At Utah, enthusiasm, stability and a formula for success in the Pac-12 – The Denver Post

There is an alternative history where the Utah Utes never joined the Pac-12.

In that history, the Longhorn Network never happens. Texas and Oklahoma leave the Big 12 for the Pac-10, bringing Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Colorado and one of Texas A&M or Baylor along with them. And Utah is stuck as a big fish in the Mountain West pond — good enough to go toe-to-toe with the big boys, but never quite on equal footing.

Luckily for the Utes, that history never came to pass.

Texas stayed right where it was, as did most of the other Big 12 satellites in its orbit, and Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott was forced to go with his second choice to pair with Colorado to make 12 — its old RMAC rival to the west.

“Let’s be honest,” former Utah athletic director Chris Hill said during a recent phone interview, “the stars lined up perfectly for us.”

Indeed, of all the schools that found new homes during the last significant period of conference realignment 10 years ago, there’s few that have improved their situation more than the Utes.

In contrast to Colorado, which made a relatively lateral move from one BCS conference to another, Utah “jumped the Grand Canyon” from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, instantly ratcheting up its national profile while aligning itself with the West Coast’s premier academic institutions. The enthusiasm for the move both in the community and on campus was immediate and dramatic, according to Hill, who served as Utah’s AD from 1987 to 2018.

“Now it’s Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle (in the Pac-12) as opposed to Albuquerque, Fort Collins and Laramie (in the Mountain West),” Hill said. “It was just a gigantic positive for us… as big as it could get.

“There was no handicap like there was in the Mountain West. We’d start a 100-meter dash and we were 10 meters behind before we started. Now we could look every player in the eye and say, ‘Hey, we can compete for a national championship and not have to get lucky.’”

The Utes’ experience as a Mountain West program, forced to compete with fewer resources, positioned it well for success in the Pac-12.

Prioritizing postseason appearances over conferences titles — the school removed league championship flags at all of its venues — Hill said the Utes initially put most of their resources behind football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, volleyball and gymnastics in an effort to get their best programs up to Pac-12 snuff.

The results have been mostly positive. Gymnastics has won three conference titles, volleyball has reached the NCAA Tournament five of the past seven seasons and football has claimed the past two South Division championships while going to bowl games seven of the last nine years.

The latter, of course, is what has truly shaped the perception Utah is right where it belongs in the Pac-12. The biggest difference between the Utes and their mountain partners to the east? Stability.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham has led the football program since 2005 — a period that has seen CU cycle through six head coaches. And despite recruiting at a top 30 level just once in 10 years, the Utes have maintained a competitive program that has finished in the AP top 25 four times since 2014.