Looking Back on Utah’s Five Years of ‘Running With the Pac’

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Looking Back on Utah’s Five Years of ‘Running With the Pac’

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This summer marked the five-year anniversary of Utah’s athletic teams competing as members of the Pac-12 conference, and even though this milestone passes with considerably less fanfare than the summer heading into the U’s inaugural season, many within the department feel this upcoming year can be just as important for the Utes.

To see the physical impact the transition from Mountain West to Pac-12 has made is not a difficult task. From the subtle conference logos emblazed on the doors of the Union, to the entirely conspicuous scoreboard in Rice-Eccles that can be seen from nearly half of lower campus. There are also a host of new athletic facilities and academic buildings, almost all of which have been funded with shared revenue from the conference or money from annual donations which have risen nearly $40 million since the U joined the “Conference of Champions.”

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Just as the extensive changes on campus over the last half-decade have been gradual, it has taken time for many Ute teams to build themselves up and match the levels of success enjoyed by their Mountain West predecessors. But with the graduation of nearly all of the Ute’s Mountain West recruits and on the heels of arguably the most successful year had by Utah athletics since joining the Pac-12, athletic director Chris Hill hopes these events are an indication that Utah is overcoming its “new kid on the block” status within the conference.

“Now we’ve been through the transition stage, we need to make sure that this is stable,” Hill said. “We want to make sure that we are someone who is respected in the league.”

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Take for example the football team, whose two undefeated seasons in 2004 and 2008 earned the Utes a reputation as the original BCS-busters, and their success in the Mountain West has been considered to be a major factor in the school receiving the invitation to the Pac-12. After a rough first two seasons in the newly expanded conference, in which the Utes failed to have a winning record, the team has since racked up consecutive nine and 10-win seasons, and it captured a share of the Pac-12 South last season.

Not to be outdone in terms of adjusting to the rigors of a new conference, the Runnin’ Utes overcame an abysmal 8-28 introduction to Pac-12 play in 2011-12 and 2012-13 to reach the NCAA tournament twice in the past two years.

Possibly the biggest Pac-12 success story at Utah can be seen in gymnastics, as the Red Rocks hardly skipped a beat transitioning from Mountain West competition. In the past four years, they have managed to continue their nation-leading streak of 41-straight appearances in national championships, they became the leader in average attendance for all women’s collegiate sports, and they won the U’s first Pac-12 championships in 2014 and 2015.

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The successes of these particular programs have all been a part of the plan, according to Hill. He mentioned that the athletic department’s approach to handling the move to a higher-tier conference involved an emphasis on winning and improving resources for the student-athletes on the U’s more well-known teams.

“What we realized is that we wanted to have some of our more high-profile sports start off with success; the most visible being football, men’s basketball and gymnastics. We wanted to make sure they were in the middle of the league in terms of Pac-12 support,” Hill said. “Then we took a look at the student-athlete support services. Academic support, training room support, making sure we were getting those in good enough shape to help all of our sports and benefit recruiting.”

In recent years, Hill said the school has focused on expanding the resources and support staff available to all teams, and as a result, sports other than Utah’s “big three” have started to make a name for themselves within the conference.

Women’s basketball, under new coach Lynne Roberts, reversed their recent conference woes and went 8-10 in conference play last season, making it to the WNIT for the first time in two seasons. Softball has gradually improved since joining the Pac-12, and after a 13-10 season in 2016, made it to the NCAA Super Regionals. Baseball made history this season, capturing Utah’s first men’s Pac-12 Championship after finishing dead-last in the conference every season since switching from the Mountain West.

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While the overall successes are encouraging, Hill says the biggest challenge accompanied with the change has, and always will be, money, and matching coaching salaries and money for student support is a daunting task.

“We were really getting no money from the Mountain West the last year we were in it. The next year, we didn’t have any TV money from the Pac-12, so for those two years we went in debt – we had to fund everything with donations,” Hill said. “But our budget went up, coaching salaries have gone up, and we could not afford to lose coaches to other teams in conference.”

As for what goals the department has, Hill says that the objectives vary from sport to sport, but they try to stay realistic.

“From here, we’re thinking that we want to get even further,” Hill said. “In football, we want to get to the Rose Bowl. In basketball, we want to get to the Final Four. We now feel like that has got to be our vision, and in some of the other sports, we’re talking about winning league championships.”

Only time will tell whether or not Utah’s successes have signaled their arrival as a legitimate contender within the Pac-12, and whether or not the next five years will be just as transformative for the university and the department.

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@tylerfcrum