The Rise of Utah Football – The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Justin Prather

University of Utah head football coach Kyle Whittingham as the clock ticks down in a loss to the University of Oregon Ducks in the 2019 Pac-12 Championship football game December 6 at Levi’s Stadium. (Justin Prather | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

The year is 2003 and it has been for a long time University of Utah athletics director Chris Hill is on the verge of hiring an under-the-radar coach who will change Utah’s football program forever. The Utes finished a season with a 5-6 record, 3-4 in the Mountain West Conference. It was longtime head coach Ron McBride’s second loss in three years, and it became clear the program needed to change. After firing McBride in late 2002, Hill tapped into young coach Urban Meyer.

Meyer, who had helped turn around a struggling Bowling Green program in a short amount of time, wanted to do the same with the Utah program to become a more competitive team. In his first season with the Utes, Meyer helped lead the program to a 10-win season, a quicker turnaround than expected. That was largely due to the development of quarterback Alex Smith, who quickly became a star. With a liberty shell Victory in his first season, it was clear that Meyer was helping the team move in the right direction.

The 2004 campaign was unforgettable for the Utes. Meyer, eager to improve the team even further, led Utah to their fourth undefeated season in school history, where they finished fourth in the country. Smith had a memorable season, finishing fourth in the Heisman Trophy race and entering the NFL Draft as a Utah pick after just two seasons. The Utes earned the BCS Buster title by getting the opportunity to play in the Fiesta Bowl where they defeated Pitt.

But after that big one-season success, Meyer took a head coaching job in Florida, leaving the program at a crossroads.

After Meyer’s departure, most pundits said Utah was a big step backwards, but newly appointed head coach Kyle Whittingham had other things on his mind. Over the next three seasons, Coach Whittingham led the Utes to three straight bowl wins despite working with a brand new coaching staff.

2008 was a big year for Utah Football. After starting the season with a narrow win over blue-blooded University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the Utes didn’t take their foot off the gas and ended their regular season with a comfortable win over BYU. The Utes finished the season undefeated with a great 31-17 win over Alabama and proved they can take on anyone.

The summer of 2010 was a big one for Utah Football when they announced they would be attending the Pac-10 conference alongside Colorado. The Utes’ first season in the now Pac-12 was impressive for a team transitioning to a new conference.

After back-to-back losses in 2012 and 2013, Whittingham was able to recruit a roster that became an annual competitor in the Pac-12.

The 2018 Utah team took the next step when they became the first Utah team to win the Pac-12 South, which earned them the right to compete in the Pac-12 championship game but fell to the Washington Huskies.

In 2019, the Utes again qualified for the Pac-12 championship, this time losing to Oregon. Those losses proved only a minor setback, as just two years later the Utah Utes team won their first Pac-12 championship in 2021 and got to compete in the Rose Bowl.

The rise of the Utah football program is a story that will last forever. It shows resilience and patience and that the right coaches can go a long way in making a program a national contender.

As the 2022 season begins, the Utes are favorites to win the Pac-12 and are expected to compete again at the national level. Once a team overslept by the national media, the Utes are now a much-talked-about team nationally, which wouldn’t be the case were it not for the skills of Coach Whittingham and Coach Meyer before him. With several exciting seasons ahead in the near future, there’s a lot to look forward to for Ute Nation.

If anything has been made clear over the last few decades, it’s that Utah Football will do its best to make the season as exciting as possible for Utes fans across the country.

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