Decade saw shift in athletics

It's hard to believe ten years ago so many people were making a fuss of the whole Y2K nonsense. It's harder to believe we're already about to enter an entirely new decade. Yet when the clock rolls over to January 1st, 2010 - that's exactly what we'll do (and I know technically the next decade doesn't start until 2011, but really, who cares?). 

The last decade has been pretty kind to Utah athletics. But for different reasons than the 90s - which saw unprecedented success on the hardwood. In the 00s, it was on the gridiron where Utah made its national impact, a reversal of the 90s.

So, what was it like on December 4th, 1999 for Utah athletics? Well life was going about its normal existence, even though many around the world were predicting Armageddon. Utah football had just finished their tenth regular season under head coach Ron McBride with a 20-17 win over BYU. They were also preparing for their bowl game against Fresno State (a week later, the Utes would beat the Bulldogs in a sloppy 17-16 contest). 

The basketball team, a year and a half removed from playing for the national championship, was 4-3 and on the verge of winning eighteen of their next twenty. That team made the NCAA Tournament, beat St. Louis in the first round and then lost to the eventual champion Michigan State Spartans. 

All in all, it wasn't a bad ending to a decade that saw the rise of Utah football and the dominance of Utah basketball. It was a decade where the football team finished with its best season to that point (1994, 10-2) and the basketball team played for the national title. 

As we rolled into the 21st Century, the future did indeed look bright for both major sports. But as we now know, one would explode and the other would fizzle. 

Which is a surprise, because the Utes football team floundered in 2000. They finished tied for the worst record since McBride's first season in 1990. The basketball team faired a bit better, making the NIT that season. 

However, as the decade progressed, hoops would slowly deteriorate, even after their resurgence in 2005. Football, on the other hand, bottomed out in 2002 and then bolted onto the national stage under Urban Meyer. It marked the fastest rise of any Utah sport in the modern history and took a program that had been historically good, but far from great, and made them great. 

Only three years into the new decade and the Utes had won ten games - something it took a century to do the first time. They had claimed an outright championship and finished ranked for only the third time in school history. The future was certainly looking up for Utah football and basketball, at this point, continued humming along - even if just barely. 

By 2004, things were actually probably at its peak for the program. The Runnin' Utes had shown signs of softening their grip on the Mountain West, but were far from tanking and the football team was performing at its best. That was the season Utah did the unthinkable and went undefeated, busting the BCS and finishing ranked 4th in the nation. This was before the BCS eased up its rules and though their opponent in the Fiesta Bowl was hardly fantastic, it provided the program a defining moment that so few programs are allowed the experience. When your first real national coming out party is in the Fiesta Bowl - you know you've done good. 

It's hard to imagine that four years prior it seemed like the football program was barely staying afloat. Sure, McBride had a good run and was fresh off a shared Mountain West title. But Utah had a penchant for under performing and it eventually caught up with him and the program. 

Meyer changed that mentality here at Utah. Prior to him, there was a good portion of the fanbase who were content with 7-4 and 9-3 seasons - just as long as they ended with wins over BYU. Just beat the Cougars, finish above .500 and all will be well. McBride did that. He rarely did more. 

Then Meyer rolls into town and overhauls how we think. We're not just beating BYU anymore. We're beating Texas A&M and Oregon and Cal. But beyond that, we're beating Colorado State and Air Force too. Those programs were McBride's kryptonite and it seemed every year they would stand between the Utes and either a shared conference championship or an outright title (as was the case in 1999, when the Utes barely lost to the Rams).

Meyer didn't lose to either during his two-year stint here. Of course, both programs were faltering by that time. But you've got to wonder what mental block they provided Utah in their quest for an outright title in 2003. It is, in fact, the Rams who offered up Meyer one of his biggest wins here. That isn't a coincidence.

Utah has only lost to the Rams and Falcons once each since Meyer left (2005 and 2007 respectively).

Of course, football very well could have slipped back to the pre-2003 days when he took off for Florida. But it didn't. Kyle Whittingham had a rough start, but eventually got Utah back onto the national stage in 2008 - four years after their first appearance. Last year, Utah did what no one thought possible - they bested the '04 Utes. 

They didn't do it in style points, but they surely did it in every other aspect of the game. They won thirteen to '04's twelve. They did it with a harder schedule and the creme de la creme came when they knocked off Alabama - a far superior foe than Pitt - in the Sugar Bowl to finish the season ranked second nationally. 

It was, unquestionably, the greatest season in Utah football history. And the kicker? The guy who delivered it still coaches the Utes. That's huge. It's huge because generally when a coach leads his team to the best season they've ever experienced, he's gone. We saw it in 2004 and there are going to be teams that see it this year.

It's Whittingham that has led the Utes for the last half-decade and he will lead Utah into the next decade poised to establish the program as a legitimate national champion contender. 

Who would have thought that possible ten years ago? I mean, back in 1999 we just wanted to win enough games to claim a share of the title. Going undefeated was only something we hoped might possibly happen if McBride somehow found enough magic in his shoe dirt. 

Now we're not pleased with a 9-3 season and a top-25 ranking. That's good, but we're so much better than that.

The football program surely has come a long way this decade. The same can't be said for basketball.

Basketball was supposed to have an unlimited horizon. It did, after all, see sustained success at the national level and was still being led by the man who guided the team to the best season in school history. The sky was the limit, even though things had stalled by 2000 and the prospects weren't nearly as good. 

That was just growing pains, we told ourselves. The Utes would work out the kinks, find the good recruits and eventually develop into a program capable of deep tournament runs. But after 1998, they never came close. 

Yet this was still Utah basketball and even though Rick Majerus looked like he was on the backside of his career, the program was contending and winning conference championships and making the NCAA Tournament. However, there were issues with the program. Majerus sat out all but one game of the 2001 season and then, in 2004, abruptly resigned after the first twenty games. 

That resignation was met with mixed reaction because quietly many Ute fans had wondered if he had taken the program as far as he possibly could. Change was welcomed and after the 2004 season finished with another disappointing early exit, change is exactly what Utah got. 

The Utes replaced the loud and opinionated Majerus with Ray Giacoletti - a person who was extremely reclusive and quiet. Fans who were used to the celebrity that was their former coach had a tough time embracing the more reserved Giacoletti. 

Then he won and everyone couldn't get enough of the Guy in the Red Jacket. He guided the Utes to the Sweet Sixteen in his first season and everything was right in the world again. Utah football had just finished its best season ever and the Runnin' Utes were producing their best season since the '98 campaign. To top it off, Utah became the first school ever to have the #1 pick in both the NBA and NFL drafts in the same year.

Giacoletti looked every bit the coach Majerus was and he lacked the baggage. It seemed like the perfect fit - until Andrew Bogut left for the NBA. Nothing has been the same since for Utah basketball. They haven't even come close to sniffing the success they did in 2005, even though Giacoletti was replaced by Jim Boylen. 

The program hit its lowest point in modern history in 2006 and though things looked up in 2007 and 2008, it's hard to shake the recent history that has plagued Utah basketball. Even an NCAA Tournament last year hasn't had much of an impact. The Utes currently sit at 3-4 this season. 

What might be more surprising than Utah's rise in football has been their decline in basketball. Mostly because, prior to 2003, this was very much a basketball school. This was home to legends and the tenth-winningest program in America. They were coming off a decade run only surpassed by a couple schools and had everything seemingly going for them. 

Then they hit the 21st Century Wall and have not been the same since. It's arguable that this has been the worst decade in Utah's modern basketball history - beating even that of the 80s. 

For football, however, it's been the best decade. That isn't up for debate. But what is in store for both programs as we enter the next ten years? 

Honestly, I don't think anyone can answer. We can't answer because I believe if Block U had been around in 1999 and I posed the same question, I doubt anyone predicts horrific basketball struggles and national prominence in football.

If, ten years ago, I had told you one program would finish the era ranked fourth and second, while the other made the post-season, but rarely did anything spectacular - you probably would think I was talking about the basketball team in the former and the football team in the latter. Hell, so would I. Because, in the 90s, that's almost exactly what our football teams and basketball teams did. Outside of 1994 for Utah football, they plodded along and rarely did anything spectacular. The basketball team, though, was churning out one great season after another. That isn't the case now.

I don't know what to expect over the next ten years. But I hope football continues to top itself every few seasons and basketball eventually lives up to its past glories. 

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