SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- Morgan Scalley remembers a boot camp, a beautiful boot camp at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains but still ...
"It started with his first team meeting," Utah's safeties coach and recruiting coordinator said.
Back then, Scalley was a wide-eyed, hard-hitting defensive back who would have run naked down one of the nearby ski slopes if it meant playing for a winner.
He and his teammates were told in that first meeting with the new coach there were only about eight teams in the country that did everything right -- special teams, offense, defense, offseason program.
|Urban Meyer got going at Utah in a hurry, winning the Fiesta Bowl to finish a perfect season. (Getty Images)|
"I loved it. I loved his attitude. I loved his confidence," Scalley said recently from his office, eight years removed from that moment. "At the time you're thinking to yourself, 'This is a team that just went 5-6 [in 2002], wasn't going to a bowl game.' At the same time, I loved the energy, loved the passion."
The journey from here to there has been -- in college football terms -- a mere shotgun snap. It's not just a new conference that Utah is entering July 1, it's a new era. Utah is a new school. It is arguably the biggest moment in the university's 160-year history.
This is also arguably the biggest development in class struggle of the BCS era. When Louisville and Cincinnati went to the Big East they weren't state schools with powerful forces running interference for them in Washington (Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah attorney general Mark Schurtleff).
TCU, a private school, makes the move to the Big East next season. Colorado, going from the Big 12 to the Pac-12, already has its nose under the tent as a BCS member.
"It's the Grand Canyon we're jumping," AD Chris Hill said. "No one else has done this kind of jump by themselves."
From state school to Pac-12 school, from non-BCS to BCS, from mid-major to mattering. All because of Meyer? Well, no. The nation's best current coach-in-waiting made his bones here and is a significant part of why Utah was invited to the Pac-10 last year, but to pin Utah's medal of football freedom only on him wouldn't be fair.
"What put us in the game had to be two things," said Hill, a New Jersey native in his 24th year as AD. "One, our university, and it had to be our athletic program and facilities. Our city is so different than it was 15 years ago, people don't get it. The growth of the state and how diversity is becoming so much more prominent. People don't quite understand that's happening in Utah."
David Rudd, dean of Utah's College of Social and Behavioral Science, dares to compare the school's jump to the Pac-12 to an affiliation with the Ivy League.
"Part of the goal of the Ivy League is similar to the goal of the Big Ten and Pac-10," he said. "It was the notion that athletics could inform education. That's where Utah is today."
But if you had to summarize the story to your best bud in a bar you'd say, "Right place, right time." How, though, does that explain Larry Scott, the Pac-10 commissioner who shot for the moon and ended up landing at Salt Lake City International? Or Texas? That's the big dog Scott shot for in inviting half the Big 12 last spring. This whole thing (arguably) can be pinned on the whim of (arguably) the nation's most powerful university and richest athletic department.
Right place? Right time? Right on. If Texas said yes to Scott and the Pac-10, the Big 12 is dead and Utah is still in the Mountain West.
|Kyle Whittingham kept the machine rolling at Utah, capping a perfect season with a 2010 Sugar Bowl win. (Getty Images)|
"We came back on a Friday," Hill said. "I said to my wife, 'You know I can get on this plane and the whole world would have changed.'"
That's essentially what happened. Football, market and financial forces had come together at such a rapid rate in conference realignment that Utah was invited to join the Pac-10 on June 17. In 2008, Utah went 13-0, beat the Tide by two touchdowns and finished No. 2. Coach Kyle Whittingham had to go against the mandate of the American Football Coaches Association to vote his team No. 1.
Now? Get Utah a smoking jacket, a glass of sherry and a fine cigar. It is a member of the most exclusive club in the sport. The school is not going to apologize. Not for a minute. Not with more than $500 million in research expenditures that put it in the Pac-12 academic ballpark. Not with a "very highly rated" designation from the Carnegie Foundation that helped get it there, too. There are those here who will tell you Utah always fit the Pac-10 profile.
"Whenever it was Pac-10 expansion, Utah was always the school that they talked about," BYU AD Tom Holmoe said. "It would always frustrate the BYU fans."
Utah's ascension to this point continues to be sudden, stunning and refreshing. Meyer had multiple chances to leave Bowling Green after the 2002 season. He chose the outpost out West, a little because he was familiar. Meyer had coached against Utah while an assistant at Colorado State. A little because his wife Shelley liked the region, and a little because Meyer noticed there were possibilities.
"I had no interest in Utah whatsoever," Meyer said. "But I really liked the AD and [then] president, Bernie Machen ... The amount of resources compared to everyone else in the league, except BYU, was first rate. It was light years ahead of everyone else in the Mountain West."
The 2002 Winter Olympics had come and gone, showcasing Salt Lake to the world. It left behind stadium improvements to Rice-Eccles and campus facilities. In two seasons, Meyer went 23-2 taking that sleepy state school in the Wasatch and placing it on the tip of the tongue of every college football who ever dared ask, "Utah?" Gainesville, Fla.'s currently consummate family man and ESPN analyst has left a lasting legacy.
"It was rough in the beginning," Scalley said. "It was like, 'Let's find out who the soft guys are.' He had close to 10 guys quit during that time before the first season. It had gotten to the point that the leadership of the team felt, 'You're done establishing the fact that it was going to be tough.' We went to his office. You had married players, some with kids. Things changed after that."
"I do remember the married guys came to see me," Meyer said. "I don't remember backing off."
At its heart, Utah became a hard-ass program. Former coach Ron McBride had started recruiting and developing Polynesian players. There was an abundant local supply because of Polynesians' deep association with the Mormon faith. Local legend Alema Teo also started the annual All-Poly camp, attracting coaches from all over the country. Utah prospered athletically because it was right in the middle of it.
Meyer recalled climbing on a plane to recruit in American Samoa.
"We signed a kid in shorts, no shirt on. He hadn't played football in a year," he said. "He was weed-whacking his yard. Signing him, it was a big risk. But they say if you're going to miss, miss fast and miss big."
Defensive end Jonathan Fanene is still in the NFL.
These days Whittingham calls his program "the most diverse team in America." Fifty-percent of players are Mormon. One-third of scholarship players are Polynesian, one-third are African-American and one-third are white. One-hundred percent of the talent level has been upgraded since Meyer stepped on campus.
"Nowadays," said Scalley, captain of that 2004 team when he was Mountain West co-defensive player of the year, "we probably wouldn't have recruited me."
When Meyer left for Florida, Whittingham literally had a matter of hours to make the biggest decision of his life. The job at BYU, his alma mater, had opened up at the same time. There were forces from all angles pulling him in both directions. At BYU, Whittingham had become a good enough linebacker to play professionally for a short time in the USFL against an up-and-comer named Steve Young. At Utah, he has become Meyer's right hand man as defensive coordinator.
"When it was happening, 'agonizing' wasn't a strong enough word," Whittingham said. "It was gut-wrenching."
"You can follow 13-0 or you can follow a down year," he added. "BYU had everybody returning. All their coaches were intact. All our coaches had left. We were essentially starting over. Not only are you following a perfect season but you've got to -- I hate the word -- rebuild."
You know by now which program Whittingham picked. Utah didn't have to rebuild under its new coach. If anything, the program is better than it was under Meyer. In four of Whittingham's six seasons, he has won at least nine games, including a Mountain West title and posted that perfect season. His name now regularly comes up for major job openings but you get the impression he's locked in for a while.
"I weighed everything out," Whittingham said. "Where was the best opportunity long-term? I thought there was more upside here. I thought this program was coming of age."
Within 10 days of joining the Pac-12, Utah got seven verbal commitments -- players who Whittingham said he probably wouldn't have gotten without the new conference affiliation. Instead of selling a maybe BCS bowl, he can sell the possibility of a Rose Bowl every year.
"I said to myself, 'The Rose Bowl people are here,' Hill said, remembering the day of the Pac-12 press conference. 'This is real.'"
Down the hall from Whittingham sits a 64-year old Yoda who has seen it all. Utah also happens to be offensive coordinator Norm Chow's alma mater. You may know him better as the coach who tutored Young during 27 years as an assistant at BYU. He has coached three Heisman winners, been a part of three national championships, took a side trip to the NFL and is now home.
"I think these guys are ready for the Pac-12," Chow said. "We're not better than anybody but there's nobody better than us."
Utah's power brokers know that is not the perception. In Alabama, they still regard that Sugar Bowl as an off night -- a fluke due to injuries and inattention. Here, the 2009 Sugar is the decoration scheme for the football complex. Along with Meyer and academics and recruiting and everything else, it is considered one of those shotgun snaps that changes everything in an instant.
Will Utah ever get proper credit?
"Probably not," Whittingham said.
"They'll learn," said Hill.