Last night, the Arizona Wildcats defeated South Carolina in the College World Series and claimed the conference's 9th NCAA championship - leading the way for all conferences (the SEC was 2nd at 8). Once again, the Pac-12 proves it really is the Conference of Champions.
It also proves just how far behind Utah athletics is from really carrying its Pac-12 weight. The Utes haven't won a national championships since claiming the NCAA Skiing Championship in 2003 - nearly ten years ago.
That's not bad and certainly better than a great deal of BCS schools. However, it's obvious the program has to improve its standing. Fortunately, the University understands this need and has started investing in a campaign to raise funds for those smaller sports.
Because, let's be honest, the meat of the NCAA championships come from outside basketball (and remember, football titles are not officially sanctioned NCAA events). So, while football & basketball certainly drive the athletic bus, the lesser known programs, the smaller programs, are important in their own right.
The good news is that Utah has had a solid footing in a few of these smaller sports. As I mentioned, the ski team has the distinction of being the last program from the University to win a NCAA title. In fact, they've won 10 championships in their history and are only rivaled by Colorado at the Pac-12 level.
Gymnastics, of course, is also a sport where Utah excels. Unfortunately, though they're routinely in the championship discussion, they have failed to win a national championship in 17 years and, this past season, finished fifth overall. This is a program, the Red Rocks, who can definitely deliver Utah another championship in the foreseeable future, even if they've failed to win one in almost twenty years.
Right now, those are the two most likely programs to win a NCAA championship for Utah.
Beyond skiing and gymnastics, though, Utah has produced solid programs in men's and women's basketball. The former has already won a championship (1944) and also played for a championship in our lifetime (1998). The latter, the Lady Utes, were an overtime away from the Final Four only a few seasons ago. They eventually lost to Maryland, who went on to win the whole thing, but came amazingly close to potentially winning it all that year.
Men's basketball is at its lowest level in program history and the climb back, to the point where even making the NCAA Tournament will be an accomplishment, could take years. So, I don't anticipate them contending for a national championship anytime soon - and when I say contending, I'm not saying Final Four good, but maybe Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight good. The last Utah team I felt could possibly make a run if things broke their way was the '05 Andrew Bogut-led Runnin' Utes. As for the Lady Utes, they're in far better position to compete for something than the men's team. This past season, they made the WNIT, beat Utah State in the opening round and lost to fellow conference mate Washington in the second round (the Huskies would go on to lose in the quarterfinals).
Utah women's basketball team proved over the span of the Mountain West Conference's history to be the most successful and consistently good program there. They made the NCAA Tournament routinely and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen twice and the Elite Eight once. However, in the Pac-12, the program struggled a bit. In their inaugural season, they finished 16-16 and 8-10 in the conference - which was only good for 8th.
But there is a template for success here, especially with Pac-12 affiliation now helping with recruiting. The women's basketball program was certainly dynamite under Elaine Elliott and the hope is that it can continue under Anthony Levrets, who took over for Elliott when she took a leave of absence in 2010. Already, he has guided the Utes to the NCAA Tournament, doing so in Utah's final season of the Mountain West. They did eventually lose to second-seeded Notre Dame, but, like I said, a template for success is there. If you think about it, though they don't get much fan support, there is no reason the women's basketball program can't succeed. Will they ever win a national championship? Probably not. But this isn't necessarily about winning one and instead about positioning the program to make a run at one - like they did in 2006.
After that, though, the contenders fade and you see more and more struggle from Utah's athletic programs.
Utah baseball, which has historically been a non-factor, did see some glimpses of greatness the final few seasons in the Mountain West, making the NCAA Tournament in 2009 and contending for the conference championship in 2011. However, their first season in the Pac-12 ended about as badly as it can get, as the Utes finished 7-23 and at the bottom of the conference.
To be sure, though, there were highlights. They did end Utah Valley's 32-game win streak and did knock off Arizona once. But it was a season filled mostly with defeat and though there has been reason to be optimistic in the past, namely their tournament run in 2009, on the whole, the program has struggled. In the Pac-12, where two Pac-12 teams made the College World Series & five the NCAA Tournament (UCLA, Arizona, Stanford & Oregon were all #1 seeds), it's going to be very difficult finding ground to compete.
Even in the Mountain West, more often than not, the program was better than almost half the league. Not anymore. They're probably, on the whole, the worst program in the Pac-12. Will that change? It's possible. It will take investment, though. Sure, Utah weather, specifically in March during the height of the baseball schedule, isn't the best for this sport, however, Washington State, Oregon State, and Oregon have all fielded good teams in the past. The Beavers won a championship not too long ago and while I would never dare suggest we could ever be on that level, with a bit more commitment, I think this program can move up into the middle of the conference, or at least out of the cellar. Maybe I'm being too optimistic here, and you're more than welcome to call me out in the comment section, but I'm not entirely sold on the idea that our baseball program should constantly find its way to the bottom of the conference every year.
It would be nice, as is happening with the softball team, if the school built the team its own stadium. Currently, the Utes play out of Spring Mobile Ballpark, and while a nice stadium, it's not a college stadium. It was built for Salt Lake City's AAA baseball team in the mid-90s and that is its primary tenant (the Salt Lake Bees). I would love to see a 2,000 or so seat stadium built on campus, so that the baseball team isn't forced to play in a stadium four or so miles away.
But I understand that isn't a concern right now. The stadium itself is beautiful and definitely nicer than a great deal of college ballparks, so, I'm assuming the program is satisfied with its position.
Beyond those programs, I think we could see a huge improvement from the women's soccer team, which has established itself as a solidly regional program (they did finish their first season in the Pac-12 5th, the highest overall placement of a Utah program this year) and I think, with Pac-12 inclusion, their success will only balloon. In fact, of the western teams, only a handful, UCLA, Portland and Stanford, have produced an overall better winning percentage the past few years. Yet the program hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2006 and they'll definitely need to sustain, and beef up, their success to keep up with the Pac-12, whose champion, Stanford, won the NCAA Championship last season. Utah lost 4-0 to them, showing the gap between the muddled middle and the elite of the conference.
In summery (and I know this article is awfully long), Utah has a good foundation for success in the Pac-12 outside football & men's basketball. I'm optimistic this program can thrive and one day, maybe next year, deliver the conference another championship. We're now part of the Conference of Champions and I think, with that designation, it's our responsibility to provide the conference with a few more. Yes, we're never going to have an elite program, at least without some time passing, but we can be a good athletic program. Gymnastics and skiing are our best chances at winning a championship in the next few years. Women's basketball is definitely in position to build on its past success, and women's soccer very well could thrive in its new home.
I look forward to seeing Utah's Invest in Excellence campaign unfold and the results it brings. The future is bright...but it doesn't mean we don't have work to do.