History of the ‘Holy War’ and why this year is different

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After BYU and the University of Utah left the Mountain West Conference in 2011, it became clear the ongoing rivalry between the two teams faced an uncertain future.

Many fans wondered if the yearly contest would continue with the same intensity and meaning that had developed during 88 years of in-conference competition. But it is clear the rivalry is only getting more exciting.

Brigham Young Academy football team took the field in 1896. Photo courtesy L. Tom Perry Special Collections.
Brigham Young Academy football team took the field in 1896. Photo courtesy L. Tom Perry Special Collections.

“It‘s like the Super Bowl. I’m 0–3 against them and I want to win. Plain and simple: I want to beat them,” senior linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. “They don’t like us and we don’t like them and that’s OK because it’s going to be a bloodbath.”

With the last game for several years approaching, players are anxious to go out on top, even going so far as to say Utah is the team’s most important opponent on this year’s schedule.

“I can’t speak for former guys or former players, but I think we’re here to stay,” Van Noy said. “We’re not going anywhere and we’re making it clear that we’re ready to play.”

The “Holy War” rivalry began in the 1890s. BYU was known as Brigham Young Acadamy (BYA) at the time and split a six-game series against Utah, with both teams winning three games each. The first meeting between the two schools was an unusual April contest that Utah won 12–4.

Following the series, BYA stopped playing football and did not start again for 23 years.

Play between Utah and BYU resumed again in 1922. Utah picked up an easy win, dominating BYU 49-0. Utah swept the series for the next 20 years; BYU would not pick up another victory against Utah until 1942 when the Cougars upset the Utes 12–7 at Utah. Following a two-year hiatus due to World War II, the Utes would win or tie the next 12 contests.

By 1972, Utah had beat BYU 41 times in 53 games. The same year BYU decided to hire Lavell Edwards, and in his first year as head coach, BYU beat Utah 16–7. The win began a 20-year period of BYU dominance in the rivalry. From 1972 to 1992, BYU won 19 of 21 games.

After a close game last season, the Cougars and Utes square off again Saturday Sept. 21. Photo by Chris Bunker.
After a close game last season, the Cougars and Utes square off again Saturday Sept. 21. Photo by Chris Bunker.

“The hatred between BYU and Utah is nothing compared to what it will be,” said Wayne Howard, former Utah head coach, following a loss to BYU in 1977. “It will be a crusade to beat BYU from now on.”

In 1993, Utah began to find success against BYU again. Over the past 20 seasons, Utah has beat BYU 13 times, seven of those coming in Provo.

BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall appeared on Jim Rome’s national radio show on Tuesday, Sept. 10, explaining that the difference between the Holy War and other rivalries is the role religion and politics play in the rivalry.

“Anytime that those two things are part of a rivalry, there is this personal element that starts to take shape,” Mendenhall said. “Not only is it school-against-school, there is this person-against-person. Then it starts to touch the hearts and minds of people, and makes them really do things they normally wouldn’t do.”

With the first rivalry hiatus since World War II coming up, and Utah on a three-game rivalry win streak, BYU players and coaches both understand the importance of the upcoming game against Utah.

“It’s huge,” BYU quarterback Taysom Hill said. “I was obviously part of the team last year that lost and that’s something that I never want to feel again.”

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