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 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 two rival groups can meet on the common ground of good sportsmanship only when they come together to play the games.
In light of recent events with the cancellation of next year’s U of U vs. BYU basketball game, we are facing a recurring universal theme that has reared its ugly head in the state of Utah before. Overcoming differences is central to relationships. The real difference, however, is how we handle that reality. If we have gotten bad enough that we have to walk away 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 get sons of emigrants to attend Tooele High School and play football with kids who didn’t get along together. Integrating them helped them get good grades and improve behaviors. The benefits certainly exceeded the costs. Then Box Elder stood in the way of progress. Only legislation could change it, but that would not take effect for another year. 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. That was revised when there was talk of creating divisions where smaller schools would not have to play bigger schools for championship honors. But Tooele wasn’t the one running away from games. Despite their size they didn’t have reason to believe they would lose against Goliath. Quite the opposite, Goliath seemed 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 still believe today that this type of pride and prejudice—this belief of somehow being above playing the game—were not the real motivating factors behind cancelling the game.
How will the state of Utah look back at the University of Utah’s current decision? Given the past, I would guess it won’t be viewed too favorably. If anything suspicion and distrust have already increased. Many feel there is more biased sentiment than is being aired. Consider who would remember the Titans if players and coaches harbored animosities enough to keep them segregated? The problem won’t just go away by ignoring it. 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 more worthy and formidable. Legislation allowed them to take the title outright in 1929.
Perhaps Coach Krystkowiak is genuinely trying to make peace off the court, his playing days on the court aside, but protesting an entire program over isolated incidences of a few comes off high and mighty. It’s as though Utah’s Athletic Department is trying to make an example of BYU, forecasting imminent doom rather than exhibiting sportsmanship themselves, and not leaving it to the NCAA to banish rivalry games as unsafe. 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.
Sports are a microcosm of life. It can bring joy or sorrow. It can bring people together or pull them apart. It all depends on how you play the game. Whether repeating history is good or bad is not up to past events, it is up to present players. The real win is not about score at all; it is about how you handled the game. The same goes for life.
Let’s hope cooler heads prevail, BYU and Utah put differences and disagreements aside, unite on the court, and learn how to play nice, sooner rather than later.
Chad Robert Parker is the author of “Sterling Bridge,” a historical fiction film novel that was released on November 10th, 2015. It is historical in that it is based on actual people and events during the football years of a legendary coach, Sterling Harris, in Tooele, Utah leading up to and during the Great Depression. Sterling is credited with uniting two communities: Catholic miners and Mormon settlers. It is fictionalized in that some events and conversations were made to fit a condensed timeline and page length. It is a film novel in that it is easy to read and picture as you would a film. Chad studied how to write film novels at BYU as an undergraduate and later found his way back to BYU where he is currently a manager in the Harold B. Lee Library.
“Sterling Bridge” is a publication of Bonneville Books, an imprint of Cedar Fort Publishing, and can be found at Amazon, Books&Things, and Barnes&Noble.
Editor’s Note: This article was accepted for publication in the Deseret News shortly after the infamous announcement from the University of Utah to cancel the game with BYU in 2016.