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Provo • Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his former defensive coordinator were supposed to sit at separate tables at a luncheon last June after the annual Rivalry for Charity golf event, just as Whittingham and former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall did for many years, most of the time never even acknowledging each other's presence.
But Whittingham and new BYU coach Kalani Sitake would have none of that. They plopped down right next to each other, hugged, broke bread, laughed and chatted throughout the proceedings.
What's going on here? Has one of college football's most heated rivalries which will be renewed on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium been softened a bit, become more PG-rated now that close friends lead the programs separated by a mere 45 miles?
It certainly appears that way.
Sitake, who coached at Utah under Whittingham for 10 seasons, even said after Saturday's 18-16 win over Arizona that it "is an honor to call Utah our rivals," and he reiterated that at Monday's news briefing as "rivalry week" kicked off around the state for the first time since 2013.
Sure, the teams met last December in the Las Vegas Bowl, but buildup just wasn't there like it is for a regular-season matchup, and the chief storylines were Utah's unhappiness about being selected to a lower-level bowl game and Mendenhall's pending departure to Virginia.
Sitake set the tone Monday, telling his players the game should be about respect, competition and having fun, and not hate, according to running back Jamaal Williams.
"They were great to me and my family for 10 years," Sitake said. "I had a great perspective and my point of view was awesome. I will never say anything bad about the University of Utah or their athletic program, especially about the football team, because they were so great to me. I think it is important for me to share that with everyone."
Whittingham reiterated at his news conference Monday that he and Sitake are close, and the rivalry won't change that. The coaches text each other a lot, but don't expect to communicate this week.
"There's a few people in this profession I consider close friends. He's one of them," Whittingham said. "I don't think it has any bearing on the game itself or that type of thing. … He did a great job for us while he was here and I'm sure he's going to do a great job down there."
Opinions vary, but many BYU fans point to former Utah coach Urban Meyer as the instigator of the current bitterness after years of relative civility in the rivalry when LaVell Edwards headed up BYU and Ron McBride guided Utah. Meyer famously had BYU-logo deodorizing cakes placed in urinals in the football offices, and referred to the school as the "Team Down South," among other things.
Utah fans say former BYU quarterback Max Hall became the lightning rod to rail due to his anti-Utah rant when the Cougars last beat the Utes, 26-23 in overtime in 2009. There is also no discounting the fact that the rivalry among the fans has intensified, the hatred elevated, because of the ability to lob insults at each other via social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook.
It is no secret that Mendenhall and Whittingham were not fond of each other. That animosity Mendenhall has said he's not quite sure how it started, but gave up trying to turn it into an Edwards-McBride type of relationship long ago led to some of the bitterness in the rivalry as well.
Utah's admission into the Pac-12, a so-called "golden ticket" that BYU fans believe their athletic program was more deserving of, has also added fire to the rivalry in some circles.
"I honestly believe [Utah-BYU] has become the sport's nastiest rivalry outside of Alabama-Auburn, fueled in large part by the Utes' move up to the Pac-12 while the Cougars cross their fingers waiting on the Big 12," national college football writer Stewart Mandell wrote on Foxsports.com Monday.
Utah's refusal to schedule BYU in 2014 and 2015 was perceived to be an arrogant move by many Cougar fans, and also ruffled some feathers.
Whittingham said "not really" when asked if he cheers for his alma mater, BYU, when he is not playing against them, but acknowledged that "the dynamic with Kalani there is different." Sitake remains a big Utah fan, saying several times in the offseason that he hopes Utah goes 11-1 this season.
"I have never seen it as nasty, really, from my point of view," Sitake said, alluding to many cases where families are divided in their loyalties, such as this week when brothers Kai Nacua (BYU) and Samson Nacua (Utah) will be on opposing sidelines.
"I can see some people saying it becomes nasty," Sitake continued. "I don't think it is as nasty as what others think. I think there are a lot of friendships and a lot of fun behind it all. I know I love Kyle, and he loves me. We are going to be friends no matter what, and this is going to be one of those things that extends our friendship."
Will the relationship be tested when they really start recruiting against each other? People close to Whittingham have said that Mendenhall's statements about BYU being the best choice for LDS athletes rankled the Utah coach, who is also LDS.
"You recruit against the university more so than the head coach," Whittingham said. "We cross paths on a few kids in-state, but other than that there's not a lot of crossing paths when recruiting kids, particularly out of state. It's more Pac-12 schools and Southern California in our recruiting footprint. They're really more of a national [recruiter], I guess you could say with their affiliation, national recruiting base."
Another sign that the rivalry might be softening a bit with Sitake at BYU's helm? Several former Utes took to Twitter to congratulate him on getting his first win or to compliment the Cougars' play, including ex-Ute safety Steve Tate and former running back Jamal Anderson.
A Ute giving a Cougar credit or vice versa for anything? Now when is the last time that's happened?
Going head to head
How BYU and Utah coaches have fared against each other:
LaVell Edwards • 6-5 vs. McBride
Gary Crowton • 1-1 against McBride, 0-2 against Meyer
Bronco Mendenhall • 3-7 against Whittingham
Ron McBride • 5-6 against Edwards, 1-1 against Crowton
Urban Meyer • 2-0 against Crowton
Kyle Whittingham • 7-3 against Mendenhall
BYU at Utah
Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
TV • Ch. 13