Utah-BYU rivalry needs a story book ending like ‘Sterling Bridge’
By Chad Robert Parker
Sir Winston Churchill famously stated, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Does repeating history always have to be a bad thing? Can rivals as staunch as BYU and Utah ever actually learn to get along? Allow me to introduce to you a coach from Utah’s past, Sterling Harris, also known simply as “The Bridge Builder,” who proved you can get over differences and you can unite in a common goal of good sportsmanship, when and only when the players involved are allowed to play the game together.
In light of recent events with the cancellation of next year’s U of U vs. BYU basketball game, it is perfect timing for “Sterling Bridge,” a new historical fiction film novel released on November 10th, 2015, to take the stage. If there is enough interest for the story as a book it is anticipated it will be made into a movie. The script is already written. “Sterling Bridge” is set during the Great Depression in Tooele, Utah concerning a little known history where sports overcame tensions and brought together previously divided groups: Catholic miners and Mormon settlers. Does it remind you of “Remember the Titans?” It should. And yet, it has a specific Utah appeal as well: a certain “holy war” vibe to it. Could it be that this theme is universal? Overcoming differences is central to relationships. If we have gotten bad enough that we have to walk away from it then shame on everyone involved. The differences that divide humanity are not as great as the commonalities we sometimes refuse to allow to unite us, and yet here we are again letting vague but real divisive factors come to the forefront.
The record books in the state of Utah will forever hold a scar with an asterisk next to the Tooele High School football accomplishments of 1928, when Box Elder refused to play Tooele for the state title in football. Sure it was not as grand as college sports, but it was a title match. We can learn from it. Sterling Harris had painstakingly made efforts to include sons of emigrants into the school of the main town, to keep them qualified with good grades and with changing bad behaviors, allowing them to integrate and to play football among their peers. The benefits certainly exceeded the costs. Then Box Elder stood in the way. Only legislation could change it and that would not take effect for another year or so. Box Elder’s official excuse was a nebulous reference to the death of a player from disease earlier in the season, also citing injuries and sickness of other players: a constant backdrop for many schools in days when quarantines were common. Later the reason made more sense when there was talk of creating divisions where smaller schools would not have to play bigger schools in order to lay claim to championship honors. But Tooele wasn’t running from Box Elder. Despite their size they didn’t have reason to believe they would lose against Goliath. Quite the opposite, Goliath seems to have gotten ahold of the script and feared its possible fate. It would not be politically correct posturing, but given the divisions in race, religion, and culture that already existed you would be hard pressed to believe still today that this type of pride and prejudice—this belief of somehow being above playing the game—were not the real motivating factors (to be slain) behind cancelling the game.
How will the state of Utah look back at the University of Utah’s current decision? Given the past, I suspect it will not be viewed too favorably. Consider how there wouldn’t be any Titans to remember if players and coaches who harbored animosities remained segregated. Many from both schools already feel there is more biased sentiment to the story to consider. If anything suspicion and distrust have increased. The problems will not just go away if ignored. Interestingly, to Box Elder’s dismay Tooele did not go away in the years to come, either. They became more of a force to be reckoned with. The oppression only galvanized a community to prove itself more worthy and more formidable. Legislation allowed them to win the title outright in 1929. Perhaps Coach Krystkowiak is genuinely trying to make peace off the court, his playing days on the court aside. He has seen many basketball games and has surely learned to control his own temper. But protesting an entire program over isolated incidences of a few comes off high and mighty. It seems as though Utah’s Athletic Department is trying to make an example of BYU, forecasting doom rather than exhibiting sportsmanship and letting the NCAA deem rivalry games unsafe should they need to be banished. In short, if they are trying to vilify BYU’s Athletics, the attempt has backfired. No one who is being honest with themselves thinks that all the bad in the rivalry is BYU’s fault and all the good that ever comes of it is to Utah’s credit. Whether there is an asterisk on the schedule for 2016 is up to Utah. The ball is in their court. They can still win the day.
By and large the games have been epic. The series stands at 129-128 in favor of BYU. Each game has been a learning moment for new players, and there have been moments where players from either side were not mature enough to handle the spotlight of a seemingly threatening environment. But for the most part, as Coach Krystkowiak once put it, “it’s just playing basketball” (His affable reply after being asked about throwing an elbow during a basketball contest.). Most of the time games are filled with good basketball moments and most players end the day shaking the opponents’ hands having gained a new found mutual respect for intense tough competition. Next year could end that well, or, if history is any indication, cancelling the game under heated circumstances will grow the tension and add fuel to the fire, the legislature might have to get involved, and the missed game will essentially be viewed for years to come as an unnecessary loss for everyone.
Fact is sports are a microcosm of life. Sports can and should bring more joy than sorrow. It can and should be more entertainment and diversion from daily toils than it is stress and grief. Generally, it can be safely monitored by coaches and referees without blowing disputes out of proportion. It is a playing field that can and should allow players to play out what they practiced. Are we really all that different in our present lives than our ancestors of lives gone by? Do we always act well our part? Can we look past shortcomings, forgive, and forget? Do we even get in there and play the game at all or boycott the experience altogether? Or is the playful use of the term “holy war” as bad as the actual thing? It took actual war, after all, the last time the rivalry came to a halt, and in that case the state of Utah was on the same side toward the effort (some of whom won and lost many football and basketball games for or against Sterling Harris). The difference between whether a repeat of history will be good or bad is not whether or not history itself (of people’s choices before us), was good or bad, it is whether or not we learned from the past, good and bad, to now choose the better part and repeat desired outcomes with new players. To win the game you have to play the game and the real win is playing the game well whether you win or lose in the score column. The same goes for life. It’s open ended, so play on.
Let’s hope cooler heads prevail, BYU and Utah put their differences aside, unite on the court, and learn how to play nice sooner rather than later. Here’s hoping there is a happy ending to whatever disagreements exist between the two. In the meantime: How about a nice inspirational book?
Sterling Bridge was published by Bonneville Books, an imprint of Cedar Fort Publishing. It can be found at Amazon, Books&Things, and Barnes&Noble.
Editor’s note: This article was submitted to the Deseret News on January 11th. A shorter revised version was accepted for publication.