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Utah enjoys life among the ‘haves’

The plan was to build a football facility, a nice structure with some bells and whistles and enough glamour to draw Mountain West recruits in a way other conference teams couldn’t. The price tag was projected at around $20 million, but then the telephone rang and an offer to join the Pac-12 was extended.

Then the price tag went to $35 million.

Overnight.

In a blink.

No problem.

Bells are flashier and whistles much louder in Power Five conferences, as is everything else when moving from the have-nots into the exclusive club of collegiate athletics.

Utah has discovered such benefits since departing the Mountain West for the Pac-12 in 2011, along with the challenges that come with recruiting and competing weekly against many of the nation’s premier athletic programs.

And that football facility?

One of the league’s best.

“When recruits walk into our building, they know we mean business and that we’re in this to win,” said 10-year Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. “The challenges come from the competitiveness and level of play. Every week, you better be ready to play or you’re not going to do very well. The level of talent in the league has just taken off every year since we joined.

“It’s all about recruiting. The doors we can get in now with highly recruited athletes is like nothing we could before. Half the players we have signed since moving to the Pac-12, we couldn’t have gotten in the door with before. But everyone else in our conference wants those same guys, so it’s very difficult.

“We made a living for a long time at Utah finding those diamonds in the rough that weren’t ready-made but that we could develop. Now, not so much. You can have a few diamonds in the rough in the Pac-12, but you have to have those ready-made guys.”

His team meets an old Mountain West foe today when it faces Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff, Utah’s first postseason game in three years as it continues to try and make strides within one of the nation’s best leagues.

I suppose it’s all relative.

This is the first year Utah will be awarded a full share of television revenue from the Pac-12, a figure expected to fall north of $22 million, which is about the worth of a San Diego beachfront mansion more than what the Mountain West annually extends its members.

The Utes have one league championship since joining the Pac-12 — women’s gymnastics last season — and have finished fifth in football in the South Division the past three years.

This season, however, just two games separated fifth from first.

It’s a long, sometimes steady, sometimes rocky climb when you’re chasing those among the best in college football.

What membership in the Pac-12 also has done for Utah is create definite separation between it and in-state rival — and football independent — Brigham Young, particularly in the most important sport.

“It really has made for more friction between the two, if you can imagine that,” said Brad Rock, longtime sports columnist for the Deseret News. “BYU fans also want their team in a Power Five conference. The anger between the sides is as great as ever. There is even an element of Utah fans who don’t believe they need to play BYU in football any more, that it doesn’t make sense with a much tougher (Pac-12) schedule.

“More than anything, (Utah) football discovered at first it didn’t have the depth needed in such a conference. It could beat a Cal or Arizona or even an Alabama in a given week, but the drop-off when a first-string guy went down was dramatic when playing those sorts of teams every week. That’s not the case as much now. They’re not that far away.”

More than anything, Utah has a key to the palace.

The Utes know that if the system as we know it is somehow dissolved and rebuilt into an even more exclusive gathering, theirs is a permanent seat at the table of riches. They are Charlie with a golden ticket to the chocolate factory firmly in hand, an official member of the winning team within the arms race of college sports.

Which brings us to that state-of-the-art $36 million basketball practice facility and performance center it is scheduled to open in the fall of 2015.

It seems a major part in the Power Five equation is merely trying to keep up.

There are far worse fates in 2014.

Take the conference from which Utah arrived.

“In our minds, we believe we can play with anyone,” CSU quarterback Garrett Grayson said. “But we also know the outside world looks at us as a weaker conference, as a non-Power Five. In the back of our minds, we’re gong into this game to try and prove all those people wrong.

“Utah used to be in the Mountain West. As soon as this game was announced, we knew that and that it’s now a Pac-12 opponent. Any time we get this sort of challenge, ego sets in and you want to go prove yourself.”

Four years later, Utah is proving itself in other ways.

And reaping all benefits that reside within the palace gates.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 100.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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