After years of perpetual underdog status in the Mountain West Conference, the Utah Utes jumped to the big leagues in 2011 by joining the Pac-12. The move happened partly because the athletic union wanted to expand, but also because the university in Salt Lake City had established itself as a national contender. Between 1998 and 2010, Utah football collected 21 victories on the Bowl Championship Series circuit, including vanquishing Alabama at the 2009 Sugar Bowl. The school’s ascension offered a twist on the old saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Only in the Utes’ case, it was more “So, you’ve beaten the best. Why not take your rightful place at the table?”
While steamrolling foes on the gridiron has become their calling card in recent years, the university is actually an incredibly well-rounded NCAA power. The men’s and women’s ski teams have won 10 national championships, all since the ‘80s, while the women’s gymnastics squad has captured 10 titles of its own. Success across the board serves the Utes well in their quest for the Beehive Boot, a trophy awarded to the Utah school with the best overall record against its state rivals.
In 2004-05, the university made headlines across the country when quarterback Alex Smith and center Andrew Bogut were the #1 overall draft picks in the NFL and NBA respectively. The feat was surprising in the sense that most fans assumed a more traditionally great school would have been the first to claim this honor in collegiate sports history, but in Salt Lake City, it made a great deal of sense. Smith led the Utes to an undefeated season in 2004 and thrashed Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, while Bogut was the near-unanimous Player of the Year in college basketball.
Despite their excellence, the Utes often play in front of empty seats. That’s not because there’s no one in attendance, but rather it’s because Utah fans do not sit down. The Mighty Utah Student Section, also known as MUSS, has a tradition of standing for the entirety of games, and it’s not the only awesome ritual that they celebrate. During football contests, diehards also take part in the Third Down Jump, in which they leap and scream in an attempt to distract the opponent. There’s also the First Down Chant and the False Start Tally. Not only does MUSS know the rules of the game, but they love it when the visitors break one of them.
In terms of megawattage, the biggest star in Salt Lake City is The Block U. The massive concrete structure rests 5,300 feet above sea level and lights up to alert folks that the Utes are engaged in combat. After big wins, the red and white LED bulbs of the “U” flash to signal that the home team has claimed another “W.” Looking to the heavens for inspiration may be a played-out expression, but for Utes fans, it’s just another way to keep track of success.