August 3, 2009

The 1969 Season: Utah’s Claim On A Championship That Was Never Awarded

Much was made, most of it by our neighbors to the south, of Utah’s lack of success in winning conference championships. Most of it was justified. Utah went 30 seasons from 1965-1994 without winning a conference title. And the titles won in 1964 and 1995 were not outright crowns.

But what about the 1969 season? Utah lost one conference game, as did Arizona State. Utah beat Arizona State 24-23 in Salt Lake City. No one went undefeated in conference play.

So why is Arizona State recognized as outright Western Athletic Conference champion that year?

There really is no short, concise answer to this. But football fans know that schedules are made up years in advance. And in September 1968, Colorado State and Texas-El Paso were admitted into WAC. Therefore, teams had the option of playing six or seven conference games. Utah, with non-conference games against Oregon, San Jose State, Oregon State and Utah State, played only six WAC games.

Arizona State played seven. Instead of a fourth non-conference game, the Sun Devils did play Colorado State, taking its frustrations out on the Rams to the tune of 79-7 after finding out it was again being bypassed for a bowl game.

See, the Sun Devils would finish 8-2 for the third consecutive year, yet had no bowl invitation to show for it. Meanwhile, Utah and Wyoming teams had landed bowl berths earlier in the decade, making the Sun Devils’ anger justified. These repeated snubs helped give rise to the Fiesta Bowl, which would be played for the first time in 1971.

What could have Utah done to win the WAC outright? Certainly after beating Arizona State to improve to 3-1 overall, 2-0 WAC, it controlled its own destiny. Led by a defense that allowed just 107 points – only the 1964 team allowed fewer in the modern two-platoon era – Utah held its next four opponents to a total of 20 points. Only Oregon State – a 7-3 victim in Portland – came close to beating Utah.

However, Utah can’t say it wasn’t aware of the one-game difference and that a loss would not result in a shared crown, but in a second-place finish. Sports Illustrated even said as much in its Nov. 19, 1969 edition:
In the Western Athletic Conference, Utah pinned Wyoming with its second straight loss, 34-10, knocking the Cowboys out of championship contention and enhancing its own chances considerably. The Utes now are 4-0 in WAC play, with games left against Arizona this week and Brigham Young after that. Utah plays one less league game than Arizona State, the hottest contender, and thus would lose the title if both teams finished with only one conference loss.
The game against Arizona proved to be one of many stumbling blocks Utah would trip over for the next 25 years in pursuit of that elusive conference crown. Again, we turn to Sports Illustrated (Nov. 26, 1969) for a description of the events:
Just when Utah was thinking it had the Western Athletic Conference title in the bag, the Redskins ran into a big snowstorm in Tucson and wound up being upset by Arizona 17-16. The winning points came on Steve Hurley's 21-yard field goal with 11:28 left, but the real hero was Arizona's defense, which got two interceptions and two fumbles to keep Utah in check. Now Utah and Arizona State (which beat UTEP 42-19) are tied for the WAC lead, each with a 4-1 record, but the edge belongs to State, which plays one more league game than Utah.
Not only did Arizona State lose to Utah, it also lost to Oregon State, both at home and in one-sided fashion, 30-7. Both teams played San Jose State and won convincingly. Yes, Arizona State did beat Arizona – something Utah couldn’t do. But that game came in Tempe, while Utah’s loss came on the road.

That’s just one example of the lopsidedness of the home-road split both teams had. Arizona State played four home conference games and three road conference games. Utah had all of two home conference games and four road conference games.

It should also be noted that CSU had only four home games in 1969. Given Utah’s unbalanced home-road ratio in conference games, the fact that the two teams didn’t play in 1969 may have been the result of a conflict that couldn’t be resolved: Utah wasn’t going to play five conference road games in one season, and CSU wasn’t going to drop one of its three home non-conference game to play a road conference game – and leave it with only three home games total in a 10-game season. It's clear that the WAC's collective message to CSU was as such: You can come play us at our place in 1969, but no way are we going up to Fort Collins when we don't have to.

Utah was not the only team to face this predicament in the 1969 season. Arizona and New Mexico also played only six WAC games. As a result, CSU played only four conference games in 1969. UTEP, on the other hand, had no problem playing a full seven-game conference slate.

With so many of the league’s membership facing an insurmountable handicap entering the season, the WAC should have counted games against Colorado State for the purpose of individual and team statistics, but the games themselves should not have counted toward the conference race. By doing what the WAC did, it in effect removed the head-to-head factor in determining a champion. All things equal, that should never be trumped, and certainly not by an extra game against a team that went 4-6, with wins two FCS/Division 1-AA competition, Utah State and Idaho

If that had taken place, Utah and Arizona State would have been declared WAC co-champions – a fitting conclusion given Utah’s one-point home win in Salt Lake City. In essence, the teams were dead even with one another. And the history books should be rewritten to reflect that.

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