Story By Avery Mills
With the conclusion of their first regular season in the PAC-12, a new chapter has begun for University of Utah football.
In the summer of 2010, rumors began floating throughout the Salt Lake Valley that the PAC-10 was talking about expansion and the University of Utah was being considered. Message boards, chat rooms and social media sites were full of anxious fans as the rumor mill churned and they waited for an official word.
“It was always that way out there, pie in the sky possibility,” Ben Bagley, host of 1320 KFAN’s Powerhouse, recalled of the possibility of an invite to a BCS conference for Utah. “So when it started to look more and more real… the excitement began to boil.”
On June 16, 2010, it was officially announced that both the University of Utah and the University of Colorado had been extended, and then shortly after accepted, invitations to join the newly formed PAC-12 beginning the 2011 season.
“Given everything that was going on with conference realignment leading up to Utah’s invitation to the PAC-12, the initial reaction was one of relief,” said Patrick Sheltra, author of the book ‘100 Things Utes Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die.’ “But in the big picture, there was a tremendous amount of pride and excitement on my end.”
Utah first had to finish their final season in the Mountain West conference before they were able to call the PAC-12 home. With a head coach who is notorious within the media world for his refusal to look ahead past that week’s game, fans and media alike had to wait to talk about the changes coming for Utah until after the 2010 season was over.
“In the press conference after the BYU game someone goes ‘so Kyle, the regular season is now over, can we talk PAC-12?’” Bagley recalled. “And without missing a beat Coach goes, ‘I guess we can, go ahead,’ and that’s how it started.”
The off-season brought a lot of change to Utah. Not only were they in a new conference, but there were also new additions to the coaching staff. Norm Chow was brought in as offensive coordinator along with offensive line coach Tim Davis.
“Those hires legitimized the coaching staff,” Bagley said. “Once you brought those guys in… it became a PAC-12 coaching staff.”
Once the season began, it was anything but a smooth transition for Utah. They lost their first PAC-12 game at USC with a missed field goal that could have tied up the game and taken it into overtime.
They didn’t fare any better at home, losing the next two games against University of Washington and Arizona State, losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn in the process to a shoulder injury. Their conference record was then brought to 0-4 with a loss to the University of California.
These events had many critics saying that schools like Utah, those who were in the top tier of their non-AQ conference, couldn’t handle the week in, week out grind that came along with a BCS conference.
“We always knew (Utah) belonged,” said Nancy Lewis, a Utah fan and long-time football season ticket holder. “However, we also knew it was going to be a rebuilding year. Once we lost Jordan Wynn, we knew it would be that much more difficult to win games, but we never once doubted that we belonged there.”
So with a Division II quarterback, who only ended up at Utah after his original choice of school cut their football program, and a junior college transfer running back who became the main feature of the offense, the team managed to turn things around, winning their next 4 games.
“The two snow games, vs. UCLA and at Washington State. Those are images that few who were there will ever forget,” Sheltra noted as his favorite moments of the season. “Utah won both games, the first against the eventual South representative in the title game, the second in overtime in a blizzard, makes those memories even more indelible.”
The Utes couldn’t hold onto their winning streak at the end, losing at home to Colorado, and barely missing out on the opportunity to play in the inaugural PAC-12 Championship game at Oregon the following week. However, there was no denying the fact that Utah was now a part of the world of big-time college football.
“I’m a huge college football fan… and I always hated the fact that I missed all the good games by going to watch Utah and Wyoming, who is just a horrible team. Now it feels like I’m watching college football,” Bagley said, when asked what the best part of covering a PAC-12 team was. “Going to these stadiums and watching these teams that I grew up watching on TV, it’s just wow.”
The future looks bright for Utah Football as they move forward on their new journey. Despite the sometimes rocky road that was endured during the inaugural PAC-12 season, Ute fans can’t wait to see what lies ahead.
“I’ve been to the Sugar and Fiesta bowls, so I joke around about wanting to wake up to the smell of roses one time in January,” Sheltra said, “But the prospect of one legitimate national title run in my lifetime is enough to keep me afloat during 7-5 (or worse) seasons. Being in the PAC-12 means you can dream big like that.”