A Mormon rivalry

Sports rivalries are nothing new, but when you add religion to the mix, that can create some extra drama. A Sports Illustrated feature describes the anguish Kyle Whittingham felt between coaching football at his alma mater Brigham Young University or--where he ended up--with the University of Utah.

In a twist both unique and cruel, he had been offered--on the same day--the head coaching jobs at BYU and Utah, the principals in a rivalry whose intensity often crossed the line into ugliness. Conflicted barely begins to describe how he felt.

Whittingham had been a star fullback and linebacker at Provo High in the mid-1970s before crossing the street, literally, to play at BYU, as would his three younger brothers and as had his father, legendary wild man and former NFL linebacker Fred (Mad Dog) Whittingham. A brawler and partier as a young adult, Mad Dog married a BYU cheerleader named Nancy Livingston, who by all accounts had a civilizing influence on him. Eventually he was persuaded to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Author Austin Murphy saves some of his most interesting material for the end, where the drama between the teams plays out. However, the author seems to treat Mormons as a regional group rather than a religious group. What beliefs tie these people together (or, in this case, creates tension)?

There was high drama the last time the Cougars and the Utes met--both during and after the game. Last year, after tossing the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to beat Utah 26--23, BYU quarterback Max Hall spoke from his heart about his feelings for the Utes.

...At Rice-Eccles the previous season, Hall contended, Utah fans "threw beer on my family" and "did a whole bunch of nasty things... They deserved to lose."

Utah fans got less upset about that rant than they did about a self-righteous pronouncement by Cougars receiver Austin Collie following BYU's last-minute 17--10 victory over the Utes in 2007. "When you're doing what's right, on and off the field," Collie proclaimed, "the Lord steps in and plays a part."

The fact that there were 27 returned LDS missionaries on the Utah roster probably didn't enter Collie's mind. But implicit in his remark--and this is the attitude that drives Utes (LDS Utes in particular) around the bend--is the belief that the Cougars and their fans are literally holier than thou. That, at least, is what Utah fans choose to infer. "But that's how you want a rivalry--you want it nasty," says Smithson.

Half of the University of Utah's team are Mormon, and one of the players says some of his Mormon teammates of them feel that BYU players think they're better Mormons because they go to a church-affiliated school.

But wait a minute. If Utah's coach is Mormon, if half his players are Mormon, doesn't that give them common cause with their rivals? Wouldn't that turn down the heat on the rivalry? "It cranks it up, actually," says Taylor, who isn't Mormon. Speaking for his LDS teammates, he explains that "it offends them that someone would think they're a better Mormon just because they go to a religious school."

"What ends up happening," says quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, "is that it splits families."

It didn't split the Whittinghams, but it sure led to some lively discussions. Fretting over which team to coach, Kyle lost 11 pounds in five days. "He tried to want to go to BYU, he really did," recalls his mother, Nancy. "When he finally made up his mind, he came down to the Provo house the kids grew up in and gave us the news. And I said, 'O.K., we're Utes now.'"

As one of our readers points out,what, if any, role did Whittingham's faith have in his decision? We understand up front that his family and players were significant influencers, but there's no indication that religion had any impact. When there's so much division between the two teams that might stem from religion, you would think that there's more to the story.

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