For decades, the Utes have fancied themselves as a more elite program than their conference rivals. Academically, Utah wants to be closer to the programs in the Pac-10, and the Utes have always tried to be more West Coast than intermountain.
The Pac-10 will always be more glamorous overall than the Mountain West, even after a season in which the MWC grabbed four NCAA tourney bids to the Pac-10's two. That was more cyclical than the norm.
So the move isn't a surprise. But the most distressing part of the split from the MWC will be the elimination of the home-and-home series with longtime bitter rival BYU. Unless you're an alumnus, have lived in the state, or played in, coached or covered the rivalry, it's hard to appreciate the hatred between the two fan bases.
I have. And it was real during the nine years I saw it firsthand covering the WAC.
BYU is a private school, owned by the Mormon Church; Utah is the state school. BYU's Provo home is a quiet, suburban sprawl an hour south of the Utes' Salt Lake City metropolis.
The games I saw between the Rick Majerus-coached Utes and Roger Reid-coached Cougars were something special in the '90s. There was testiness between the coaches, the players and the fans.
Douglas C. Pizac/US PresswireJim Boylen and Dave Rose are friends, but there's not much else that's friendly about the Utah-BYU rivalry.
Alex Jensen knows the rivalry well. He grew up a BYU fan and then played at Utah under Majerus, including a trip to the national championship game in 1998.
"There's no doubt it will continue. It has to,'' said Jensen, now an assistant for Majerus at Saint Louis.
The rivalry is no longer as intense at the coaching level. The current admiration between Jim Boylen (Utah) and Dave Rose (BYU) carries over to the players.
What will be lost, though, is the importance of the game for conference championships, which BYU and Utah challenged each other for on many occasions in the old WAC and, at times, in the MWC.
"It will be strange [not being in the same league],'' Jensen said. "A lot of friends and family have been talking about it. But it will be interesting to see how it affects everything.''
Jensen said there could be jealousy that arises out of this. For years there was talk of Utah and BYU going to the Pac-10 together, not with one leaving the other behind.
If anything, Jensen said, Utah's departure to the Pac-10 will add to the rivalry since BYU will want to beat the Utes even more and the Utes will want to appear to be at a higher level in a power-six league.
Jensen said he remembered losing to BYU in the conference tournament during his senior year and having to hear the Cougar players in the locker room euphorically cheering that they had taken down Utah to break a losing streak. "It was the litmus test for us,'' Jensen said. "Even if you were having a bad year, if you beat them, it was still OK. Any big rivalry there was that week leading up to it that there was more of a buzz.''
Austin Ainge, who played at BYU from 2002 to 2007 and is currently the head coach of the Maine Red Claws (the Boston Celtics' D-League team), echoed that sentiment.
"It was a lot of fun," he said. "Obviously the intensity was there. I got in a couple of scraps against them. You could feel the difference."
Ainge, the son of former BYU great Danny Ainge, said playing just once a season would be unfortunate, "but it will make it even that much more intense."
"You know you don't have a chance to get them next time -- recruiting, everything will hang in the balance on that one game," he said.
There is always the chance that the two schools could choose to play a home-and-home in the same season like New Mexico and New Mexico State do. It could help scheduling if nothing else.
But if there cannot be an agreement on something of that nature and neither side wants to get into a rotation of hosting, the best option would be to play the game at the EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City (the home of the Utah Jazz) and split the tickets. One thing that should be a given is that a game has to be played in basketball and, of course, football. The two schools have been playing Utah State without hesitation, and while there is a deep rivalry with the Aggies, it's not as intense as the Cougars-Utes.
Besides, there are plenty of examples of two major schools in a state playing an annual nonconference game. I would challenge anyone to say these games aren't the most anticipated, or among the most anticipated, for these teams each year.
Louisville (Big East) vs. Kentucky (SEC)
Clemson (ACC) vs. South Carolina (SEC)
Georgia Tech (ACC) vs. Georgia (SEC)
Florida State (ACC) vs. Florida (SEC)
West Virginia (Big East) vs. Marshall (C-USA)
Marquette (Big East) vs. Wisconsin (Big Ten)
Colorado (Big 12) vs. Colorado State (MWC)
Iowa State (Big 12) vs. Iowa (Big Ten)
Nebraska (Big 12) vs. Creighton (MVC)
New Mexico (MWC) vs. New Mexico State (WAC)
Providence (Big East) vs. Rhode Island (A-10)
Memphis (C-USA) vs. Tennessee (SEC)
Boston College (ACC) vs. UMass (A-10)
Tulsa (C-USA) vs. Oral Roberts (Summit)
UNLV (MWC) vs. Nevada (WAC)
Gonzaga (WCC) vs. Washington State (Pac-10)
Cincinnati (Big East) vs. Xavier (A-10)
Villanova (Big East) vs. Saint Joe's (A-10), Temple (A-10) and Penn (Ivy) in Big Five games
What this illustrates is that the need to drag Oklahoma State with Oklahoma or Kansas State with Kansas, from a scheduling standpoint, wasn't a must in the realignment models. Of course, the legislatures were looking out for the overall interests of the programs, but scheduling shouldn't have been an issue since they can easily still play at least once a year.
So can BYU and Utah.