SALT LAKE CITY — Years ago, as Bronco Mendenhall was talking to a BYU booster group, an elderly gentleman interrupted the then-head coach, reminding him that the games "aren’t in the afternoon, anymore."
The old-timer was spot on.
College football games played on crisp, glorious autumn Saturday afternoons are mostly nothing more than a romantic relic for programs in the West. Instead, as fans in Utah can attest to, many games begin after 8 p.m., often ending in chilly conditions late in the season.
Last season, for example, BYU fans attending the Utah game at Rice-Eccles Stadium arrived home in a state of shock and thaw. The game, in which BYU squandered a pair of 20-point leads to lose for the eighth consecutive time to Utah, ended near midnight on a brisk late November night.
Even in victory, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan heard from a contingency of fans angry at the late kickoff. All he could do is shrug and point to the television contracts that dictate starting times, while noting nothing is changing anytime soon.
"It’s hard to imagine they would go away, based on the television situation," Harlan said during an hour-long interview on The Zone Sports Network.
Fact is, Western teams and conferences desperately need more exposure to prevent falling further behind competitively and also financially compared to conferences in the other regions of the country.
Already, with several start times still to be determined, Utah State is slated to kick off at 8:30 p.m. Mountain time at San Diego State on Sept. 21 and against Boise State on Nov. 23 in Logan. Utah plays BYU in Provo for an 8:15 p.m. kickoff on Aug. 29, surely with more to follow for both teams.
Morning start times?
Now comes another possibility for more inconvenient start times. In an effort to draw more eyes, the Pac-12 is considering morning start times – 9 a.m. on the coast and 10 a.m. Mountain time.
"I put it under the subject matter of exploration of anything that makes sense for the conference," Harlan said. "The question really is does it make sense for the individual institution that’s hosting it. I don’t have any problem having the dialogue and thinking through it. I think obviously the Mountain schools have a little bit of a benefit with it being a 10 a.m. start. But I still think we need to ponder what it would mean."
Trading burgers for breakfast burritos, that’s what it means for tailgating. It also comes with a pre-dawn wake-up call, as early as 4 a.m. for players and coaches.
Do ANY West Coast fans actually think that it is a good idea to have 9am games?— Mike Leach (@Coach_Leach) July 27, 2019
If the early starts work for the television networks and the Pac-12, the Mountain West Conference likely could follow suit. Even as an independent, BYU probably wouldn’t be immune.
Predictably, some coaches pitched a fit. In a tweet, Washington State coach Mike Leach said, "Do ANY West Coast fans actually think that it is a good idea to have 9 a.m. games?
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham offers a different take, saying his team would adjust to whatever the schedule requires. Utah’s first home game this season against Northern Illinois begins at 11 a.m., a start time that has had some fans grumbling.
The only thing better than 10 a.m. is 9 a.m. or 8 a.m. The sooner we can get the ball in the air, that’s great.
–Kyle Whittingham, Utah coach
At Pac-12 media day last month in Los Angeles, Whittingham said, "Would love it. The only thing better than 10 a.m. is 9 a.m. or 8 a.m. The sooner we can get the ball in the air, that’s great."
Harlan is open to discussing morning football on the conditions the dates are selected well in advance and the games get premier television exposure – under the current contracts, it would be over-the-air Fox Sports. He also points out any early start obviously would eliminate playing after 8 p.m. on the same day.
"We’re looking into it," Harlan said. "I haven’t turned it off, and I certainly haven’t turned it on, either."