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From the Stands: Fans cheer, fear the end of holy war

By Gregory Welch, Contributor   |  Posted Feb 16th, 2012 @ 3:27pm



SALT LAKE CITY -- Neither BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe nor Utah athletic director Chris Hill have made any definitive statements about the continuation of the BYU- Utah rivalry, but there is a growing expectation among fans that the annual football game will soon be a thing of the past.

The Holy War would become another casualty of the recent upheaval in college athletics. Texas-Texas A&M, Missouri- Kansas, and West Virginia-Pitt are all great college rivalries that met their collective demise as the conference decks get reshuffled.

One of the modern ironies of college sports is that cable TV seems to care less for purely regional games. When ticket-buying fans ruled the world, regional games meant easier travel, better rivalries and more tickets sold. In the cable sports world, games with teams from different parts of the country can be sold to more cable subscribers than a game featuring two teams from the same market.

BYU and Utah are facing financial, competitive and conference considerations. As for conference considerations, BYU and Utah playing the last week of the season would actually help the Pac-12 balance out its schedule. For 2012, Cal has to take a bye the last week of the regular season to let Stanford play Notre Dame, but a Pac-12 rule forbids anyone else from playing that week.

As for the game itself, like everything related to BYU and Utah, you will find a difference of opinion on whether the rivalry should continue. Only 56 percent of the 866 people who voted in an online Desert News poll in November favored continuing the rivalry.

Many who want to see the rivalry go argue that it’s overheated. It means more than it should. It makes normal people go crazy. It makes people that should be friends resent each other. It’s not worth it.

Others are shocked that the end of the rivalry is even considered. While sometimes stressful and problematic, the annual contest has provided memorable and meaningful games for years and has been hugely successful for both schools.

When assessing the rivalry, it’s hard to avoid projecting your own views and experiences as what “everybody” thinks or has seen, but there is some evidence that BYU-Utah divisiveness has gone overboard.

BYU's Jonny Harline celebrates his last minute touchdown catch against Utah, 33-31, at Rice- Eccles Stadium, Saturday Nov. 25, 2006. (August Miller/Deseret News)

Public Policy Polling has some actual data on this as it occasionally adds questions about college or pro sports teams into its surveys. Last summer, it broke down Utah’s college fans by their self- identified political affiliation. BYU fans (35 percent of the state) had a 3 percent share of those that identified themselves as very liberal and a 56 percent share of the self-identified very conservative population.

Utah fans (33 percent of the state) had a 58 percent share of the very liberal population and a 15 percent share of the very conservative population. And that division is magnified by the obvious state vs. religion undertones inherent to the two fan bases.

Even in rivalries like Duke and North Carolina, another one viewed as divisive between between private and public, the elitists and the populists don't divide idealogically like BYU and Utah. Duke fans (19 percent of North Carolina) had a 13 percent share of the very liberal population and a 19 percent share of the very conservative population. North Carolina fans (32 percent of the state) had a 35 percent share of the very liberal population and a 29 percent share of the very conservative population.

The poll also shows a wide swath of moderates that get stuck in the middle of the divisiveness. Many of those happy to see the rivalry end will point to these kinds of non-sporting divisions as something they’re happy to be rid of.

The most extreme craziness may die down as a side effect of not playing football, but I doubt trying cutting it down is a major factor for athletic departments when considering whether to keep their rival on the schedule. In fact, if the rivalry does end, I don’t expect either school to make a statement outlining why it did.

It took years to develop the rivalry as a product. It will take years to turn a competitive, meaningful rivalry back into just another game, if it ever does. The bottom line is if the rivalry ends, it will be because one or both schools feel it’s something they no longer want or need to sell.

Utah's Brandon Burton blocks BYU's Mitch Payne's field goal attempt in the final second as the University of Utah defeats Brigham Young University 17-16 Nov. 27, 2010. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

The Holy War may end. The world changes and no fan of any team is entitled to always have things either the way they used to be or the way they are now.

BYU and Utah fans are already moving on to competing over things like who can do better without the other. They’re also arguing over which school is running away scared of the other and which team needs the other more or less, instead of which team won head-to-head that year.

BYU fans will point to their deeper historical support, and Utah fans will point to their new, very stable schedule and wealthy TV contract. Both will say they’ll be fine, but both will also likely be aware of the worst-case scenario some of their rival fans are envisioning for them.

Having a meaningful, reciprocated, competitive and intense rivalry doesn’t happen every day. There may be some factions within each school that sometimes wish the other did not exist, but I doubt those wishes ever come from the people in charge of selling the tickets.

BYU and Utah fans haven’t agreed on much for a long time, and I don’t expect the ending of the rivalry to be any different. Basically, you can take the rivalry away from the fans, but at least for now, you can’t take the fans away from the rivalry.

Greg Welch, a contributor on, has followed BYU sports from six different states and currently cheers from Iowa. Professionally, he works at an ad agency and can be found at @ArtDirectorBYU on Twitter.

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