SOUTH BEND IN - NOVEMBER 13: Head coach Kyle Whittingham of the Utah Utes watches as his team takes on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 13 2010 in South Bend Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Utah 28-3. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
I don't want to obsess over the rivalry hiatus like many in the media are doing. What's done is done and no amount of complaining is going to change the fact the Utes have decided to take a two-year break after 2013.
But I would like to take one final look at the reasoning behind both keeping the rivalry an annual event and postponing it for a year or two, yet committing to the game in the future. I think it's important for the dialogue that we get an understanding of both sides because let's be honest, this debate isn't going to move forward if we're left with people screaming that Utah is somehow the devil.
So, while I'm not one of those folks who's upset with the rivalry taking a hiatus, I think I know where the anger is coming from, at least in part, and that's what I want to talk about first.
There is a lot of history here for Utah and BYU fans. The idea of it not being an annual event is definitely startling in the sense the rivalry has been one constant in both program's histories and not having it there, even if only briefly, just doesn't feel right. It's absolutely a valid concern. There is no doubt that, in 2014, we'll feel a little off when we look at the schedule and realize, for the first time since World War II, BYU isn't on there.
For better or worse, our programs have been inexplicably linked for pretty much our entire lives. Everything we've ever done, and I say this on both sides of the rivalry, is often looked through the prism of the other. Our success, and theirs, is compared side by side because that's what rivals do, whether on the football field or in the family unit. If you have a sibling, you know all too well you're in constant competition. BYU is our brother and the idea of being away from them, no matter how much heartburn they give us or how much we roll our eyes at their actions, is a bit hard to reconcile - especially for those fans who experienced beatdowns and humiliations.
Just as it looks like the Utes might be ready to break open this rivalry in a 1980s BYU-like dominant fashion, the program pulls back and announces a dramatic, and swift, change to the game. I think those loudest critics of the rivalry hiatus might just be from those fans who sat through the 70s and 80s and put up with the constant Cougar blowouts. That's not to say all who are opposed to the recent deal are from that era, or those who support the hiatus, or the dropping of the rivalry altogether, are from a newer generation, but I get the feeling this is who makes up the bulk of the pro-rivalry crowd, whether here at Block U or other places.
No matter who they are, though, they're not wrong. Their perception of this rivalry might be different than your perception or my perception of it, but in the end, since we're fans, there really is no wrong answer here. If you oppose the hiatus, you do so through the history of the rivalry, the fact it's been a staple in your cheering for Utah for so many years and that's perfectly justified. To be honest, on the whole, I probably agree more with those who don't want to see the rivalry die than those who are advocating just ending it. I've actually said as much on this blog and continue to stand by the belief that Utah should do everything possible to preserve the rivalry - even if it means making concessions.
That's where Utah's point of view enters this discussion. The Utes are not coming at this rivalry from the point of view of the fans. They can't do that. They're not fans. They're the actual people who have investment in this game and the overall results. I know that sounds like I'm dismissing the fan point of view, and that is not my intent. But Kyle Whittingham and Chris Hill have undoubtedly sat down and debated over this very issue. They have decided to do what they believe is best for the football program. You might not agree with their rationale, but in the end, that doesn't mean they're wrong.
Whittingham, more than anyone in the Salt Lake media or within the message boards, knows what is best for Utah football. Instead of looking at this as Utah trying to kill the rivalry, look at it from the perspective of Utah working to do what is best for their program. For some reason, Whittingham has decided that in years where they can schedule Michigan, or others of equal caliber, it doesn't make much sense to have the additional burden of playing BYU. You can take that to mean they're scared and you can take that to mean whatever you want. In the end, it was Whittingham's decision to make that choice, and while he hasn't definitively reasoned that choice, I think we suspect why he's made it and, ultimately, it's one I agree with.
I think we're quick to forget that Utah is still trying to find their place in the Pac-12. This isn't the Mountain West where they're forced to play BYU every year in a game that has a direct impact on how they do in conference play. Right now, this whole Pac-12 thing is still foreign to the program. We don't know at what level they'll be able to compete consistently. We don't know how good, or bad, they can be in their new conference. As they continue to find their place in their new home, I suspect Whittingham does not want to jeopardize everything he's worked so hard to build here by over-scheduling.
I get to some that sounds cowardly. I see it differently, though. I think it sounds smart. When you first start out as a freshman in college, it's generally wise you don't inundate yourself with a plethora of hard courses. You schedule smart and allow yourself that transition period until you're completely assimilated to the point where you feel comfortable with harder classes. Even though we've played one season in the Pac-12, there is still some uncertainty and until that uncertainty is resolved, and we've got the level of recruiting and depth to compete year in and year out, or at least prove we can, I think Whittingham is going to be cautious.
Looking at it from that point of view, knowing Utah is coming off a season where they finished with a losing conference record and still is trying to muscle their way into a permanent standing in the Pac-12 pecking order, is it that irrational to water down the schedule somewhat in years where they schedule, you know, the winningest program in college football history?
I don't think so. I think Utah's actions are perfectly reasonable for a program still trying to figure things out at this level. The local media can rake them over the coals for it and some can suggest they're ducking the Cougars, but I look at it as not overloading with so much uncertainty out there - both with their Pac-12 position and college football as a whole. Whittingham & Hill decided that in the seasons they play Michigan, the addition of BYU just doesn't make sense. That's their call. It's not cowardice or betrayal and instead, at least this is how I see it, it's just cautious and smart scheduling.
Yet when you simplify it down to that, where it really isn't malicious, there is no major story here. So, the media has to gin up a controversy that shouldn't exist and does so by arguing a point that doesn't exist. Because that's happened, the most likely reason behind Utah's actions are ignored and they're turned into the bogeyman for it.
Hopefully when the dust settles and the chatter stops, the media here can present both sides and allow the viewers, and listeners, and readers to develop their own conclusion on this whole debate.
But I'm not holding my breath.