The Battle has Been Won, but the Holy War Rages on Between Utah and BYU

Now the Holy War would be a title that most would think would be affixed to a rivalry between two schools of competing religions, say Notre Dame, America’s preeminent Catholic university, and Brigham Young University, a Mormon University located in Provo, Utah, but that would only be half-right. That title actually belongs to the rivalry between the Utes of the University of Utah and the Cougars of BYU.

It is not clear how the name originated, but what is clear is why this rivalry has earned that name. The annual, well at least it was annual, game between the Utes and Cougars has earned this title because, BYU is the flagship university of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Utah is the state school. That’s right. This game is a battle of church vs. state. 

The two adversaries first met on the gridiron on April 6, 1896 when BYU, then known as “Brigham Young Academy,” took a trip up north from Provo, Utah to Salt Lake City to take on the Utes in a scrimmage. Utah ended up winning the game 12-4, but the real news came after the game when, according to byucougars.com, a group of Salt Lake locals surrounded fans of BYA and began to harass them. The BYA fans eventually had enough, and a brawl began. And thus, so did the Holy War.

The Cougars and Utes met five more times during the 1890s, two more times in 1896, twice in 1897 and once in 1898, with the schools splitting the series at three games apiece. It would be 24 more years, and a name change for BYA before the two teams would meet again.

The University of Utah Utes and the Brigham Young University Cougars square off in the 2007 Holy War at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah. BYU won the game 17-10.

The University of Utah Utes and the Brigham Young University Cougars square off in the 2007 Holy War at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah. BYU won the game 17-10. Picture courtesy of Cortney Smith on Flickr.

In 1903, BYA was dissolved, and reformed as two separate institutions, Brigham Young High School, which dissolved in 1968, and BYU, which.

From 1899-1921, BYU did not field a football team, and the rivalry was put on hiatus. In 1922, the Cougars fielded a team once more, and the rivalry resumed with a 5-0 Utah victory, which would be the first of 20 straight years that Utah would leave the field without losing to the Y.

From the 1898 meeting through 1927, the Utes won seven straight games, outscoring BYU 191-13, but in 1928, the Cougars held the Utes scoreless. The trouble was, the Utes did the same to BYU. That game ended in a 0-0 tie. That would not derail Utah, however, as the Utes began another win streak the next year, this one lasted nine years, from 1929-37.

There would be two more ties and two more Ute victories before the Cougars would notch their forth win in the now 47-year-old rivalry. At this point the teams faced each other  27 times.

In 1942, the Cougars finally ended their dry spell and beat Utah, 12-7. This would be the final game until 1946, as BYU did not field a team from 1943- 45 due to America’s involvement in World War II.

When the feud resumed again in 1946, the Utes also resumed winning, as it would be 12 straight years that the series would see either a Utah victory or a tie. BYU won in 1958, but they wouldn’t experience victory again until 1965. Between those two dates, Utah won six straight games.

1965 began the Cougars’  luck began to change, they were able to rattle off three straight victories from 1965-67, but Utah would respond with four straight wins of their own. So far, Utah had completely dominated the series with a record of 41-8-4.

That advantage that Utah had felt for so long, would become a rare and cherished feeling, over the next 21 years, the Utes would only taste victory twice, thanks to legendary BYU head coach LaVell Edwards who was able to completely turn the program around.

During those 21 years, the Cougars were able to win six, nine and four straight games.  The rivalry’s streaky past continues to this day. Utah was able to achieve a four-game winning streak twice and also a three-game winning-streak, and BYU has had a couple of back-to-back wins. Utah currently holds a 23-game advantage in the series, with a record of 57-34-4.

This rivalry, which has seen its fair share of crazy games, including a game in 2012, when Utah fans twice rushed the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the home of Utah football, prematurely, has been put on hiatus until 2016, due to Utah scheduling the University of Michigan for a home-and-home series in 2014 and 2015.

Fans, however, are not upset about this.

“I, along with the majority of Utah fans, am happy with the rivalry going on hiatus,” Spencer Jack, a sophomore at Utah, said in an email. “Utah is making a statement by not playing BYU. To us, they’re just another mid-major comparable to the Mountain West Conference. The rivalry is taking a break because Utah decided it was more to our advantage to schedule a series with Michigan. It’s showing the Y (BYU) how far ahead of them we are in the football aspect of things and disrespecting the product they put on the field.”

Cougar fans are not upset about this either.

“I am stoked its not going to happen for two years,” David Beckstead, an account executive at a marketing firm in Irvine, Calif., who has been a BYU fan since he was 19. “There is just too much hatred it has gotten way out of hand.”

Beckstead described one game in particular that went too far.

“When we beat Utah in OT (in 2009), there were two guy Utah fans that were so annoying that were sitting in our student section.  This one girl BYU fan wasn’t taking their lip and they kept jawing at each other.  BYU scored the OT touchdown and I look over and one of the Utah fans grabbed that girl’s hair and ripped it back as she was cheering and not even saying anything to them.”

However, that doesn’t mean the two teams will suddenly start enjoying each other.

“The Holy War is so much more than a football game,” Jack said. “The implications are prominent all year. The hate is real. It isn’t just that BYU and Utah fans don’t get along, but we absolutely despise each other’s culture and how each other lives their life.”

With as much hate as these two schools have for each other, and how some fantastic games have happened because of the Holy War, let’s hope that the brief hiatus does not diminish the Holy War and lead to it being forgotten.