Blame the System for Utah Bailing on the BYU Rivalry

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 7th, 2016

In a joint statement last night, Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak and athletic director Dr. Chris Hill casually let it leak that the school will break its existing contract with BYU in backing out of next season’s meeting in Provo. That’s bad enough, but the pair made matters worse by claiming the decision was a result of escalating intensity in the rivalry that creates “the potential for serious injury.” The curious timing and Krystkowiak’s sudden concern for everyone’s safety made the excuse look especially flimsy — but thankfully, Twitter was quick to call out Utah’s shenanigans. Yet amid all the well-deserved scorn that was heaped the school’s administrators, there is one thing they deserve credit for. That is being brave enough to do what every other Power 5 coach and athletic director wishes they could do — find a defensible way to stop playing quality mid-major opponents on the road.

It's Inexcusable That Such a Great Basketball Rivalry is Ending (USAT Images)

It’s Inexcusable That Such a Great Basketball Rivalry is Ending (USAT Images)

Do not be deceived — that is what this decision boils down to. BYU has a long history of accusations levied against it for playing dirty in basketball and other sports. But despite the various incidents cited in Utah’s statements, this isn’t about player safety. It isn’t about animosity between the two programs (although it certainly exists). It isn’t because either program has done anything worth cancelling one of the country’s most entertaining hoops rivalries. It is because Utah, now headstrong and comfortable with its status in the much-richer Pac-12, has nothing to gain from playing a very good BYU team in Provo next season. The actual reasons for this maneuver are so transparent to be almost offensive, and the statements from both men were so patronizing in blaming BYU that it is easy to see why Cougars’ head coach Dave Rice was so fired up about the decision. In the end, the cost to Utah will only be $80,000 in a guarantee fee, a few bad days of publicity and some lingering bad blood with its rival down the road. All of which will seem like a small price to pay when next season’s game with BYU is replaced with a home game against an overmatched Big Sky team and Utah mops the floor with them.

Two years ago, the good folks at NYC Buckets penned an excellent analysis of this not-so-subtle phenomenon. The abbreviated rationale is that the Utah athletic department gets to save a little money or even earn a little revenue by playing another team, and, more importantly, Krystkowiak removes a matchup from his schedule that represents a lot of risk and almost no reward. Even though Utah easily handled BYU in the Huntsman Center this season and has won the last three games, the BYU program is on equal footing historically (leading the series, 129-128). However, the general perception is that Utah is the richer and better program (a perception Krystkowiak reinforces with this decision) and should win more often. If Utah wins, no eyebrows are raised. But if BYU wins and Utah finds itself on the bubble in February, things look much different. Utah stands to gain almost nothing from playing BYU in Provo.

Utah vs. Nobody U. Will Be Equally Exciting (USAT Images)

Utah vs. Nobody U. Will Be Equally Exciting (USAT Images)

What is particularly ironic about this situtaion is that Utah has experienced this delicate dance firsthand. They were members of the Mountain West Conference until just 2011, and although the program faltered under former coach Jim Boylen, it still struggled to find high-major teams willing to play in their building. The tables turned when Utah joined the Pac-12 and no longer needed non-conference resume-building games like those with BYU. With yesterday’s decision, the program gets to absolve itself of blame while also avoiding a team it didn’t much like playing anyway. It seems like a pretty good deal in Salt Lake City.

A lot of social media folks rushed to call Krystkowiak and Hill cowards for this decision but cowardice has nothing to do with it. This is a calculated decision that they believe is acting in the best interests of the program, so it is important to not make them a red herring. The real issue is that Power 5 schools have almost no incentive to play some of these incredibly entertaining but risky games. It isn’t just that two of the oldest rivals in collegiate athletics won’t play basketball against each other for the foreseeable future. It is also that other teams in the same position as BYU — Iona, George Mason and Wichita State, for example — don’t have an opportunity to build worthy NCAA Tournament resumes because they have to win on the road. Unfortunately for the trend, it isn’t likely to change soon. Preseason #1 North Carolina traveled to Northern Iowa this season and lost. Is Roy Williams is itching for another trip to Cedar Falls? He should call Krystkowiak for some advice on how to avoid games like those in the future.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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