Welcome to A Brief History of Stanford-Utah. I’ll be looking back at the ups and downs of this cross-division series. The Stanford Cardinal and Utah Utes have met a handful of times throughout the decades and this sporadic series has produced an eclectic mix of games with various degrees of importance.
Stanford and Utah first met on the gridiron on November 27, 1902. The contest was held in the football infancy of both schools. Stanford’s program began in 1891 and the Utes began sponsoring the sport the following year. Football out West was still very young and neither team had risen to the ranks of the elite in the sport, although Stanford was considered one of the stronger West Coast programs at the time. The game was held in Salt Lake City and was Stanford’s first time traveling to the state of Utah. Likewise, the Utes had never played a team from California before. The long road trip out to the Beehive State served as the Stanford’s only real away game and it closed out the season for both teams as the Big Game had already been held three weeks prior. Stanford had little trouble holding off Utah, turning in a solid 35-11 victory.
The next time these schools met it was under much different circumstances. West Coast football exploded onto the national scene with Cal leading the way in the early 1920’s and USC and Stanford were following right behind. In 1924, Stanford hired Pop Warner to coach their team and they were instantly elevated to the ranks of the sport’s best programs. It was in this context that Utah traveled to Stanford Stadium to play their second ever football game with the Stanford football team. It didn’t go well. The Utes were still a minor player in a football backwater and were drubbed 30-0. The loss was quite understandable, led by star fullback Ernie Nevers, Stanford won the PCC and went to the Rose Bowl.
1924 was a rather important season for Utah in hindsight. The Utes only managed a 3-4-1 record, but they played their first game against a team east of Colorado when they hosted the Drake Bulldogs to open their season. One assistant on the Drake team was Ike Armstrong. When Ute coach Thomas Fitzpatrick retired at the end of the season Armstrong traveled to Salt Lake to lead the team he helped beat the year before. He would end up transforming Utah into a mid-major powerhouse. While Pop Warner was leading Stanford to their only national championship, Armstrong built Utah into the best team in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Utah won seven RMAC titles in eight years from 1926 to 1933, and when the Utes left to form the Mountain States Conference in 1938 they claimed four titles in the first five seasons in that league. Armstrong retired after the 1949 season with a 141-55-15 record and having won thirteen conference championships. He remains a legend of Utah football and is still their all-time winningest coach.
The Cardinal and the Utes wouldn’t meet for 65 years following their meeting in 1924. The Utes gradually climbed the ladder out of obscurity, first under Armstrong and then under his successors. The most significant boost Utah had yet was when they left the MSC and formed the WAC in 1962 with some of the best teams in the Mountain Time Zone. The WAC was the premier mid-major conference in the Western United States and is the last mid-major league to claim a football national championship (to the chagrin of Ute fans) when BYU won in 1984.
Utah was in a bit of a funk when they played Stanford in 1989. The Utes were in the fifth and final year of the forgettable Jim Fassel tenure. For their part, the Cardinal were rebuilding under Dennis Green. Green would eventually lead the Cardinal back to respectability, but not in 1989. Utah was 2-5 when they traveled to Stanford stadium to take on the 1-5 Cardinal. It was a competitive game in the sense that neither team was very good. The Utes came back from a 24-13 deficit to win 27-24 thanks to a field goal in the last minute of the game. It wasn’t exactly a landmark in either team’s history but it was Utah’s first win in the series.
Stanford and Utah finally agreed to play a real home and home series for the 1995 and 1996 football seasons. Both schools had raised their level of play by the time the first game came around. Ty Willingham’s Cardinal traveled to Salt Lake City for the first time since 1902 to play Ron McBride’s Utes. Stanford won 27-20 to secure a quality road win. The next year, Utah returned the favor when they beat the Cardinal 17-10 in Stanford Stadium.
At the tail end of McBride’s tenure, Utah left the WAC to form the Mountain West Conference. Despite winning the league championship in their first season, the Utes had losing records in two of their next three seasons and McBride was fired following the 2002 season. Replacing McBride was Urban Meyer, who would build off of McBride’s success and in just two seasons turn Utah into the best mid-major in football and the first ever BCS buster. Meyer left for Florida, but he left the team in capable hands. Kyle Wittingham had been the defensive coordinator for both Meyer and McBride, and he was given the chance to coach the Utes. He continued what Meyer had left off and maintained Utah’s position as one of the best mid-majors in the sport. The Utes went undefeated again in 2008 and beat Alabama in Sugar Bowl to finish 2nd in the AP Poll, their best finish ever. Utah parlayed all of this success and national recognition into yet another conference promotion when they were selected alongside Colorado to join the PAC-10 when conference realignment again shook the college football landscape in 2010.
Stanford had a revitalization of their own in the late 2000’s and by the time Utah had joined the PAC-12 the Cardinal were one of the premier programs in the nation, although they hadn’t won the conference under Jim Harbaugh. When Harbaugh left for the NFL, he was replaced by David Shaw in a move reminiscent of Wittingham’s promotion at Utah. Stanford and Utah were placed in different divisions and did not meet in cross-division play in the first two seasons that they shared a conference home.
2013 was the first time that Stanford and Utah played football as members of the PAC-12. The Cardinal had won the league in Shaw’s second season and were once again in a race with Oregon for the conference championship. Utah, meanwhile, was struggling. They had suffered their first losing season under Wittingham in 2012 and were about to repeat the same feat in 2013. Nobody expected the shocking upset that the Utes delivered when they beat the Cardinal 21-27 in Salt Lake City, ruining Stanford’s undefeated season and ending their hope for berth in the BCS Championship Game. To add insult to injury, Utah again defeated the Cardinal in 2014, this time at Stanford Stadium and this time in double overtime.
With their sweep of Stanford in 2013-14, Utah now leads the all-time series 4-3.