There was a time in Utah football where an 8-5 season along with a bowl victory would have been celebrated as near perfection. A time where victories over BYU were few and far between and even winning seasons were cause for glee. It was a point in Utah football where the program looked lost and the future even bleaker than that of the past. It was, to put it not so lightly, a coaching graveyard and the program began hemorrhaging, something the athletic department tried fixing with quick solutions, though none of what they did ever fixed anything.
For fans like myself, it's hard to remember Utah not being competitive. I grew up at a time when Utah was almost always good and anything else was simply not possible. There were great years ('94 and 2004), along with good years ('99, 2001 and 2003), but there were rarely bad years ('00 and '02). No, we were accustom to beating BYU, getting a bowl berth and then winning that bowl.
But it wasn't always this good and it really wasn't that long ago that Utah football was nothing more than a near automatic win for most of the WAC and dominant football programs that only played the Utes because the Utah athletic department needed the cash. Utah football back then was essentially in the same boat UNLV is in today. A sorry program destined for complete failure.
Their turn toward football obscurity, however, is hard to peg. Some believe it happened in the 70s, while others feel it started the second Ike Armstrong, Utah's most successful coach, hung it up and retired. For me, I actually tend to side with the former, because I honestly do believe Utah football was competitive, though not great, for much of the 50s and 60s. Though obviously they were far from being great and there was clearly a gradual decline throughout those two decades. That decline will become more evident as we look at Utah's success and faliure after the Armstrong Era.
Ike Armstrong won 141 games at Utah, the most in school history
Post-Armstrong, toiling in mediocrity
Ike Armstrong is in the College Football Hall of Fame for a reason. He not only won the most games in Utah football history, but he guided the team to 13 conference championships and 5 zero loss seasons. When he retired, Utah was a regional power, a strong enough program to poach "Cactus" Jack Curtice from Texas Western. He came to Utah after leading the Miners to consecutive 8-2-1 seasons. While the coach of Utah, Curtice would win 45 games and 4 conference championships. After some mild success with the Utes, he accepted the same position at Stanford, where he failed miserably.
Ray Nagel was the last semi-successful coach at Utah until Ron McBride took over in 1990
Curtice was replaced by Ray Nagel, who would last 8 years with Utah before accepting the head coaching position at Iowa. Around this time Utah began its steady decline in football and while Nagel had some success (winning the WAC in 1964 and defeating West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl and finishing ranked 14th in the nation), the team was far from being consistent. After that 1964 season, Utah would fail to have a winning season again under Nagel, and by 1970 they were once again searching for a coach.
What's interesting about Nagel is that Utah performed far better until the Skyline Conference dissolved and the Western Athletic Conference was formed. From 1958 to 1961 (the final season in the old Skyline Conference), Utah went 22-19. In the four years after Utah joined the WAC, they went 20-20, but that included their 1964 9-win season. Outside of that season, they had 3 losing campaigns in his final 4 years, compared to only one losing season prior to the formation of the WAC.
Nagel's departure for Iowa essentially ended his coaching career, as he was only there 5 years before being run out of town for a myriad of problems. At Utah Nagel was replaced by Mike Giddings, who would only last two years with the Utes.
Giddings career started decent enough with Utah, as they opened up the season 5-1 and looked poised to make some noise in the WAC. They owned victories over Oregon, Washington State, Arizona and Arizona State, but after getting thumped by BYU, the bottom fell out. Utah finished the 1966 season on a 5 game losing streak and Giddings never recovered. His second and final season saw the Utes go 4-7 and he was promptly let go after that year.
Even with all the signs Utah football was heading down the wrong path, the program hadn't fallen into complete despair. There was hope, especially with the fact the Utes were still the strongest program in the state of Utah. Yet as much as it appeared the Utes might be capable of turning it around, they could never really get off the ground and that was essentially the embodiment of Bill Meek's six years with Utah.
Meek's arrival at Utah after Giddings left the program was met with optimism. He had been a successful coach at Kansas State and Houston and though he struggled at SMU, his venture into the NFL as an assistant led many to believe he was the man to turn Utah football around. It appeared he would do just that, as in his second season Utah would go 8-2, only losing to Oregon and then Arizona by a single point. He, however, could not sustain that success as, like the coaches before him, Utah would struggle to stay around .500. The 1969 team would be Meek's best while at Utah, as he finished his career here with 33 wins and 31 losses. Meek was fired in 1973 after posting a 7-5 season.
For the second time in 8 years, Utah was looking for a new coach. Meek had relative success with the Utes, though he failed to win a conference championship or guide them to a bowl game. It was his successor however, that would be given the dubious honor of being dubbed the worst coach in Utah history.
I'll have part II, the Lovat years and beyond, next time. Until then, enjoy our 8-5, bowl winning seasons...because it wasn't always this nice.