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November 7, 2012

Players, coaches credit fans

Australian freshman punter Tom Hackett started the season having never played a single American football game in his life.

Just prior to Utah's season opener, Hackett discussed his excitement about playing in front of the home crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"All the guys have talked about how loud the stadium can get and how supportive the crowd is," Hackett said in late August. "I'm really excited to get out there and experience it for myself and that's one thing I'm really looking forward to. I've heard a lot of great things about the MUSS, especially."

Nine games into the season and on Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week honor later, Hackett can confirm all the positive things he heard about the Utah crowd since he arrived on campus.

"Game day's an experience. I wish that everyone could experience it," Hackett praised. "I know how lucky I am. When that thing's full, that stadium is the funnest to play in."

During a season that has had more downs than ups, the one constant has been the passion, and subsequent crowd noise generated by the Utes' home crowd. National and local media alike have praised Ute nation for their game day showings, just as head coach Kyle Whittingham and players have repeatedly, both publicly and in private conversations.

Even as Utah fans are sometimes divided on what is considered appropriate behavior in the stands, in interactions with opposing teams, fans and coaches, the Utah coaching staff and players never wavered.

"I think we have the best fans in the country," said Whittingham immediately following the controversial BYU game. "Hands down. I think we have the best fans in the country."

Other players have echoed the sentiment unequivocally on numerous occasions as the player/fan dynamic at Utah deepens and strengthens to the point of establishing a national brand and reputation that is taking on a life of its own, almost independent of Utah Football.

In the landscape of college football, complete with huge programs with huge national followings and brands that are enhanced by the long-standing traditions and interactions between team and their fans, communities and in some cases, entire states. By way of comparison to programs like Notre Dame, Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas and USC, Utah is in its infancy and is just arriving on the national scene, even if Utah's play on the field hasn't been up to par of late.

The primary reason? The MUSS, FUSS and even the North End Zone in particular, and the collective fan-base in general. National media can't utter the word Utah without the obligatory MUSS mention. The Pac-12 Network has featured The MUSS prominently in conference ads meant to convey the best possible face to the rest of the nation.

In the Urban Meyer era, unprecedented steps were taken to encourage the bond between team and players. The savvy and foresight to see what long-term benefits such a dynamic might yield may be Meyer's most important contribution, of many, to Utah football.

While it is widely reported that Meyer hatched the idea of The MUSS, and played a prominent part in its foundation, it is just as often disputed. Regardless of who is credited with the original idea or concept, there's no question that The MUSS is a hit, having developed a certain mystique. Utah's crowd support has played a key role in gaining additional television coverage, , bowl game invitations and in a few cases, even decided the outcome of multiple games.

The intangible benefits of Utah's home crowd can't be quantified, nor can they be argued.

Ask Hackett, for one.

"The crowd and The MUSS make Rice-Eccles by far the funnest stadium to play in, and it's probably the loudest. I have to really commend The MUSS and how they go about doing their business," Hackett praised. "They really do help us out in real way. Without them, we wouldn't be as juiced up as we are on game day, and we feed off of that."

Hackett is a crucial role player called upon rarely, but in usually critical moments and so far he has more than delivered. In his 15 attempts on the season, Hackett has placed seven punts inside the 20-yard line, five inside the 10 and three inside the 5-yard line.

With numbers that are difficult to dispute, Hackett went on to share at least some of the credit with the Ute faithful. "The crowd sort of gets behind me and I just let adrenaline take over," he said. "The rest is history."

As it turns out, Hackett is right; Utah Football, The MUSS and Utenation have made history, busting the BCS twice, and emerging as a member of a storied athletic conference that swore it would never expand. Essentially, Utah's invitation to the Pac-12 was the catalyst for the conference-realignment chaos that has defined and totally reshaped modern college football.

For that, Ute players and coaches then and now are grateful, and the lore continues to grow week by week.


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