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September 25, 2022

How a pandemic may have helped start the BYU-Utah football rivalry

The University of Utah football team plays a game against Montana in 1905, when BYU still banned the game. Football returned to BYU in 1919, a year after an attempted game against Utah. (Utah State History)

Editor’s note:This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com’s Historic section.

SALT LAKE CITY — Saturday will mark the first BYU-Utah football matchup since the COVID-19 pandemic ruined the rivalry last year.

While a pandemic put the big game on hold, another pandemic may have fueled the tradition. Here’s how.

Revisiting Utah’s canceled 1918 season

First off, yes, the BYU-Utah rivalry includes six games played in the 1890s — if you go by the University of Utah’s history of the rivalry and not BYU’s. The Cougars credit a 1922 matchup as the first game between the two schools.

The reason there’s a gap is partly due to the fact that BYU, which was Brigham Young Academy at the time the first six games were played, banned football in 1903 after the sport was deemed too violent, as noted by the Deseret News. That wasn’t unique at the time. Serious injuries and deaths reported nationwide led President Theodore Roosevelt to meet with some university presidents in 1905 to find ways to make the sport safer.

So, by 1918, only the University of Utah and the Agricultural College of Utah, now Utah State University, had football teams. Neither school played in 1918 due to two reasons: First, the end of World War I prolonged the start of the football season because schools were banned from long travels; second, a flu pandemic struck Utah by the time the wartime rule was lifted.

You can read more about that from a previous KSL.com article about the time in college football history; however, one of the more interesting stories from that year revolved around the University of Utah’s failed attempts to play games that season.

In October 1918, BYU announced it planned to field a football team for the first time as a university. As the U. struggled to find opponents, it was announced that BYU and Utah would play against each other for a Thanksgiving gridiron showdown, according to the Salt Lake Telegram.

One newspaper reported at the time that Provo businesses even raised about $400 (a little more than $7,000 in today’s money) so a group of BYU students could afford the equipment needed to play the game; however, the game never happened.

That’s because there was a surge in new influenza cases just before Thanksgiving and the state health department barred the game from happening.

“Old King Influenza of Spanish fame put a stop to the football game at the University of Utah yesterday afternoon and the crimson football togs will be boxed up until next fall when it is hoped that the boys will be able to get back to the good old college sport,” the Salt Lake Republican-Herald reported on Dec. 1, 1918.

Football returns to Provo

While that game never came to fruition, it did set the wheels in motion for football to return to BYU, and thus spark a rivalry. Again, BYU wouldn’t officially have a team until 1922, but the school loosened its ban of the game not long after the attempted 1918 game.

That’s because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which held a football ban across all its schools for over a decade, officially lifted its football ban in August 1919. Leaders said the game had changed and become drastically safer over the time it was banned, the Salt Lake Tribune wrote in an Aug. 28, 1919, article.

Thank you, forward pass.

A day after the ban was lifted, the Salt Lake Telegram reported that BYU sent its prospective football coach east so he could spend up to six weeks learning “all the latest dope on coaching the gridiron sport” from football coaches at Yale University. The trip was reportedly a dream situation for E.L. Roberts.

“Since the abandonment of the sport, Coach Roberts has always held out hopes that some day it would be restored to the school,” the paper reported on Aug. 29, 1919. “The coach, the school and the entire city of Provo are highly elated with the good news of the revival of the sport.”

Football first resumed as an intramural sport on BYU’s campus that year, according to historian Gordon Daines. The school resumed intercollegiate games a year after that and it became an officially sponsored sport again in 1922.

The rivalry born — or reborn

If you go by BYU’s history, BYU and Utah football first met on Oct. 14, 1922 — nearly four years after the attempted 1918 Thanksgiving game. It was also nearly 25 years since the schools last played, if you go by the University of Utah’s history of the rivalry.

Newspaper reports from the time show there was plenty of excitement leading into the game — a game that Utah won rather easily 49-0. Most of the scoring came in the fourth quarter, which is when Utah poured it on.

“It must be said in justice to the BYU lads that they fought Utah to a standstill in the first three periods, holding the Crimson to only 19 points during the first three periods,” the Ogden Standard-Examiner wrote in an Oct. 15, 1922, recap of the game. “The Provo boys fought well and kept fighting some more and with costly penalties against the Crimson, the ‘Y’ team looked like it had a chance until the fourth period, when Utah snowed them under with their overhead game and the startling end runs.”

The rivalry was either born or reborn that day. Since then, the two schools have played 93 more games since then. Utah owns the series 59-31-4 over those games. Saturday’s game will be either the 95th or 101st meeting between the two schools, depending on what history you look at.

It’s a rivalry that just may have started — or been rekindled — when BYU students volunteered to play Utah in 1918, which opened the door for football to return to BYU a year later, and then eventually for that to grow into a school-sponsored program.

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