Besides the obvious bond between the last University of Utah football team to win an outright conference championship and -- presumably -- the next, there's a shared X's and O's component.
"Nearly 50 years later," says Lee Grosscup, "we're shoveling again."
The quarterback of the 1957 Utes is referring to a play known as the shovel pass -- or, according to veteran broadcasters such as Keith Jackson and Al Michaels -- the "Utah pass."
The play, an overhand pitch that's a hybrid of a handoff and a pass, is the chief link between the '57 Utes and the current model, which can secure a Mountain West Conference title Saturday by beating Brigham Young in Provo or by having New Mexico lose at Wyoming.
The '57 team is enjoying a news media renaissance this month, with the Utes on the verge of another championship. Yet that squad is already one of the most famous in school history, because of an innovative coach, a star quarterback and a memorable defeat.
Coach Jack Curtice would leave for Stanford after that 6-4 season, when the Utes finished 5-1 in the Skyline Conference. Grosscup describes Curtice as "15 to 20 years ahead of his time," creating the kind of ball-control passing game that BYU coach LaVell Edwards would ride to prominence in the 1970s.
Part of Curtice's scheme was the shovel pass, designed to slip a receiver just behind rushing linemen and in front of a backpedaling secondary. Grosscup still chuckles every time he hears "Utah pass."
"You'd think that I invented the play," he says.
Actually, Grosscup traces its origins to Pop Warner's Stanford teams of the 1920s.
Yet there's no doubting that Curtice popularized it and Ute coach Urban Meyer is making it work with his own 21st-century twist.
The current version is an offshoot of the option play. Quarterback Alex Smith and his running back, usually Brandon Warfield, run one direction and receiver Paris Warren takes the shovel pass going the other way.
"It has been a very successful play for us, and it keeps teams honest," Meyer said.
Meyer became convinced of the play's value during spring practice when defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham told him, "There's really no answer for that play."
As Warren says, "Most of the defense keys on Warfield, and I just sneak behind."
So offensive coordinator Mike Sanford has made effective use of the option/shovel mix, and Grosscup, a longtime radio analyst for California games, was thrilled to witness the Utes' offense when the Bears played at Utah in September.
"I think it's brilliant," he said.
Grosscup received similar reviews in 1957. A junior college transfer, he stepped into an ideal situation: playing for a veteran team in a passing offense, complemented by a strong running game that featured halfbacks Stuart Vaughn and Larry Wilson, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer (as a defensive back), and fullback Merrill Douglas, who would become an NFL player and referee.
"It was a truly magical year," Grosscup says. "It's still my favorite season, in all my years of football."
His only regret? "We could have easily been 10-0."
The biggest blemish was a 12-7 loss at Denver, one of the Skyline Conference's weakest teams. John Mooney's game story in The Salt Lake Tribune labeled the losers the "fat-as-a-goose Redskins" and concluded that Utah "did not want a victory very bad, so should not be disappointed."
Grosscup acknowledges, "We had no reason whatsoever to lose that game. We just kind of phoned it in."
Mooney was far more complimentary of the "gallant" Utes after a loss in November. A 39-33 defeat at Army, then a national power under coach Red Blaik, is remembered as a "victory" in Ute lore, and Grosscup's performance in the New York market helped him earn All-America status.
The Utes also lost nonconference games to Idaho and Colorado, but beat Air Force and won five Skyline games. They hammered BYU 27-0 -- in October, an indication that the rivalry was nothing special then.
"We almost just had to put on our uniforms" to beat the Cougars, Douglas recalls. "Being that close [geographically], it was a rivalry, but it was one-sided."
Grosscup remembers having a 104-degree fever related to Asian Flu the week of that game, but coming off the bench to throw two touchdown passes.
He had more health problems in the title-clinching game. In more evidence of a bygone era of football, the Utes traditionally played Utah State, their biggest rival, on Thanksgiving Day. Grosscup was knocked unconscious in the second quarter, but was allowed to return to the game.
He mostly handed off in the second half.
But the shovel pass remained part of the Ute offense that day. "We had them scouted on it pretty good, but it still worked," says Bob Winters, an Aggie defensive back.
The Cougars, too, will know it's coming Saturday.
But stopping the Utes from repeating history may be too much to ask.
While broadcasting the annual "Big Game" between Cal and Stanford, Grosscup will be eagerly awaiting Saturday's score from Provo.
"In a way," he says, "this has come full cycle."
© 2003 Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Co