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It was the moment everybody had been waiting for.

After months of waiting and anticipation, the Utah Utes officially entered the prestigious Pac-12 Conference on Friday — and joined hundreds of their players, coaches and fans for a festive ceremony on the steps of the Capitol to commemorate the most important event in school history.

"This feels like home," Lt. Gov. Greg Bell said.

Moments later, Bell proclaimed "Utah/Pac-12 Day," inspiring a huge cheer from the crowd as the marching band began playing the school fight song and scores of red and white balloons were released to the clear blue sky.

"For a moment up there, I said, 'Wow, this is it,' " athletic director Chris Hill said.

Speaking at a podium flanked by trophies from the Fiesta Bowl and Sugar Bowl, Hill led a delegation of administrators and politicians in praising the Utes, their university and what they bring to their new league after 12 years in the Mountain West Conference.

Sen. Orrin Hatch called the university "one of the great schools in the country," while Rep. Jim Matheson flashed the "U" gesture with his hands while wearing a red golf shirt with the Utes logo on the chest.

"As a fan and as a season-ticket holder, I am so emotional and so excited the University of Utah is entering an elite athletic conference," Matheson said.

But the biggest cheer was reserved for league commissioner Larry Scott, the man who engineered the deal to add the Utes and Colorado to a league that already ranked among the best in the country — both athletically and academically. Its teams have won 442 NCAA championships, by far the most in college sports, and its pristine academic image figures to enhance the Utes' already strong reputation.

"Welcome to the Pac-12," Scott said.

Scott later presented Hill and interim university president Lorris Betz a No. 12 football jersey with "Pac-12 Day" stitched on the back, where a player's name normally would go. He said the Utes are a "great fit for this conference," and echoed the other speakers who heralded the school's academic credentials in addition to its athletic achievements.

"It's an affirmation of the University of Utah by the other outstanding institutions of higher learning that are in this conference," Betz said.

Dozens of players and coaches mingled with fans and boosters — football coach Kyle Whittingham was a conspicuous absence, away on vacation — and spoke excitedly about the challenges that await them in their new home. The Utes have the smallest athletic budget in the league, and most of their teams are expected to face some tough growing pains as they gear up to compete at an unprecedented level.

"There's a lot that needs to be done from us," quarterback Jordan Wynn said. "I think the whole country is kind of wondering how we'll be able to handle it. So we just have to go out and play. With [preseason] camp only a month away, it will start becoming what we do, not what we say, so I'm excited about that. … I'm looking forward to the challenge."

Hill assured the crowd the he feels the same way.

"We plan to be very, very successful," he said. "We're not afraid of high expectations."

Good thing, because Scott did his part to fuel those, noting that the league's inaugural football championship game will be held at the home of the team with the best conference record.

"So, who knows?" Scott said. "Maybe we'll be back at Rice-Eccles Stadium" in a few months.

The crowd roared again, as if the Utes already had won their first league championship.