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October 5, 2010Utah didn't need a Pac-10 label to sell itself to recruits.
But it sure hasn't hurt.
Utah has become a Top 25 regular with two BCS bowl wins in the six years, but the Utes became an even more attractive destination for elite recruits this past offseason following the announcement they would leave the Mountain West for the Pac-10 in 2011.
"It actually played a big role in me deciding I wanted to go there," Moreno Valley (Calif.) Rancho Verde cornerback Ryan Henderson said. "I was saying I wasn't going to settle for anything less than a Pac-10 school.
"I was interested in them a little bit, but when they ended up joining the Pac-10, it definitely influenced my decision and it boosted them up a lot. It pretty much boosted them up immediately."
But Utah coach Kyle Whittingham hasn't been hammering home the Pac-10 move as part of the team's recruiting strategy.
"I talked to pretty much every coach and they didn't really push that," Murrieta (Calif.) Vista Murrieta quarterback Derrick Brown said. "They just told me what you'll get here and how the offense fits me.
"I was at first surprised they didn't push it more but then I thought they don't really have to. Utah is a big-time program. Going to the Pac-10 is an added bonus. If you want to play at a winning program, Utah is a winning program and a good program, too."
Conference realignment was the story line of the offseason, with the Pac-10 helping drive the news. The league also snagged Colorado from the Big 12, and tried luring Texas, Oklahoma and others to form a mega-conference.
No longer did Utah need to fight a perceived lack of respect by the big boys, the six BCS leagues. The Utes went undefeated in 2008 and beat Alabama by 14 points in the Sugar Bowl, yet finished second (AP) and fourth (coaches) in the rankings behind one-loss teams. In 2004, an Urban Meyer-coached Utah club went unbeaten, drilled Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl and finished fourth in the AP and fifth in the coaches' poll.
Whittingham said moving to the Pac-10 could help recruiting in California, but it might not have much of a factor with other prospects closer to campus.
"It's maybe a little territorial," Whittingham said. "People we recruit in California are obviously tuned into the Pac-10 and that's big with them, conference affiliation, so it's a little bit of both. Geographically, it certainly factors into the process.
"We focus on our university on what we offer academically and athletically. ? The most important thing is what we can offer here at the University of Utah."
But there's no doubt that moving to the Pac-10 means more national exposure, more money for the school and more chances to play in better bowl games.
Those are three of the reasons why Henderson and Sugar Land (Texas) Dulles running back Jarrell Oliver committed to the Utes.
Oliver, rated as the No. 33 running back nationally by Rivals.com, had offers from SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and other Pac-10 schools. But Utah stuck out because it was transitioning to a major conference. Turning down programs in those major conferences to play in the Mountain West might have been seen as a downgrade.
"The Mountain West was OK," Oliver said, "but when I heard the news we were going to the Pac-10, it gave it a little bit more boost because that will bring in more money and more coverage. We'll get more exposure. Nobody wants to go to the WAC or Conference USA. They want to think bigger and the Pac-10 or the Pac-12 is definitely a bigger stage."
A bigger stage will also bring more competition. The Mountain West is no pushover conference with TCU and BYU, and Boise State joining, but the idea of competing every week against more highly regarded opponents is attractive to recruits, who are confident Utah can compete.
And with the added exposure, the California players think many from their state will give the Utes a closer look during recruiting.
"It's going to play a big factor because people are going to start seeing how good Utah is and how good they can be," Henderson said. "They'll start seeing them as a very good football team when they start beating these schools. I definitely think it's going to play a factor with California kids going to Utah."