This is the final installment of a two part series discussing Utah football's darkest days. You can read Part I here
Bill Meek saw marginal success at Utah, but ultimately didn't do enough.
Bill Meek had left Utah after a 7-5 campaign and finished his career here with a 33-31 record. Barely hanging above .500, Utah felt it could do better than Meek and decided to go in a new direction. That direction brought in Tom Lovat, a former high school coach and a man left with the near impossible task of bringing Utah football out of the rut it had fallen into.
Lovat had two problems at Utah. Firstly, he was not up to the task of coaching a college football program, not even one as bad as Utah. That was painfully obvious as the team completely collapsed the three years he was here. But another major factor in those struggles came from the fact Utah was getting abused by both BYU and Utah State in terms of instate recruiting. This had started prior to Lovat and was something compounded by the fact BYU began building its foundation for the most successful run in program history. Those two problems resulted in the worst 3-year stretch for the Utes, one that saw them go a combined 5-28. They would have two 1-win seasons in a row and went 0-6 against BYU and Utah State. Utah football had hit the bottom of the barrel and it appeared things would only get worse before they could even start getting better.
The 1974 Utes went 1-10, defeating only New Mexico that year.
The Lovat experiment had gone horribly wrong. But what was worse for the Utes really had nothing to do with their program at all. 40 miles down south, BYU was quickly becoming a western power and making a name for themselves nationally. That meant the Utes, who had dominated instate recruiting along with Utah State up to the early 70s, were facing the prospects of completely being shutout of vital players needed to win in the Western Athletic Conference. It was looking bleak and many wondered if the Utes would ever be successful again in football.
It was at this time the Utah athletic department began pumping more money into the basketball program. Utah basketball was by far the most successful of the two and missteps when it came to the football program seemed to only solidify basketball's spot as the top athletic program. Though all was not lost after the Lovat disaster, as Utah hired the most winning coach in Long Beach State football history.
Howard had won 69% of his games at Long Beach State -- a university that no longer has a football program -- and was Utah's next choice to take over a dying (or dead, depending on who you asked) football program. And while the hire didn't appear to be the homerun many Utah fans were hoping for, it was probably one of the most important hires in Utah football history, even if it seemed early on that wasn't the case.
Utah was now playing catch up with both Utah State and BYU. The early 1970s left Utah sitting in a position they had never been in before, the third best team in the state. That slowly began to change, but it was a transformation that would take nearly two decades, and some enduring by Utah fans, before it was finally seen.
Taking over a 3-8 football team was not an easy task for Wayne Howard, but he seemed to be up to it. He discussed how Utah should dominate the state, beat BYU and become the power every Ute fan had been pining for. However talk was cheap and the Utes appeared devoid of talent and even worse in terms of depth. And Howard's first season proved to be difficult, as the Utes limped to a 3-8 finish. However by Howard's second season, things looked as if they were heading in the right direction. The Utes went 8-3, completely reversing their record from the year before, defeated BYU -- for the first time since Edwards had taken over in '72 -- and Utah State. The Utes were denied a berth to a bowl game, but things were looking up and Wayne Howard declared that Utah's victory over BYU was a sign of things to come. That statement, along with a successful sophomore season with Utah, led to optimism not seen since the days of Ray Nagel.
Yet as quickly as things turned around for Utah in 1978, the program faced more troubles. Lack of depth and youth sent Utah back to mediocrity in 1979, as they slipped to 6-6. That season concluded with an embarrassing 27-0 loss to BYU in Provo and left many wondering if past troubles were returning. Their fears seemed confirmed after the Utes struggled to a 5-5-1 finish in 1980. That season included a 56-6 loss to BYU in Salt Lake City, at the time the worst loss to the Cougars in Utah football history.
While Howard had taken a horrendous team to mild respectability, Utah still suffered from the fact they were taking a backseat to BYU -- hell, they weren't even in the same galaxy with the Cougars back then. That wouldn't change under Howard, but the team made great strides to be competitive and 1981 would once again be a glimpse of what Utah was capable of doing when things went right.
1981 saw the Utes win 8-games for the second time under Howard. This time they went 8-2-1, yet again were denied a bowl game. However with all its positives, this season would also set Utah back a few years. Mostly because it would be Wayne Howard's last in Utah, as he resigned due to the pressure and what he perceived as overzealous BYU fans making too many unkind threats. It would be a resignation that stalled the progress of Utah football and once again returned them to the back of the pack.
After Howard left the program, it seemed as if the Utes had made the homerun hire many were hoping for five years prior. That hire was Toledo head coach Chuck Stobart, a seasoned veteran who served as an offensive assistant under Bo Schembechler at Miami, Ohio and Michigan. Prior to joining Utah in 1982, Stobart had led Toledo to the MAC Championship and a 9-3 season. He was perceived at the time as one of college football's up and coming coaches and a huge get for the University. Yet that success he had at Toledo would not translate into success with the Utes.
Taking over a team that had gone 8-2-1 the year before, Stobart struggled to a 5-6 record in his first season. That season the Utes once again found themselves losing to BYU, this time by a slim margin of 5 points. They followed that season up with another 5-6 season that ended with a 55-7 waxing at the hands of the Cougars. That loss barely missed out on being the worst in Holy War history. With consecutive 5-6 seasons, Utah football had lost all it gained under Wayne Howard. That continued in 1984, as the Utes finished 6-5-1, a season which saw Utah lose to Washington State by 2 in Pullman; a 6 point loss to Tennessee in Knoxville; a 7 point loss to Wyoming in Laramie; a 3 point loss to Hawaii in Honolulu and finally, a 10 point loss to BYU in Salt Lake City. That year the Cougars would go on to win the national championship, crippling the Utah program even more.
After the 1984 season, Chuck Stobart was fired, another coach in a long list of others who never fully got off the ground here. Stobart compiled a record of 16-17 during his three years and while he never really was successful with the Utes, he did pull in a solid recruiting class that would offer the next head coach his best season with Utah.
And though Chuck Stobart was an offensive coach who went on to have success as an assistant with Pittsburgh, USC and more recently, Ohio State, he could never turn Utah into an offensive power. That resulted in the school making a hire that would be later criticized by Utah fans.
Taking a cue from their rivals down south, the Utes went after a coach with ties to the West Coast offense. An offense that was proving to be a very successful one throughout both the college and NFL games. The innovator of this offense, Bill Walsh, had originally employed it at Stanford, where Jim Fassel was an offensive coordinator to one of his successors, Jack Elway (the father of John Elway). Fassel came to Utah after spending a few years running a successful Cardinal offense. That gave the Utah athletic department hope that it would be enough to revive the Ute program and bring it up to par with that of BYU. That experiment didn't work, for a myriad of reasons.
Most notably, the Utes produced solid offensively, but failed to recruit the horses needed to field at least a mediocre defense. That often left Utah losing a game 56-49, as they did against Air Force in 1988. The only success Fassel really saw during his five years with Utah came in his first season, where the Utes went 8-4. However that was with a team heavily recruited by Stobart and after many of those players graduated, the Utes slipped to 2-9, before slightly improving to 5-7 and then 6-5. That 6-5 season was memorable to most Utah fans, but mostly because of how it ended.
The Utes entered the 1988 Holy War with a 5-5 record and no hopes for a bowl game. And in true Fassel fashion, the team, under the leadership of quarterback Scott Mitchell, put up a ton of points. Yet uncharacteristically, it was Utah's defense that stepped it up, holding BYU to 28 points on their way to a 29 point victory.
It proved to be only one of a few highlights in the Fassel era as the next year BYU would get revenge and slaughter the Utes 70-31. That signaled an end to the Fassel run, a turbulent five years that gave Utah one of its biggest wins ever against BYU and their most embarrassing loss. Five offensively entertaining seasons, that also were so very frustrating because of terrible defenses and unexplained losses.
After the Utes, Jim Fassel would go on to coach in the NFL, most notably with the New York Giants, where he led them to the 2000 Super Bowl.
Fassel was fired after the 1989 season and once again Utah was looking for a new head coach. The Utes would hire Ron McBride, a former assistant -- along with current Fresno State head coach Pat Hill -- under Wayne Howard when he was with the Utes. That connection proved to be important, as McBride has often said that he fell in love with the state during his short stay here in the late 70s.
McBride would go on to lead the Utes to one of the most successful runs in school history. He guided them to six bowls, when the team had only played in two prior to him taking over. But most importantly, he is credited for Utah leveling the playing field with BYU. He did this through a balance of a conservative offense built around the run and a strong defense. The Utes in the 1990s rose to regional prominence and even flirted with national dominance. His leadership paved the way for Urban Meyer and subsequently Kyle Whittingham. McBride took over a program stalled in failure and returned them to respectability. It took 32 years, but the Utes finally found a way back to the top and that has made Utah one of the most successful programs since the 1990s. A trend no doubt every Ute fan hopes continues well into the 21st Century.