced by the teacher, and we'd give them the once-over.
They stood there looking intimidated and lost. Where do they sit? Who do they talk to? How are they going to mingle with their new peers?
It's not easy being the new kid and that's exactly how Utah and its fans feel right now. They're standing in front of the class with all the eyes inspecting their every move so intensely.
Who are these guys? Better yet, what makes them think they belong here?
If college football is anything, it is a group of cliques. And as we found out in high school, it ain't easy nudging your way into an already established circle of friends.
So it's understandable some fans of the old Pac-10 are skeptical of this change - or at least uncertain of the Utah athletic program. After all, the Utes arrived here from the Mountain West Conference.
How good are they really?
What I do know is that Utah has been building toward this day for at least twenty years. It's not something that happened over night and certainly not due to luck - but something far greater.
You see, the unknown part of this story is the journey itself. We think of the last few seasons of football success as the clearest reason why the Utes are in this position, and that would be a bit shortsighted on all our parts. It's more than that. It's deeper than that.
That success was a direct result of something built out of the 1990s. If you're a Ute fan, you know exactly what I'm talking about. But for many outsiders, those who aren't entirely familiar with Utah football, you may see 2004, the year the Utes went undefeated and beat Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, as the starting point.
This journey really began in 1989 when Utah hired Ron McBride. Prior to his arrival, the football program was pretty much a wasteland. Ute fans measured success not by conference titles or bowl games, but by winning seasons - even if just barely. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, success was hard to come by and even more difficult to sustain.
McBride changed that. It was only in his third season that Utah finally reached a bowl game after a 28-year drought. There they would face the Drew Bledsoe-led, and now conference companion, Washington State Cougars.
At first, the Utes proved little match for the established and successful Cougars. Wazzu jumped out to an impressive and seemingly insurmountable 21-0 lead in the first quarter and held a 28-14 advantage at the half.
Utah's first bowl game in two decades was not going well. But in the second half, they would turn it around and tie the game 28-all heading into the fourth quarter. Even though the Utes would eventually lose the game late in the fourth on a missed field goal, it was far from a disappointing finish.
Washington State guard Josh Dunning said after the game that his team had underestimated the Utes.
They certainly did. Utah proved something that night in Tucson, even in defeat.
That bowl loss was really the launching point for a program that, two years later, would finally have its breakout season. It was in 1994 where Utah managed to upset Oregon in Eugene, the same season the Ducks won the Pac-10 and played in the Rose Bowl, then defeated a ranked Arizona team in the '94 Freedom Bowl.
Those three games early in the McBride era really illustrate how closely linked the Utes are to each Pac-12 member. They are games that every Utah fan remembers and moments that will carry on for generations because, at the time, it was the first real taste of big-time football.
For those older fans that endured losing seasons and sparse crowds in a stadium that was falling apart, those early moments made it all worthwhile.
After all, in that era, the University of Utah was more known for its basketball program than anything it produced on the football field.
That really changed in the 90's, and that success established a foundation so a guy like Urban Meyer could come in and go 22-2 in his two seasons at Utah. It has allowed a guy like Kyle Whittingham, who has been with the football program since that breakout 1994 season, to not only keep things at a high level, but improve on what the two coaches before him built.
To say it's been an adventure would be an understatement. To say that any Ute fan saw the potential of not only undefeated seasons, but eventual Pac-12 inclusion when McBride stood in front of a few boosters during his introductory press conference, would be an outright lie.
No one could have foreseen this day. At least not back in 1989.
There have been great moments in Utah athletic history - like playing for the NCAA basketball championship in 1998 or defeating Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl - but this moment, on an overall scale, takes the cake.
It is monumental and hard to not understate. I don't know if I can even begin to express the magnitude, because I believe I would be selling it short in some way. For Ute fans, I guess it's validation for the program, the University and the state as a whole.
But it's also kind of overwhelming because, as mentioned, we are the new kids on the block. Unlike the first ten, Utah hasn't proven anything in this conference. They certainly haven't played in a Rose Bowl or won a conference tournament here.
They're an unknown, untested school from a state many on the west coast might consider as flyover country.
Of course, for those of us who live here, we know that isn't the case. Utah is a beautiful state that has seen exceptional growth over the last twenty years.
That growth can be seen not only on the campus of the University of Utah - but within its athletic program. We are witnessing its glory days.
So who are these Utes? What is their story?
Utah's athletic program is named after the Ute tribe which occupied the eastern area of the state prior to the arrival of Mexican settlers in the 1800s. Its mascot is a red-tailed hawk named Swoop - which the school adopted in 1996 with permission from the Ute tribal council.
The most interesting fact, though, just might be the origins of Utah's fight song - Utah Man. It originated as a drinking song for the old Sigma Chi and was written back in 1885 to the tune of Solomon Levi. The words are unmistakable, as is the melody - though the school made some obvious adjustments when it adopted the song sometime in the early 1900s.
The Mighty Utah Student Section (MUSS) gets its name from one of the lyrics of Utah Man: 'no other gang of college men dare meet us in the muss'.
It is that student section that has become the pride of Utah football. They're an extraordinary and intimidating group that I think will quickly establish itself as one of the best student sections in the conference.
They're a big reason why Utah football is an impressive 22-2 at home over the last four seasons and the following video perfectly exemplifies what makes them so daunting at times: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9RLptIehMY.
Finally, there is the Block U. It was built on the mountainside just behind the university over 100 years ago. It can be seen from all over the valley and after a Utah victory, its lights flash triumphantly.
That U has witnessed a lot of change over the last 100 years. There have been three stadiums, countless football coaches, a few perfect seasons, a college basketball championship, BCS wins and now Pac-12 affiliation.
It's fitting the Utes embark on its new journey with Colorado - as the Buffaloes were one of Utah's main rivals when the Block U was constructed.
That rivalry lay dormant the last 50 years and we're hopeful it will quickly be reignited now that both programs share the same conference for the first time since the 1947 season.
But that's not to say this moment isn't a bit bittersweet. Utah is leaving behind a lifetime of rivals, programs they grew up around over the last century and created thousands of memories with.
You can't easily replace that familiarity. As much as this program has been self-defining over the years, its history is also closely linked to Air Force, Colorado State, BYU, Wyoming and New Mexico. Each of those teams provided a memorable moment or remarkable play that won't ever be forgotten - even with the change of affiliation.
This is, however, a new era. As much as those memories mean a great deal to Ute fans, it's time to create new ones with new rivals in a new conference.
That new journey is one I think every Ute fan has been waiting a lifetime for and it begins today.
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