Saturday, November 20, 2004
A special -- and surreal -- night in Utah
By Gene Wojciechowski ESPN The Magazine
SALT LAKE CITY-- It was part football game, part Taco Bell casting call. It was history, and mystery. It was the beginning of an era, or possibly the end of one. Or two.
The annual hate-fest that is BYU-Utah convened at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday evening and by game's end there were more subplots than an All My Children marathon. Cue the dramatic organ music:
Will Utah's 52-21 victory guarantee it a BCS bowl invitation?
There was no stopping Eric Weddle and Utah as they made their way into the history books.
Why were reporters from the Gainesville Sun and the Austin American-Statesman in attendance?
How far can a flour tortilla travel in cold, mountain air?
These and other questions were partly answered in front of a Sombrero-wearing, geeked-to-the-max sellout crowd of 45,326. In fact, you'd need Beano Cook to tell you the last time a non-national championship game meant so much to so many.
BYU-Utah has always been an underrated rivalry, more regional than national, but still as spicy as gulp of Tabasco. But Saturday night was different, because the circumstances were different. No longer was this game simply about a year's worth of bragging rights in Orrin Hatch's state. This was about those three letters the crowd began chanting with 54 seconds left to play.
Utah is going to a BCS biggie, likely the Fiesta, maybe the Sugar, but it is going somewhere with a $14-million-plus payday. Liberty Bowl executive director Steve Ehrhart, whose postseason date with the Mountain West champion took it in the shorts, all but ordered the visiting Fiesta and Sugar bowl reps to extend an invitation to the Utes.
"Let's get Utah where they should be," said the gracious Ehrhart, who officially released the school from its Liberty commitment.
Where the Utes will be Monday is ranked among the top six teams in the BCS Standings. Where they'll be Jan. 1 or 3 is in Tempe or New Orleans.
"I saw a bunch of tortillas hitting the field," said Utah coach Urban Meyer.
Tortillas. . . Doritos. . . sombreros. There was a definite Southwestern flavor to Saturday's game. The only thing missing was somebody pouring salsa instead of Gatorade on Meyer's head at game's end.
The Fiesta and Sugar bowl reps staked out the postgame conference room and exchanged handshakes with Meyer. Ehrhart even hugged Meyer's wife, Shelley. He probably didn't notice what was dangling from her earlobes: tiny blue cactus-shaped earrings. More Fiesta Bowl hints.
"I got these when we played in Tucson," she said.
Now she can wear them in Tempe.
Shelley brought a sombrero to the game, but kept the hat in the car. "I didn't want to lose it in the crowd," she said.
Good move. Fans stormed the field. Both goalposts were snapped in two like celery sticks. Homemade signs taunted the Mormon-based BYU. Where Is Your God Now? read one. It was polite bedlam.
"That was as good as Notre Dame or Ohio State," said Shelley Meyer, comparing the postgame festivities to that of two previous Urban stops.
This is where the trickle-down effect of this game continues. Utah is going to a BCS bowl, and the Meyers are going with it. But after that, who knows?
Two-thirds of a continent away, Ron Zook was getting a shoulder ride to midfield of Doak Campbell Stadium, er, the newly named Bobby Bowden Field. The soon-to-be former Florida coach beat Florida State Saturday night and is expected to coach the Gators in their bowl game. But Meyer's name continues to be dropped in headlines everywhere, including those in Gainesville.
"We're going to talk about the University of Utah tonight," said Meyer, when the Gainesville reporter asked if he'd listen to a Florida job overture.
You can't blame the guy for asking. Just like you couldn't blame the Austin newspaper for sending someone to chronicle the exploits of the non-BCS-member Utes -- in case Utah lost, thus opening the BCS bowl door to Texas.
"We've been having them for three weeks," said Shelley of the Florida
speculation. "I want to enjoy this win for the next three hours."
As much as the 31-point victory added to Meyer's legacy and job prospects, it had the exact opposite effect on BYU coach Gary Crowton. The rumors swirling around Crowton involve pink slips, as evidenced by one sign hanging from a stadium railing.
Keep Crowton. It was written in Utah red, by Utah fans. Cruel.
What a bizarre, compelling night. Utah makes history. Meyer fields questions from a Gainesville paper. The Liberty Bowl gets stiffed. Crowton ponders his future. Tortillas become the official state bakery product.
"If I wasn't so excited right now, I'd probably be crying," said Utah free safety Morgan Scalley, whose father also played for the Utes.
Scalley wore a sombrero, partly to celebrate and also for more practical reasons.
"This will hide my receding hairline," he said. "I'll wear it all night."
Scalley looked as if he could float back to the Utah locker room. He had overcome a game-day migraine and become part of the most successful senior class in Utes history.
"I don't think it will hit probably until 10 years from now," he said.
Scalley wore a big hat, but he didn't suffer from a big head. An out of town reporter made sure of that when he asked the moderator, "Who are these guys?"
"Who are these guys?" said strong safety Eric Weddle, who sat next to him.
"Hey," said Scalley, "that's been the theme all year long."
Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.