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From the Stands: Utah/BYU has grown on the field and in the media since 1896

By Shane Roberts, Contributor   |  Posted Feb 23rd, 2012 @ 5:57pm



SALT LAKE CITY - " to the thousands of Utahns who loathe Cougars and to their counterparts who can't stand the Utes, it wouldn't matter. The BYU-Utah game will always be the most important line on the schedule, the most anticipated afternoon of the fall. As long as they meet in late November with their fate and their faith on the line. Utah's Unholy War will continue to rage." (Miller & Rosetta, 251)

ESPN Game Day hosts (l to r) Chris Fowler, Lee Corso (in Swoop head) and Kirk Herbstreit ham it up with a bag of Tostitos and sombreros as they make reference to the Utes beating BYU and possibly getting a bid to the Fiesta Bowl at the end of their broadcast from Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah Saturday November 20, 2004. (Keith Johnson, Deseret News)

The Holy War is what the name of the game is called. The annual Utah/BYU game has become a Thanksgiving-time tradition in the state of Utah. With Utah's move to the Pac-12 Conference and BYU's move into independence that tradition could be in jeopardy. After the 2012 season there is no game, as of now anyway, contracted between the two universities. The scheduling restrictions the Pac-12 puts on Utah with nine conference games and now in a couple years an annual game with a Big-10 team, virtually makes it impossible for the Utes to schedule the Cougars year in and year out. However, in September of 2011 the two teams met for the 93rd time on the football field. In recent years the rivalry has reached unseen success. Utah has crashed the exclusive Bowl Championship Series twice since the 2004 season. Brigham Young University has had five 10-win seasons out of six, a mark never seen in BYU football history. And within the last decade, the media coverage of this event has reached new heights. In 2004, for example, the annual game was highlighted when the very popular ESPN program College Gameday visited the University of Utah campus during the week of the game. The local media as well virtually shut out any other stories just for this week, just for this game. The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News had it on the front page all week, and the student papers ran rampant with excitement.

There was a time, however, when football in this state was just a blip on the radar. The rivalry started in 1896, back when BYU was known as Brigham Young Academy (BYA). There was only a single clipping in The Salt Lake Tribune, and the Deseret News was basically a local and national newspaper with little else in it, including sports. The Daily Utah Chronicle was very big on Utah football, however, primarily because it appeared to be a popular on-campus source of entertainment.

Screenshot of the article headline that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune

The very first Utah/BYU game was played on April 6, 1896, on the University of Utah campus. The only piece I found in either of the two big local newspapers (the Tribune and the Deseret News) was a clipping in the Tribune under the headline, "Provo BYA vs U of U: Interesting Game of Football Promised for Tomorrow." ("Provo BYA vs U of U," 1896) This particular story talked not only about the game time (4:15 in the afternoon it stated), but it also reported that BYA would bring to Salt Lake about 200 people. Compare that to today's typical 50,000 to 60,000 fans in attendance at the rivalry games. The short article goes on to speak about the rosters of both squads.

Two days later, after the game had happened, the Tribune ran a follow-up on the game headlined, "University 12: BYA 4." It touched on the attendance, which was around 800 people, and also included a brief description of the game itself. But it appeared the main story was the fight that happened at the game. The Tribune reported, "During the progress of the game some Salt Lake roughs, who had stolen into the grounds, started a fight with some Provo boys and in a minute over forty were being handled pretty roughly on all sides. One of the professors called the police patrol and great excitement followed on its arrival and its chase around the square after the rowdies that were captured. When the fray was over six or seven boys had bruises and bleeding faces, but no damage was done and the game went on, the University boys winning 12 to 4." ("University 12: BYA 4," 1896) It seems that this rivalry started the way that many fans would expect, with sleeves rolled up.

Some of the best, most detailed coverage of the rivalry could be found in The Daily Utah Chronicle. A story by I.C. Haslett, "Twelve to Four," discussed why the first game in the rivalry happened in the spring. "After the games during the holidays, our team disbanded, and football was laid on the shelf until next fall; but the Provo boys were so very anxious to have a game that we could do no less than accommodate them." (Haslett, 353) This article does a much better play-by-play description about that game than I would have imagined. It would rival many current publications when it comes to game analysis. Haslett touches on the fight, "Such an affair is disgraceful and gives the University a bad name, but so long as we rely on egg shell promises of the men in charge at police headquarters, occurrences of this kind will be frequent." (Haslett, 355)

Utah vs. BYU
Originated April 6, 1896
Series 92 Games
Utah leads 55-34-4
First Game Utah 12, BYU 4
April 6, 1896
Largest Victory BYU 56, Utah 6
November 22, 1980
Highest Scoring Game BYU 70, Utah 31
November 18, 1989
Lowest Scoring Game Utah 0, BYU 0
November 17, 1928
Longest Win Streaks BYU 9 (1979-1987)
Utah 9 (1929-1937)
Most Recent Game Utah 54, BYU 10
September 17, 2011
Current Streak Utah 2 (2010-2011)
Last Ten Games Utah, 7-3
Next Game Salt Lake City
September 15, 2012
*Source: Wikipedia

Aftershocks were felt for weeks after the first game. In a letter to the editor in the April 21 issue of the Chronicle there was a letter from one of the members of the football team saying that the U students did not carry themselves well and that they should "take a lesson in ethics and gentility." (The Daily Utah Chronicle, 371-373) He also went on to say, "The Provo team deserves to be commended and congratulated for their excellent conduct during the game." In the same section, the writer of the initial column, I.C. Haslett, wrote in and clarified a miscommunication that the University team played BYU "as a matter of accommodation." He also added that his statement in the previous article about the game and the fight was only his opinion and not an official explanation. And following his letter, another writer stated that the buildings on campus needed to be used appropriately because of the lack of space and that "football and other athletic sports are not in the curriculum and the buildings must be used for legitimate use." (The Daily Utah Chronicle, 371-373)

It is not until October that there is any correspondence from the Chronicle regarding the next game. It comes up in an article titled, "The U of U Foot-ball Team." The piece was basically a preseason article and it touched briefly on the next BYU game that was scheduled for November 14 and it "promises[d] to be a very close contest." ("The U of U Football Team," 1896)

The next piece came in the November 3 issue of the Chronicle, and it was essentially an advertisement for the game in the "Home Happenings" section of the paper. It went on to say, "Do not forget the great foot-ball game to be played on the University campus Nov. 14. Provo (BYA) vs U of U. It will be a close contest and well worth seeing" ("Home Happenings," 52) If you compare that to modern newspapers, usually they have a stand-alone area for the big game information. This information was mixed in with other student-life information. A week later a sales pitch to the game comes up. "The expense of bringing the Provo men here and their expenses while here will amount to considerable, so all students are earnestly asked to attend. The admission will be twenty-five cents and you will not be sorry for your little investment, as the game will surely be one of the very best in the State this season." (The Daily Utah Chronicle, 69) This appears to be the first attempt to cash in on the rivalry by the University. Early on it appears the priority in sports is the same as it is today: money.

In the same issue there is a very interesting article headlined, "Girls, Attention!" This article really dives into the idea of school spirit. This appears to almost be a subliminal spirit contest between Utah and BYU. G.M. Cheril writes, "The Provo girls not only turned out, but made a lively display of their college colors, and cheered their heroes on towards victory." (Cheril, 75) The writer added: "Girls, we can't afford to let the Provo maids outdo us in any respect." This very passionate cry to fellow students (women primarily) to rally the team, what one can say is like a very early call for something like The MUSS (The Mighty Utah Student Section).

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The article about the second game appeared on November 17. The article was titled, "Victory! The Senior Eleven Wins in its First Contest. After a Hard Fought Battle the BYA is Defeated. Score, 6-0." This article started out much more descriptive about the events prior to the game. It showed much more pageantry, which is very common in modern college football. It speaks about the crowds showing up to the game, the flags being waved, and the college yells being shouted. And it seems that the article calls upon the women to show up to the game. "We are here forcibly reminded that U of U, co-eds were few and far between." ("Victory!" 86) And then it goes into a very lengthy summary of the game activities. There also was a very impressive recap on the game that spans multiple pages. And, of course, at the end of the article there is a financial summary: "The Athletic Association made about seventy-five dollars from the game." ("Victory!" 89) Again, money is becoming more of a central figure in collegiate athletics.

The December 1 issue of the Chronicle previewed the third and final game of the calendar year between Utah and BYU. It reported the results of the previous games and it also did something I had yet to see: it offered a prediction. "Next Saturday's game will decide, and we will say nothing until after that day, except to assert our confidence in Captain Kimball and his sturdy followers, and casually predict a score of not less than ten to nothing." ("U of U vs BYA," 122) The article also talks about transportation to Provo by train and that there is a special rate of $1.25, but only if 100 people traveled to Provo. And once again a rally cry: "Let all those who can go do so by all means and show the BYA people that we have a great reserve stock of enthusiasm and patriotism." ("U of U vs BYA," 122)

It turns out that the University did not provide enough people for the train and the Athletic Association had to pay the additional costs, according to the Chronicle on December 8. One interesting bit from this piece was about the lack of attendance from women once again, but with a different angle. "The blame for this, though, is not on the side of the girls but from the fact that the boys did not offer themselves as escorts." (The Daily Utah Chronicle, 130) Later on in the issue it breaks down the final game in an article titled "At Last." The University of Utah had lost its first game to BYA by a count of 8-6. "Three times have the University and BYA battled on the gridiron. Twice the Varsity teams have come smiling from the field, but on the third occasion, the Academy, after a terrible struggle, made good their past defeats by wildly giving vent to their joy with long, enthusiastic cheers and waving of white and blue banners." ("At Last," 134-136) A very detailed account of the game follows. And something unheard of happened after the game. BYA hosted a dance for the U. "The dance given Saturday evening in honor of the U of U eleven was a very enjoyable affair. Pretty and charming maidens were very plentiful, and the Provo boys played hosts very gallantly . The University boys were furnished with a convenient dressing-room in the Academy building which they greatly appreciated." ("At Last," 134-136) And of course the last thing about the rivalry in this issue: "The Athletic Association lost about fifty dollars on the excursion to Provo. It is a deplorable fact." (The Daily Utah Chronicle, 148)

Utah's coach Ron McBride and his wife present BYU coach LaVell Edwards with a gift before the game at Rice Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah, Friday, November 24, 2000. (Photo/Johanna Workman, Deseret News)

The history of the Utah/BYU rivalry is an old and rich one, one that dates from the first game in April 1896. From that point to the point that it has reached today is remarkable. It started with only a couple mentions in the major papers (primarily The Salt Lake Tribune) to being front-page news in modern times. And that, coupled with the advent of television and the Internet, makes it a multimedia blitz now. But when you look at the articles within the Chronicle, sportswriting itself has not changed all that much. There is analysis of the game - play-by-play. There is news surrounding the game. The Chronicle dealt not only with the fight but also travel, school spirit, as well as financial information around the games and the Athletic Association. Those are all things you see today when it comes to sports coverage. I would say the main difference with media of yesteryear and today would be just the amount of it when it comes to sports coverage, including the local rivalry. The media coverage of the rivalry today has really taken it to the next level, not just locally but nationally as well. Utah versus BYU is now a national rivalry. It has taken both programs to unseen heights. The rivalry itself has evolved. Starting in the early years with Utah dominating, to BYU taking control in the 1970s through the early 1990s, to once again Utah gaining control and it now becoming much more balanced overall, even if currently Utah has won seven of the last ten match-ups. The passion behind this rivalry is very rare. It has a state (Utah) versus church (BYU) aspect to it. The fans don't like each other and the players don't like each other. And as of today it is at an all-time high.

"There are no great secrets to what constitutes a good rivalry. Both participants must win their share of contests, and competitive fires must burn brightly. Big upsets and unusual plays add to the richness of rivalry mythology. Great team rivalries are built by skilled athletes and leading coaches who face off, season after season, in high-pressure games, creating vivid traditions that flourish with the passing years." (Davies, ix)

For fans of this rivalry, they better enjoy the matchup this coming September at Rice-Eccles Stadium - because it may be the beginning of the end of the rivalry - at least as we know it.


  • The Daily Utah Chronicle, December 8, 1896, 148.
  • The Daily Utah Chronicle, December 8, 1896, 130.
  • The Daily Utah Chronicle, November 11, 1896, 69.
  • The Daily Utah Chronicle, April 21, 1896, 371-373.
  • "At Last," The Daily Utah Chronicle, December 8, 1896, 134-136.
  • G. Cheril, "Girls, Attention!" The Daily Utah Chronicle, November 11, 1896, 75.
  • I. Haslett, "Twelve to Four: To This Time the Provo
  • Giants Go Down," The Daily Utah Chronicle, April 8, 1896, 353-355.

Shane Roberts is a producer/writer for the U Fan Cast on, a Utah-centric podcast that gives a voice to the fan. Twitter: @Shane_U_FanCast

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