There are several conditions which foster the rivalry: proximity of the two schools, successes of the athletic teams, and religion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owns BYU while Utah is a secular institution.
The Utah–BYU rivalry holds a number of unique characteristics that add to its overall greatness.
This rivalry has traditionally featured Mormons vs. Mormons between Utah’s two oldest universities. Subsequently, the football game played between these two schools has come to be known as the Holy War. Both schools were founded by the LDS church, have significant percentages of LDS students and faculty as well as many historical and customary affiliations with Mormonism such as LDS institutes and dry campuses. As much as religion is a common historical foundation for the rivalry, it has also been a source of animosity and many have sought to downplay the aspect of religion. BYU (aka "the Y") is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). The University of Utah (aka "the U") is a public state-owned school. Because this rivalry includes a "church vs. state" dimension, many fans of both schools use it as a forum to vent deeply held feelings and perceptions. Through these perceptions, the thrill of victory and the sting of defeat are magnified.
While the LDS Church owns BYU, some of the Church’s top leadership, including current President Thomas S. Monson and his predecessor Gordon B. Hinckley, attended and graduated from the University of Utah. Brigham Young, the second President of the LDS Church and the man for whom BYU is named, founded the University of Deseret, which later became the University of Utah when it was bought out by other state residents. Former Church President, David O. McKay, played right guard for Utah’s first football team in 1894 and former apostle, Joseph B. Wirthlin, also played football for the Utes.
Both BYU and Utah have successful athletic programs over the years, even before BYU rose to prominence in football. The two teams were part of the same conference from 1922 to 2010, and their clashes often decided the conference title. Due to this success, the rivalry has become multi-dimensional.
A 45-minute drive down Interstate 15 is all that separates BYU from the University of Utah. The close proximity has caused the schools to constantly compete against each other for recruits, as well as for fan support.
BYU and Utah also have a long history in football, however the two schools disagree on exactly when the series started. BYU asserts that the series began in 1922, but Utah claims that it actually began in 1896 when BYU was known as the Brigham Young Academy (BYA). From 1896 to 1899, BYA and Utah played each other six times, with each school winning three games. Both schools agree that Utah leads the football series; Utah claims a 53–33–4 lead while BYU says Utah leads 50–30–4. As mentioned above, the two schools were part of the same conference for almost 90 years.
Both Utah and BYU are each other’s number one rival. Many schools today will consider a certain school to be their biggest rival, but that certain school may not share the same sentiment towards the other (for example, most Boston College football fans consider Notre Dame to be a big rival, but most Notre Dame fans generally consider USC to be their biggest rival). The result of a reciprocal rivalry is that both schools are equally passionate, and emotionally invested, in the outcome of a meeting.
In 1895, the Brigham Young Academy and the University of Utah met for the first sporting event between the two schools: a baseball game. The scoreless match ended with a bench-clearing brawl, and a rivalry was born.
The early yearsEdit
Unsurprisingly, the history of the BYU-Utah rivalry is also in dispute. Utah claims that the football rivalry began in the late 19th century, when Utah played the Brigham Young Academy six times between 1896 and 1899. BYU does not count these games in their official records, since it was not then known as BYU, but BYA. Furthermore, BYU claims that the first of those football games, a 12–4 Utah victory in April 1896, was in actuality a practice-scrimmage to prepare for the following fall season. But whether or not the game meant anything to the schools at the time, it certainly meant a great deal to the fans. At the end of the match, a fight broke out between fans of the two schools.
Through most of its history, this rivalry was classified as mainly a basketball rivalry. Though the schools have regularly played each other in football since at least 1922, the football aspect (known as the “Holy War”) was grossly one-sided. Utah dominated from the start; indeed, even with the resurgence of BYU football in the 1970s, Utah still has a large overall lead in the series. Not counting the disputed games involving BYA, Utah won the first six meetings by a combined score of 186–13. And by 1941, Utah led the series-record 17–0, with 3 ties. BYU finally earned its first victory of the rivalry in 1942, but wouldn’t win another until 1958. By 1964, Utah had extended its record against BYU to 34–2, with 4 ties.
The rise of BYU footballEdit
During the 1970s and 80s, the basketball side of the rivalry remained close, with Utah winning 21 games and BYU winning 19. Meanwhile, the football side also began to intensify. In 1972, BYU hired a new head football coach, LaVell Edwards. In Edwards’ first season at the helm, BYU defeated Utah for the first time in five years, and their rise to national prominence began. In 1974, BYU was invited to their first ever bowl game, after winning the conference championship for the second time ever. BYU also began to annually dominate Utah, who was experiencing a series of losing seasons and coaching changes. By 1976, Edwards had compiled a 5–0 record against the Utes.
In 1977, Utah hired a promising new coach of their own, Wayne Howard. That year, BYU soundly beat Utah 38–8 in Provo. With less than two minutes left, BYU's star QB, Marc Wilson, was sent back into the game to set an NCAA passing record and rack up an astounding 571 passing yards. In his post-game remarks to the press, Howard accused Edwards of running up the score, and was quoted as saying:
"This today will be inspiring. The hatred between BYU and Utah is nothing compared to what it will be. It will be a crusade to beat BYU from now on. This is a prediction: In the next two years Utah will drill BYU someday, but we won’t run up the score even if we could set an NCAA record against them."
Howard was able to lead Utah to victory over the Cougars the next year, but it would be his only time, and Utah’s only victory over BYU in a 16-year period. Howard continued to have an intensity toward the rivalry, but retired from coaching after the 1981 season.
BYU went on to make a major impact on the national level. From 1979 to 1992, BYU went 13–1 against the Utes, won 11 conference championships, and a national championship in 1984. Utah’s lone football victory over the Cougars during this period came in 1988.
As the football rivalry intensified, the emotion carried over into other sports. For instance, during a baseball game in the mid-1980s, BYU players taunted the Ute pitcher. The pitcher reacted by throwing a fastball into the Cougar dugout, igniting a bench-clearing brawl.
As the 1990s began, BYU’s football program's success began to lessen, although from 1989 to 1996, BYU won at least a share of the WAC championship every year but one (1994, in which Utah ended the season in the top 10).
In 1996, Edwards assembled one of his best teams: winning 14 games, finishing the season #5 in both major polls, and with a thrilling victory over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl Classic. That season, the Cougars snapped their 3-game losing streak to Utah, who had begun a resurgence of conference championships dating back to 1919. Utah started to field a competitive team under the leadership of Coach Ron McBride. Seemingly overnight, McBride (hired in 1990) and the Utes regularly found themselves in the race for conference titles and bowl invitations. In 1994, they compiled a 10–2 record, beat BYU, beat Arizona in the Freedom Bowl, and finished the season ranked #8 in the Coaches Poll
Recently, BYU and Utah have each found themselves in the spotlight again. Especially in football, where several meetings have had important MWC, if not national, implications. In 2001, BYU came within a single game of making the case to become the first non-BCS conference team to deserve a BCS bowl bid. Their near-perfect season included a thrilling 24–21 come-from-behind victory over the Utes on national television. Three years later, BYU and Utah met with a BCS invite again on the line, but this time it was Utah who was looking to cap off a perfect season. Under second-year head coach Urban Meyer, and future #1 NFL Draft choice Alex Smith at QB, the Utes beat the Cougars 52–21, and clinched a bid to the Fiesta Bowl. ESPN sent their College GameDay crew out to Salt Lake to highlight the event.
In November 2005, The Wall Street Journal ranked the BYU-Utah football rivalry as the fourth-best in the country. This ranking was based on a formula that considered recent outcomes, margins of victory, lead changes, and overall quality of the rivalry