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Patrick Kinahan: Consecutive Rose Bowl berths puts Utah in rare company


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SALT LAKE CITY — Two consecutive Rose Bowl berths, comparatively heady stuff for the relative the new team on the Pac-12 block.

For Utah to make to The Granddaddy of Them All, which is by far the coolest nickname attached to any game in any sport, illustrates the program's impressive progression over the last decade since joining the Pac-12 in time for the 2011 season.

Here are the Utes, only 12 years removed from toiling in the Mountain West Conference, representing the Pac-12 in the Rose Bowl again next week after making their first appearance in the game last year.

Consider how far Utah has come in such a short time. Conference member Arizona, which joined the Pac-12 for the 1978 season, still hasn't won the Pac-12 nor has played in the actual Rose Bowl game (which doesn't count playing UCLA in its home stadium every other year).

Leaving the Western Athletic Conference with the Wildcats, Arizona State got to the Rose Bowl in nine years but hasn't been back since Jan. 1, 1997. Cal has made eight appearances in the Rose Bowl, but the last time came in 1959, the same year Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was born.

Utah belongs in the same sentence as Oregon and USC, the two recognized longstanding conference powers whom the Utes beat in the last two championship games, respectively. Stanford also deserves mention, having played in consecutive Rose Bowl games in 2013-14, but the program has fallen on hard times in recent seasons.

Since Stanford's run under former coach David Shaw, no Pac-12 team has made it back to Pasadena in consecutive years until Utah pulled it off. Pete Carroll's powerhouse USC teams played in four straight games from 2006-09, but the program hasn't been back since 2017.

In short, Utah's transformation from a middling WAC program to a Pac-12 power has been nothing short of remarkable. Spread the credit around, from Whittingham to his predecessors Urban Meyer and Ron McBride, along with the university administration, the actual players and, yes, you the fan.

No team has made a better transition from what is now known as a Group of Five conference to the Power Five. Texas Christian — which was in the Mountain West for a time with Utah — did well this season in winning the Big 12, a conference that will welcome BYU, Houston, Cincinnati, and Central Florida into the Power Five next season.

"We have a program that's got some momentum now, a great deal of pride, a great deal of talent on the roster (and) excellent coaches," Whittingham said during a recent media availability. "That's what you strive for, to be an outstanding program. Thanks to the hard work of our assistant coaches and players, we're closing in on that."

Whittingham's modesty aside, having won at least nine games in seven of the last eight full seasons, Utah has an outstanding football program. And having signed its first-ever top 25 recruiting class last week, continued success is expected.

As long as Whittingham remains the coach, the Utes probably will consistently contend for Pac-12 championships and the accompanying berth in the expanded national playoff that begins with the 2024 season. The new format likely means this year's Rose Bowl is the last that pits the Big Ten vs. the Pac-12, a tradition that dates back decades.

Whittingham's tenure as coach has been the subject of much speculation in recent year, but he's made no decision on retirement. The 63-year-old has said he doesn't intend to coach deep into his 60s.

Mark Harlan, in his fifth year as the Utah athletic director, notes Whittingham has publicly stated his intention to evaluate the future after each season ends, but Harlan said Whittingham's energy for the job remains high.

"I, personally, have no indication he's stepping aside." Harlan said. "Far from it, he seems to be pushing ahead, getting everything ready for next year."

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Patrick is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.

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