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What if ... '02's Utes do just enough?

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What ifs have always proven fascinating because they take what we know and open an entire Pandora's Box of questions. What if John F. Kennedy hadn't been shot in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963? Is there a Vietnam War and does he secure reelection a year later? Does he have the support and legislative nohow to push through the Civil Rights Act? Is his presidency ultimately undone by an affair that tarnishes his legacy for generations to come?

We remember Kennedy as an inspiring, youthful president who dared America to dream. He's consistently regarded as one of the best presidents of the 20th Century and yet, his time in the White House was brief. He was only president for 1,036 days. Only six other presidents spent fewer time in the Oval Office and two of them, Millard Fillmore and Gerald Ford, were never elected.

But we remember Kennedy maybe more for what wasn't accomplished and instead what we felt should have been accomplished had he lived. In fact, many Americans who were old enough to remember the Kennedy assassination with such clarity look at that moment as the day America lost its innocence. In some regard, it makes sense. The 1960s saw a massive lurch toward instability both internationally and domestically. Two other prominent figures, one the President's brother, were also gunned down in the 60s - Martin Luther King and then Robert Kennedy. We had protests. We had Kent State. We had a draft and an ugly war that divided a nation and often ruined lives. There was a movement for civil rights, which spilled out onto our streets and erupted in the burning of churches and it all seemed to culminate in the 1970s when a president resigned and the office he served tainted for life.

It all seemed to begin on that mild November day in Dallas. Had Kennedy survived, or not been shot at all, the prevailing thought is that much of the heartache and struggle of the 1960s and '70s could have been avoided.

The truth is, no one knows if any of that would have been avoided. In fact, long before Kennedy's assassination, the United States was crumbling from within. We had riots and sit-ins and beatings even during the Kennedy Administration. And it was President Kennedy who initiated what would later become the Vietnam War.

There is no guarantee the path we set out on in 1960 dramatically shifts if a bullet had missed and a President survived. And that's the case with every what if. Because it didn't happen, we can't say for certainty anything would have been different. But it doesn't stop us from asking the same question that's been asked for a generation now - what if John F. Kennedy hadn't been shot?

What if...

Andy Staples wrote a great article last week about a what if involving college football. It was a what if that actually impacted Utah, as the premise of his whole alternate reality is that Chris Leak gains just one yard and leads Florida to victory over LSU. The effects ripple throughout college football.

Ron Zook gets an extra year as the Gators' head coach. Without an offer from Florida, Urban Meyer still leaves Utah, but this time accepts the Notre Dame job, which had been offered alongside the career move to Gainsville.

Utah's path, of course, doesn't diverge much from here - until 2010. Because Meyer takes the Irish job, he struggled and never lives up to expectations in South Bend. Beyond that, through other twists, the Big 12 breaks up, Les Miles ends up coaching Michigan, Nick Saban Florida and the Pac-16 actually does happen...with Utah making up the 16th member. One of their conference foes turns out to be Urban Meyer's Stanford Cardinal.

It's an interesting look at how just one little play could possibly alter college football history forever. Saban coaching the Gators? Meyer actually being fired? Insane! Right?


But that's the beauty of the what if. Who's to say he's wrong? You can't say he's right, that's for sure, but likewise, you can't definitively say he's wrong, either, because it never happened.

So, what is Utah's what if? I actually touched on a what if for the 1994 Utes back in '07, however, I didn't go into detail about the ramifications. But what if one change, one season, maybe one play or one game, completely altered the history of the Utah football program?

What if, in 2002, McBride and the Utes did just enough?

That season was a tough one for Utah as they finished with their second losing record in three seasons and it ultimately forced Chris Hill to fire the coach who built the Utes into a solid program and owned the second most wins in program history.

It certainly wasn't an easy decision and one that quickly divided the fan base once it came down. Today, though, we know it was the right call. McBride had to go. He was holding the program back and as hard as it was to say goodbye, it ushered in the greatest decade in Utah football history.

But what if it didn't happen?

The 2002 Utes, fresh off an 8-4 campaign, were the preseason favorites to win the Mountain West Conference. They returned a great deal of their talent from the '01 team that defeated USC in the Las Vegas Bowl and came five points away from actually winning the conference.

This was supposed to be the year McBride finally won an outright conference title. They had come close in years past, played it right down to the wire, but an inevitable loss, often to a lesser opponent, derailed their championship hopes. In fact, of the two titles McBride won at Utah (1995 WAC championship, 1999 Mountain West championship), none were outright and Utah hadn't won an outright title in 44 years.

If it wasn't going to happen in '02, it wasn't going to happen.

And that season got off to a good start. The Utes opened 2002 with a 2-0 record and then went down to Tucson for a finish that is still debated among Utah fans today. Was Josh Lyman's knee down out of bounds on what very well could have been a game-winning touchdown? The referee said yes. The replay said something else.

In the end, the Wildcats won 23-17 and, even though there would be nine games left, the season, and McBride's career, pretty much ended on that field at Arizona Stadium. Utah could not rebound from the emotionally exhausting defeat and would drop their next five games, eliminating the Utes from a bowl berth and all but handing McBride his walking papers. A few days after Utah's lackluster 13-6 win over BYU in the Holy War, Chris Hill made it official and fired McBride. There would be no second reprieve, as he saw after 2000's 4-7 season, and, after 13 seasons and 88 wins, Utah was in search for a new head coach.

But what if Lyman is given that touchdown? With only minutes to play, maybe Arizona scores to regain the lead, making the controversial touchdown moot anyway. But what if it was enough to win the Utes the game? What if, after a 24-23 victory, the Utes leave Tucson 3-0?


The season now becomes real. 3-0, with a road win over always tough Arizona, and the chatter begins - THIS IS THE YEAR.

A week later, in Ann Arbor, Utah comes within a field goal of defeating Michigan. It's a tough loss, but the Wolverines entered the game ranked 14th and boy did our Utes put up a fight - they even almost won it! Moral victories are still losses, but the effort was there and if Utah can bring that for the remainder of the season, the sky really is the limit.


Confident, the Utes return home and never blow a large halftime lead against the Air Force Falcons. Instead, they ride that pedal until it delivers a stunning, and rare, blowout win against a foe who, let's be honest, was a constant pain in the butt. Just like that, almost halfway through the season, Utah is 4-1 and 1-0 in the Mountain West.


Uh oh. San Diego State blitzes Utah. It wouldn't be a McBride season without at least one McBride-type loss, right? But still, the Utes are very much in control of their own destiny.


Fortunately, at home, Utah does something they rarely did under McBride - they knock off Colorado State. It's a huge win, a season-defining win. With that victory, the Utes now snatch the keys to the Mountain West from the Rams and seize control of first place.


Though New Mexico has been a state of doom for Utah in the past, the Utes buck recent history and roll through the Lobos in Albuquerque. They then follow that up with a lopsided victory over UNLV and, in typical McBride fashion, stub their toe against a lesser team - this time, Wyoming.

Though, as it always was under McBride, Utah now can't win an outright title, the Utes do wrap up a shared championship with a close, come from behind victory over the BYU Cougars. Utah ends the regular season 8-3 and 5-2 in the Mountain West - tied with Colorado State.

Since they won the head-to-head battle between the Rams, the Utes receive their first-ever invite to the Liberty Bowl, where they'll take on TCU.

In the Liberty Bowl, Utah can't overcome the Frogs' stingy defense and lose in a very low scoring affair, finishing McBride's 13th season 8-4.

Though they failed to win the Mountain West outright and some fans are grumbling over the disappointing finish, Chris Hill, under mounting pressure from the local community, extends McBride's contract a year and congratulates the head coach on a solid season.

Kyle Whittingham flirts with accepting the BYU defensive coordinator position, which had been offered to him by Gary Crowton after the '02 season, but after a long talk with McBride and his family, he ultimately decides to stay on the Hill for another season.

Urban Meyer, a relatively unknown head coach, becomes the leading candidate for the Wyoming Cowboys job, but ultimately opts to return to Bowling Green for another season.

Wyoming then hires Joe Glenn, who coached at Montana.

Prior to the start of the '03 season, the 8-4 Utes are batted around as favorites to win the Mountain West for a second straight year. With Brett Elliott, who took over halfway through the '02 season, expected back to lead the '03 Utes, optimism is growing in Salt Lake City for that long elusive outright conference championship.

After spring ball, McBride announces Elliott is once again the starter and by fall, the Utes are preparing for the start of the season, having received votes in the preseason top-25, though barely missing out on being ranked. They were, however, predicted by the media to win the conference for a second straight year.

Utah opens the '03 season with a so-so victory over instate rival Utah State and then plans for their big showdown with the Texas A&M Aggies. This is supposed to be the game that puts the Utes on the national map for the season, but instead, it's known for a lopsided, ugly and embarrassing loss where Utah not only went down in defeat, but lost their starting quarterback on a late-hit early in the fourth quarter.

After the game, McBride concedes it's unlikely Elliott will return this season. Fans, agitated that the coaching staff kept Elliott in the game, even though they trailed 42-10 entering the fourth quarter, take to message boards to rail against McBride.

During his weekly television show, McBride says he still hasn't decided who will start the Cal game that Thursday, a game which has been picked up by ESPN.

On Tuesday, two days before the Utah-Cal game, McBride announces that Lance Rice will start.

In his first start since the start of the '02 season, Rice struggles and the Utes lose to the Golden Bears 31-14.

At 1-2, fan frustration grows and one fan even creates a website.

Utah's troubles continue with a 21-17 loss to Colorado State a week later and they're compounded by a 17-7 loss to Oregon in Salt Lake City on October 3rd. At 1-4, and the season appearing all but lost, the Utes finally break through and end their four-game losing skid against San Diego State. It's a huge win that sparks a mini-win streak that continues through two more games. It ends at the hands of Air Force, who defeats Utah in overtime, 24-21.

The Utes salvage their season, however, with victories over Wyoming and BYU, to finish '03 6-5. It's barely good enough to receive an invite to the San Francisco Bowl, where Utah loses to Boston College 28-14.

After the season, it appears Hill is leaning toward not bringing McBride back. However, Gordon Monson writes a scathing article condemning the possibility and suggesting such a fire would doom Utah to irrelevance for eternity. Though it's not entirely the reason, as many boosters once again show their support for McBride, who's now won two-straight against BYU and gone to two-straight bowl games, Hill decides to keep McBride for at least one more season.

Urban Meyer accepts the new head job at Cincinnati, replacing the fired Rick Minter. He calls the job a 'dream' and plays up his Ohio roots.

After the season, Alex Smith transfers to a small D1-AA school in California.

Lance Rice graduates. Elliott makes a recovery and is expected to start for the '04 Utes.

Utah enters the '04 season predicted to finish in the top-half of the league. Elliott, and a solid returning offense, as well as key defensive components, lead many Ute fans to proclaim that '2004 might just be that year!'

It isn't.

Utah opens the '04 season with a surprisingly solid win over the Texas A&M Aggies, but their season is undone in Tucson a week later after Ricky Williams is given a last second touchdown, even though replays clearly show he's bobbling the football as he falls out of bounds. Arizona wins 24-21.

Though they bounce back with a rout of Utah State, Utah blows a large halftime lead against Air Force and falls to 2-2 on the season. It's the last time they'll have a .500 record. The devastating blown lead starts a three game slide that only ends with a decisive win over UNLV. But victory can't be sustained and the Utes falter against San Diego State and then lose to Colorado State, before ending the year with back-to-back victories over Wyoming and BYU.

Utah finishes the 2004 season 5-6 and finally, after 15 seasons, Ron McBride is fired as Utah's head coach. Gordon Monson spits out another article damning the move and predicting a new ice age for the football program. He might be right.

Without a coach, fans start drawing up the list. Some want Urban Meyer, who's just guided the Bearcats to a 9-4 season. However, Meyer is an unlikely choice, as he's making bank for a non-BCS coach at Cincinnati. The program is also set to join the Big East for the '05 season. Utah can't compete with that.

Kyle Whittingham is another option, but fans are wary of hiring from within a failed coaching staff. Hill seems to share the same sentiments, as Whittingham's name barely is mentioned. That is, until BYU fires Gary Crowton.

Cecil O. Samuelson, a Utah graduate, though President of BYU, calls up Whittingham and, with the backing of the athletic department and many high ranking members of the LDS Church, offers him the job. Whittingham has to think it over, but with no offer coming from Utah, he accepts.

Whittingham is named the new head coach of the Brigham Young Cougars on November 8th, 2004.

Utah continues its search.

Finally, after interviewing some NFL and college assistants, including Norm Chow, the Utes announce Gregg Brandon, the head coach of the Bowling Green Falcons, as their next head coach.

Brandon promises a high-octane, spread 'em out offense that's unlike anything Utah has seen before.

His resume certainly wows the media locally. He was Urban Meyer's OC at Bowling Green and successfully kept the program humming for a season after Meyer left to take the Cincinnati job. Of course, some fans are skeptical, as they've heard of high-flyin' offenses before and that often meant dreadful defenses to go along with 'em. With no Kyle Whittingham, a staple in the Utes' defense for almost a decade, who's to say the program won't return to the days of Jim Fassel? Utah fans certainly don't want that.

Tim Beckman, who was Brandon's defensive coordinator at Bowling Green, accepts the same position at Utah.

In Brandon's first season, the Utes struggle to adapt to the offensive changes and their new quarterback. The team rattles off a fairly decent win streak in the middle of the season, but end the year on a disappointing note with a 35-28 loss to Kyle Whittingham and BYU.

Brandon and Utah finish the year 5-6.

Year two isn't much better, though the offense shows some promise, especially with an upset in the final game of the season against BYU - crushing the Cougars' dream of busting the BCS.

The victory gains Brandon almost unlimited goodwill among Utah fans, even though, for the second straight year, the Utes fail to finish with a winning record (their loss to Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl gave them a 6-7 record). In his third year, with a senior quarterback, the Utes shock #11th ranked UCLA and roll through the Mountain West conference almost unscathed. At the end of the season, 10-1 Utah enters the Holy War against 11-0 BYU in a game that has easily been pegged the Biggest Game in Mountain West History. BYU ultimately routs the Utes and narrowly passes Hawaii to gain a bid to the BCS - only the second non-BCS team to do so (Boise State did it a year earlier as the first). Utah goes on to beat UCLA in the 2007 Las Vegas Bowl. Brandon receives a contract extension.

Kyle Whittingham and BYU open the '08 season in the top-ten with many publications predicting a possible national championship run. Utah opens just outside the top-25 and quickly fades from the rankings with an opening loss to Urban Meyer's Michigan Wolverines. It was Meyer's first game with the Wolverines since replacing the retired Lloyd Carr at the end of the '07 season.

Utah bounces back from their loss to Michigan and win four-straight before falling, at home, to Oregon State. Brandon takes the blame when he inexplicably called for a field goal, even though Utah was trailing by 6 with only two minutes left to go in the game.

"I thought we could get the ball back," he says. Gordon Monson mocks him in his Salt Lake Tribune article and demands his resignation.

Hill is quiet on the matter.

The Utes, though, do pick up their winning ways and do well enough until losing, at home, to TCU in early November. The season ends with a disappointing 42-21 loss to BYU at home. It's the Cougars' 11th win of the season, but due to their road loss to the Frogs earlier in the season, BYU loses out on a BCS bid to Boise State. Utah finishes the '08 season 9-4.

In 2009, Utah slumps to a losing record and Brandon quickly comes under fire, especially after BYU busts the BCS for the second time in program history. Kyle Whittingham's name is floated around for a few high-profiled jobs, including USC, but he opts to stay in Provo, continuing to build his alma mater into a power.

In the summer of 2010, rumors swirl that the Pac-10 is about to reach a mega-deal with a good portion of the Big 12. But the deal falls apart at the last second and, to placate a growing number of dissatisfied Big 12 members, the conference expands, taking TCU & BYU. The Pac-10 briefly thinks of expanding, but with Colorado opting to stay in the Big 12 and no other viable multiple options, they sit pat at ten.

Boise State accepts an invite to join the Mountain West Conference. Both BYU and TCU will play out the 2010 season before moving on to the Big 12.

In '10, Utah struggles to another losing season and Gregg Brandon, after six seasons, and no conference championships, is fired. He's replaced by BYU defensive coordinator Gary Andersen. Kyle Whittingham's Cougars end their final season in the Mountain West with 11-wins and a top-fifteen ranking. TCU busts the BCS. With the inclusion of BYU & TCU, the Big 12 is wildly seen as a true rival to the SEC.

Utah remains in the Mountain West.