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A stadium expansion will only be possible if Utah continues to see success on the field. The challenge to be competitive is there every day for Whittingham. He says affiliation with the Pac-12 means a larger budget and a larger recruiting base, but it also carries higher expectations.
“To me, it’s like having a new job without having to move,” Whittingham says. “We got a whole new conference and a new set of teams to play.”
BYU feels similar pressures to perform under a higher set of expectations. Even before the Cougars kicked off their first season as an independent, they were scrutinized for charting a path alone in an age where conference affiliation is the norm.
“How much it can benefit us will pretty much be determined by how successful our programs are,” Holmoe says. “If we’re really good and it’s a good product, then I think the sky’s the limit. If we’re just an average program, then we’ll just blend in with all the other opportunities or options.”
Outside of Athletics
The ripple effects from the conference changes will expand into academics, finances, student life, visibility and many other areas for both universities.
Joining the Pac-12 allows Utah to be mentioned in the same breath as a host of schools renowned for their academic prowess: California, Stanford, Washington and other West Coast universities. More than 130 Nobel Laureates and 40 Pulitzer Prize winners have come out of the original Pac-10 schools. It allows Utah to continue to stake out a reputation as a premier research institution.
Other Pac-12 universities have an average annual research budget of $455 million. Utah’s research budget tops $400 million—well in line with the research footprint of its peer institutions. It is the only current or former Mountain West Conference school to claim such a large research footprint.
David Rudd, dean of the university’s College of Social and Behavioral Science, suggested that the University of Utah could undergo a similar evolution to Penn State when it joined the Big Ten Conference in 1990. Penn State increased its annual research budget from $350 million at the time it joined to $780 million by 2009. It gradually morphed from a regional university to a national one because of the academic prestige associated with Big Ten schools.
Rudd figures the University of Utah is also on track to further enhance its national academic reputation.
“The relationship between athletic conference affiliation and academic reputation is, to say the least, interesting,” Rudd wrote in a blog entry posted on the official University of Utah website on July 1. “I would suggest in the case of the U, it’s also remarkably promising. We’re in a very attractive neighborhood now, athletically and academically. Not only will the move to the Pac-12 increase pressure on the athletic department, it’ll do the same for academics. The dramatic increase in exposure for the U will create new opportunities on the academic side, with several already emerging.”
Hill says there is no chance Utah would be where it is athletically if the university had not made the commitment to lay the groundwork academically many decades earlier.
“It’s not like we tricked the Pac-10 into being the Pac-12,” Hill says. “We’ve always tried to build our program so we could be one of the best in the western part of the country and make a national splash. That involves all of the things athletically to make us attractive. Our success. Our facilities. But we don’t get even close to a chance to being involved in this league without the nature of the University of Utah and its research [efforts]. Both the growth of athletics and the growth of the entire university is what puts it together.”
Utah is already working to capitalize on its new Pac-12 status by casting a wider net in student recruitment. The university has a goal within five years to change the face of its demographics and create a student body more national and international in its makeup than in previous years.
BYU also hopes to cash in on its newfound athletic visibility in a different way. The flagship university of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wants to use broader exposure through athletics as an avenue to draw people to look into the message and values espoused by the university and by the faith it represents.
“In athletics, we have a number of people across the country that are interested in our student-athletes and our coaches and our teams,” Holmoe says. “They’re intrigued by the way we perform and the way we do things. Some people don’t understand that. They don’t understand BYU and understand our church or religion. If we can give positive exposure through BYUtv and ESPN, it would be a great asset.”