Before I get to the whole Holy War, I thought I'd run down the abortion that was yesterday's basketball game.
Let's travel back ten years to 1998. The Utah men's basketball team was just barely getting their season started, while the Utah football team was putting together an average, but far from great, 7-4 season. It was the week prior to the Holy War -- a game Utah would lose on a missed field goal -- and the last season they would ever play in the WAC. It was also the first year the Utes were playing in the brand new Rice-Eccles Stadium. At that time, Utah football was much like the season they were playing. At times they looked extremely good, but as a whole, they were nothing great. And people around the Salt Lake Community knew this, as Utah wasn't known for its football program.
Sure, they saw success in 1994 and had a solid run again in 1996, but they weren't lighting the college football landscape on fire. After that amazing run in 94, there were no top-25 finishes, no outright conference championships and definitely no 11-win seasons. But the fans seemed content with just being competitive and getting a victory over BYU. That is why Ron McBride survived a wave of 6, 7 and 8 win seasons after Utah hit its highest point. Of course, it didn't hurt McBride that Utah basketball was consistently the linchpin for Utah athletics. Regardless of how badly the football program floundered, fans could at least look to Rick Majerus and his Runnin' Utes. In 1998, they, like the Utah team in 1994, were at the highest of the highs. The team had just come off an amazing run to the championship game and looked just as good as ever, especially once WAC play rolled around and the Utes went the entire conference season -- tournament included -- without a loss.
That was ten years ago, this is now. If someone would have come up to you in November of 1998 and told you in ten short years the football program would be 11-0 and on the cusp of the BCS (which had just formed, or began to form in 1998), while the basketball team just lost to a D-II program, I'm guessing you would have had a hard time believing them. Yeah, we all wanted Utah football to be better than they were, but I think many of us conceded at that time maybe what Ron McBride had done was the best that could ever be done at Utah. It wasn't until a few years later that we realized the talent wasn't synching up with the wins and losses. But this isn't about the football team, at least directly, it's about how dramatically things have changed at the U.
Ten years ago, no one thought of football first and basketball second, yet that's exactly what we are doing right now. Ten years ago, BYU became the focal point for just one week and when that game was over, everyone returned their focus to basketball. This year, with a win over BYU, we'll be looking far beyond the month of December, to the New Year and a BCS bowl. Ten years ago, any fan would have taken an 11-1 regular season finish in a heartbeat, no grumbles, no complaints and no pains. Now anything short of 12-0 will have a tinge of disappointment and a lot of heartache this time around.
The fact Utah lost to Southwest Baptist -- a program none of us had ever heard of prior to the game Saturday -- and the response has been less worrisome than when they barely beat the Lobos a couple of weeks ago in football shows you just how different the programs are from where they were in 1998.
This is where we stand and probably will stand for a good while. I'm not saying the basketball team is going to be stuck in purgatory for a decade, but it's clear the two major sports at the U are going in two completely opposite directions. And it's not like basketball has been terrible for all that long. Four years ago, the Ute football program was on the verge of busting the BCS, while the basketball program was just kicking off its best season in nearly a decade, rolling through the Mountain West and then the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Since that season, Utah football has gone 35-14 (.700), while Utah basketball has gone 43-50 (.462). The basketball team could turn it around and surprise us, but right now, at the start of Holy War Week, it's clear: Utah is a football school. Ten years ago, I don't think anyone would have ever thought that possible.