PROVO — The BYU Cougars boast a colorful bowl history, filled with their share of strikes (amazing comeback victories), gutter balls (a few embarrassing blowouts) and a few games that would be the equivalent of a 7-10 split (a 10-17-1 overall bowl record).
In honor of the 30th anniversary of the 1980 "Miracle" Bowl and in honor of an end of an era as BYU goes independent next year, here's a crash course on Cougars' bowl past.
BOWLING 101 (1974)
Six weeks into the '74 season, no one could have guessed BYU would end up going to a bowl game. Besides the fact that the Cougars had never been to a bowl game before, they started the season with a miserable 0-3-1 record. Furthermore, they didn't earn their first win until Oct. 12.
To begin the season, both Hawaii and Utah State defeated BYU without scoring a touchdown (the Cougars lost 15-13 and 9-6, respectively, on a flurry of field goals). Iowa State then pummeled BYU, 34-7. BYU's first Western Athletic Conference game of the season, against Colorado State, was a wild affair that ended in a 33-33 tie.
Coach LaVell Edwards has called those weeks "the low point of my coaching career." But it was also the turning point of his coaching career.
The Cougars defeated Wyoming the following week, 38-7, and then went on to win their next six games. They won the WAC title and were invited to the Fiesta Bowl, which automatically took the league champion. After playing football for 52 years, BYU finally earned a trip to a bowl game.
"It was one of the major early accomplishments we had," Edwards has said. "We had won a championship when I was an assistant (in 1965), but we had never gone to a bowl game. It was an exciting period of time. As a boy growing up, I remember listening to bowl games on the radio. So for us to go to a bowl was very special."
BYU fans gobbled up the allotment of 8,333 tickets for the game. The Cougars fell to Oklahoma State, 16-6, as quarterback Gary Sheide suffered a dislocated shoulder in the first quarter after leading his team to an early 6-0 lead. He was sidelined for the rest of the game.
Still, reaching a bowl was a huge accomplishment, and 1974 was the year BYU's bowl tradition began.
THE COACH AND PONY CONNECTION (1979, 1980)
Two of the three gentlemen who are now well-known ESPN college football broadcasters are not only quite familiar with BYU, but also have played prominent roles in BYU bowl history — Lee Corso (aka "The Coach") and Craig James (aka "The Pony").
Both games occurred about the time of ESPN's birth. It was a fledgling local cable network headquartered in Bristol, Conn., that began broadcasting on Sept. 7, 1979, just months before Indiana coach Corso faced BYU in the '79 Holiday Bowl.
The next year, James was a running back at Southern Methodist, which squared off against the Cougars in the Holiday Bowl.
As it turned out, Corso won a game he should have lost, and James lost a game he should have won.
In '79, the 11-0 Cougars were unbeaten and ranked No. 9 in the nation — their highest ranking at the time. Indiana, from the Big Ten, was 8-3. BYU's offense, behind quarterback Marc Wilson, led the nation in scoring. The Cougars put up 37 points on the scoreboard that night, but it wasn't enough. Late in the contest, with BYU trailing by one point, kicker Brent Johnson missed the potential game-winning field goal from 27 yards (Johnson did convert three field goals earlier in the game, including a 40-yarder), leaving the Hoosiers the winners and spoiling BYU's would-be perfect season. The final score was 38-37.
"We were very lucky," Corso recalled. "Marc Wilson had an incredible game. He threw for something like 900 yards against us. Our guys had never been so exhausted. And then they have a guy who had never missed a field goal in his life and he misses a chip shot. We were very, very fortunate."
Corso has gotten a lot of mileage out of that win over the years, having referred to it numerous times on the air.
In 1980, the Cougars entered their showdown with SMU (dubbed "The Mormons vs. The Methodists") with an 11-game winning streak. But the only streaking they saw for most of that game came from the Pony Express — Craig James and Eric Dickerson — racing into the end zone for touchdowns. James was named the co-offensive MVP, along with BYU's Jim McMahon. James rushed for 225 yards and two TDs.
The Cougars, who trailed 45-25 with four minutes remaining, capped a miraculous comeback with a "Hail Mary" pass with no time remaining as one Catholic, McMahon, connected with another Catholic, Clay Brown. (Edwards likes to point out, though, that the game-winning extra point was nailed by Kurt Gunther, a returned missionary).
Years later, James still had strong emotions about that bitter loss to BYU.
"They were very lucky to beat us," he said. "We dominated that game for 57 minutes and then we just let up. If we would have played them again the next day, we would have kicked their fannies."
Added James, "That whole week after the game that's all anybody around the country would talk about, the Holiday Bowl. It was the most exciting game I've ever been a part of."
Six times, BYU has met an OSU in a bowl game. The result? Five losses. The Cougars' first two bowl matchups were against Oklahoma State. BYU has played, and lost to, Ohio State three times in bowls (1982 Holiday Bowl, 1985 Citrus Bowl and the 1993 Holiday Bowl). The Buckeyes are the only opponent that Edwards' teams faced at least three times without winning at least once.
BYU broke that streak against OSU teams last year with a resounding 44-20 victory over Oregon State in last year's Las Vegas Bowl.
TANGERINE TANGENT (1976)
Former BYU athletic director Glen Tuckett says the 1976 Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Fla., is the one bowl he remembers most because "we had to work at it to get to it."
In 1976, BYU and Wyoming had tied for the WAC crown, but the Cowboys went to the Fiesta Bowl.
"I was the new director of athletics, and I wasn't smart enough to know you could fail," Tuckett recalled. "We had to be invited and we had to do a lot of politicking. (Tangerine Bowl officials) found out how many members of the LDS Church we had down there and how many alumni were down there. I told them, 'Traditionally, we draw a lot of fans to bowl games.' I didn't tell them we had only been once before. We had a fireside at the ballpark before the game and got a lot of support from the fans there. The bowl people were tickled that we went."
So was Oklahoma State, which won the game, 49-21.
One of the few BYU highlights of the night was a kickoff returned 102 yards for a touchdown by Dave Lowry.
BOWLING FOR YEN (1977)
Before the 1977 season opened, BYU made it clear that if it won the conference championship, the school would not play in the Fiesta Bowl, which was scheduled for Christmas Day. Christmas fell on a Sunday that year.
Sure enough, the Cougars won the WAC in 1977. The Cougars snubbed the Fiesta Bowl for religious reasons. (Years later, in 1996, the Fiesta Bowl returned the favor by snubbing the 13-1 Cougars for Bowl Alliance — precursor of the Bowl Championship Series — reasons.)
With the 1977 Fiesta Bowl out of the question, BYU had no bowl to play in. So Glen Tuckett told the Cougars to "go east, young men." To the Far East, that is, on a goodwill trip that was planned before the season.
BYU played in two games in Japan against Japanese all-star teams at the end of the '77 season in an Oriental Extravaganza called the Silk Bowl, which was an exhibition contest only.
"It was a great experience for the team, a great trip for the kids," Tuckett remembers. "You don't get to go to Tokyo very often."
And what was the quality of Japanese football? "They know the game pretty well, but they were just overmatched," Edwards said. "They were competitive little guys. The night before the game I remember thinking, 'This would really be big if we lose.'"
They didn't, of course.
The Cougars must have been a big hit in Japan. The following year, BYU defeated UNLV, 28-24, in its regular-season finale, in Yokohama.
BEATING BYU, BY GEORGE (1978, 1987)
When George Welsh coached the Naval Academy to victory over BYU in the inaugural Holiday Bowl in 1978, it was a special experience in more ways than one for him. That day, Dec. 22, happened to be his wedding anniversary.
Ironically, nine years later, to the day, on Dec. 22, 1987, Welsh, who was then the coach at the University of Virginia, met BYU in the All-America Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., and won again.
More ironic still is that in 1978, Welsh beat BYU, 23-16. In 1987, Welsh won by the almost identical score, 22-16.
Who knows if Mrs. Welsh enjoyed those two anniversaries.
Years later, though, the Cougars exacted a measure of revenge against Mr. Welsh. In 2000, Edwards' final season at the helm, the Cougars rallied from a 21-point halftime deficit to claim a 38-35 overtime victory over Welsh, who retired at the end of the season.
SHOULDA, COULDA, WOULDA, OOPS (1979, 1985, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993)
Six times in bowl games, BYU not only played well enough to win, but also should have won. In 1979, the loss came after the aforementioned missed field goal that cost the Cougars a victory. In 1985, Robbie Bosco threw a pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown — Ohio State's only TD of the game. The Buckeyes picked off two more passes in the end zone that day on their way to a 10-7 win.
In the 1989 Holiday Bowl against Penn State, a number of bizarre plays occurred, like a two-point conversion attempt that was returned 102 yards for a score and a 53-yard fumble return for a touchdown late in the game in a 50-39 Nittany Lions' victory.
"This was the screwiest game I've ever been involved in, and we've had our share," Edwards said afterward. "Don't ask me about any turning points because I wouldn't be able to tell you."
In the 1991 Holiday Bowl, favored Iowa halted BYU's potential game-winning drive to preserve a 13-13 tie. BYU missed an extra point attempt in the second quarter.
In the 1992 Aloha Bowl in Honolulu, Christmas Day in paradise began wonderfully for the Cougars against Kansas. Before you could say Mele Kalikimaka, freshman Hema Heimuli returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown.. But Jayhawk defensive lineman Dana Stubblefield spent the afternoon chasing quarterback Tom Young, who was making his first, and only, career start for BYU. (Later, Tom's brother, Steve, and Stubblefield were teammates with the San Francisco 49ers). The Cougars also shot themselves in the foot by missing an extra point and two field goals that day before losing, 23-20.
In 1993, the 6-5 Cougars were coming off their worst season in 20 years. The top-10 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes weren't happy one bit about being relegated to the Holiday Bowl and felt they deserved to be in the Rose Bowl. The Cougars actually outplayed the Buckeyes for much of the game, but BYU squandered opportunities as OSU won, 28-21. Three times in the second half, BYU drove into the Buckeyes' red zone without scoring.
TY'S FOES AND WOES (1988, 1989, 1990, 1991)
The legend of Ty Detmer may have begun in earnest during the 1988 Freedom Bowl in Anaheim, Calif., when, as a redshirt freshman, he came off the bench to rally the Cougars to a win over Colorado, a team that would play for the national title the following two seasons (the Buffs won it all in 1990).
It was the only bowl game Detmer won in his illustrious career.
In 1989, Detmer threw for 576 yards, but when Nittany Lion safety Gary Brown stripped the ball from Detmer and ran it back 53 yards for a touchdown, BYU's comeback attempt was squelched. Still, Detmer passed for 576 yards and that game helped launch his Heisman Trophy campaign the next season.
In 1990, Detmer won the Heisman, but the Holiday Bowl was forgettable for the Cougars that season. Detmer injured both shoulders, including a separation of the right shoulder, courtesy of Texas A&M. He left the game in the third quarter as the Aggies went on to a dominating 65-14 victory.
In his final game as a Cougar, Detmer passed for 350 yards against Iowa in the 1991 Holiday Bowl. His final pass was tipped and intercepted with less than 30 seconds remaining — an inglorious ending to one of the more glorious collegiate careers in NCAA history. The game ended in a 13-13 tie.
Maybe the most amazing part of the '91 season was that Detmer was a senior surrounded by underclassmen. He managed to rally his team from an 0-3 start to a 7-3-2 finish and a WAC championship.
THE GLORY YEARS (1980, 1981, 1983, 1984)
Remember the days when BYU fans would complain because they had to go to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego every year?
What a drag — spending late December in relatively warm weather, with nice ocean views, before watching a heart-stopping bowl game.
These days, wouldn't a BYU fan give up a year's worth of food storage for a trip to the Holiday Bowl?
There's no question that the years 1980-84 were very, very good to the Cougars — four Holiday Bowl wins in five years. And it wasn't just that they won. It was how they won.
In the 1980 Holiday Bowl, there was the amazing comeback as Jim McMahon and Clay Brown the play simply known in Cougar lore as "The Catch." BYU scored 21 unanswered points against SMU in the final 4:07 to win the game simply known in Cougar lore as "The Miracle Bowl."
But in the 1981 Holiday Bowl, the Cougars also made an incredible comeback. But it wasn't the BYU Cougars — it was the Washington State Cougars. BYU nearly pulled an SMU, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. After BYU defensive back Tom Holmoe — who's now the school's athletic director — picked off a WSU pass early in the third quarter, BYU took a 31-7 lead. But in fine Holiday Bowl tradition, BYU surrendered a comfortable lead as WSU came roaring back, scoring 21 third-quarter points. BYU, though, held on to win, 38-36.
In 1983, it was Steve Young catching the game-winning touchdown pass from Eddie Stinnett in the final two minutes.
Oh yeah, and BYU captured the national title by defeating Michigan in 1984 as a gimpy Bosco threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Kelly Smith against Michigan to cap the biggest win in Cougar history. After the game, a reporter asked Wolverine defensive back Ivan Hicks if BYU was the best team in the land. "Yes, and I'll tell you why," Hicks replied. "We played our hearts out there and they still won."
Yes, the early 1980s were very good to the Republican Party, Cabbage Patch Kids, and BYU football.
THE BLOWOUT BOWLS (1982, 1986, 1994, 1998, 2006, 2009)
Call it coincidence. Call it fate. Call it yet one more inane statistic that's been unearthed. Whatever it is, every four years, from 1982 through 1998, BYU was involved in a blowout. Mostly, the Cougars found themselves on the wrong side.
In 1982, Ohio State, which had beaten Rose Bowl-bound Michigan, pasted the Cougars, 47-17, in the Holiday Bowl. In 1986, UCLA pummeled BYU in the Freedom Bowl, 31-10. Both games were second half blowouts. The Cougars trailed the Buckeyes 17-10 at halftime. Against the Bruins, BYU was down only 7-3 at intermission.
In 1990, BYU fans had complained when they heard Texas A&M would be the Cougars' opponent in the Holiday Bowl. The Cougars were ranked No. 13 and boasted a 10-2 record. The unranked Aggies were 8-3.
But Texas A&M blasted BYU, 65-14, It marked the Cougars' worst bowl defeat and, at the time, it was Edwards' worst loss in his career. A&M cruised to a 37-7 lead at the half and proceeded to add 28 second half points.
"Before the game," Tuckett said, "I remember standing on the sidelines and, seeing (Texas A&M's) size, I thought, 'What in the heck are we doing playing against them?"
Four years later, there would be another blowout. In '94, it was BYU's turn to administer a beating with a big 31-6 victory over Oklahoma. The tide turned back on the Cougars in they 1998 Liberty Bowl, where they lost to Tulane, 41-27.
Later, in 2006 and 2009, respectively, BYU beat up on the two Oregon schools in the Las Vegas Bowl by a combined score of 82-28. The Cougars pounded Oregon, 38-8, and Oregon State, 44-20.
THE FAREWELL BOWL (1994)
The 1994 Copper Bowl in Tucson, Ariz., marked the final game for Cougar quarterback John Walsh, who would, days after a 31-6 walloping of Oklahoma, announce that he would be making himself eligible for the NFL draft.
Walsh said goodbye by completing 31-of-45 passes for 454 yards and four touchdowns against a downtrodden Sooner team. It was, at the time, the most convincing bowl victory in Cougar history.
For Oklahoma, it was the final game for lame-duck coach Gary Gibbs. In attendance that night, sitting in the press box, was his successor, Howard Schnellenburger. Months after witnessing BYU's commanding win, Schnellenburger talked as if it was the nadir of Sooner football history. He called it "the line of demarcation" for the program and claimed OU would go up dramatically from there.
In Schnellenburger's one and only season at the helm, in 1995, the Sooners finished 5-5-1.
But Schnellenburger was prophetic in a sense. In 1999, Oklahoma ended up hiring some guy named Bob Stoops, and the Sooners became, once again, one of the premier programs in the country.
Meanwhile, Walsh wasn't drafted until the seven round of the 1995 NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals and never played a down in the NFL.
THE FEEL OF COTTON (1996)
Playing at the historic Cotton Bowl in Dallas, BYU found itself playing in its first New Year's Day bowl game in front of 71,000 fans, about 40,000 of whom were clad in Kansas State-purple. But probably even more people cheered against the Cougars that day — including the Bowl Alliance, the precursor of the Bowl Championship Series.
The Bowl Alliance snubbed BYU despite its 13 wins, No. 5 ranking, a stifling defense and a powerful offense. The snub cost BYU an $8 million payday at the Fiesta Bowl (instead, the Cougars earned a $2 million payout from the Cotton Bowl).
If it wasn't enough of a slap in the face to be rejected by the Fiesta Bowl, the Kansas State Wildcats showed disrespect for BYU all week long during Cotton Bowl festivities. They wouldn't talk or shake hands with Cougar players. They saved their talking for the field, where they belittled BYU and its conference, the WAC.
The Cougars, meanwhile, let their play speak for them, registering a dramatic 19-15 victory over the Wildcats.
It was a contest that featured a safety by BYU and a 41-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass by K-State on the final play of the half (ironically, BYU had scored on a 41-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass on the final play of the game to defeat SMU in 1980), sending the two teams into the locker room at halftime with the Wildcats ahead by the baseball-like score of 8-5.
Things didn't go much better for the Cougars in the third quarter as K-State grabbed a 15-5 advantage.
But BYU mounted a patented comeback, punctuated by quarterback Steve Sarkisian's 28-yard touchdown pass to K.O. Kealaluhi with about four minutes remaining. It was preserved by a game-saving interception by cornerback Omarr Morgan. On first-and-10 from the BYU 12-yard line, Morgan anticipated a slant pass and picked it off with 55 seconds remaining.
Not only did the triumph secure BYU's top-5 finish in the final rankings, but it also gave the Cougars an NCAA-record 14th win that season.
GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME FROSTBITE (1998, 2001)
When the weather's nice in Memphis, the Liberty Bowl isn't a bad place to play. But when the weather's bad, you'd better bundle up. That humidity, as they say, will go right through you.
The Cougars went to the Liberty Bowl twice in four years, but you couldn't blame the cold weather for BYU's poor showing in both games.
In their first trip to Memphis, the Cougars were waxed 41-27 by No. 10 Tulane, a team with an undefeated record and seeking some respect. In the hometown of Elvin Presley ("The King"), the Green Wave rolled by the Cougars thanks in large part to the performance of quarterback Shaun King. If not for a 21-point outburst in the fourth quarter by BYU, the loss would have been much, much worse.
Three years later, the Cougars returned to Liberty Bowl, but they didn't want to be there. After starting the year 12-0 under first-year coach Gary Crowton, BYU fell at Hawaii, 72-45, in the regular-season finale. The Cougars had been upset that they were snubbed from Bowl Championship series consideration before playing the Warriors. So BYU settled for the Liberty Bowl. The Cougars had begun the season putting up 70 points in the season-opener against Tulane. They led the nation in scoring that year. But with running back Luke Staley out with a foot injury, BYU's offense could manage only 10 points against Louisville in the Liberty Bowl. The Cardinals dominated the Cougars, 28-10. BYU's lone touchdown came on a 10-yard run by 6-foot-7, 305-pound Dustin Rykert on a tackle-eligible trick play.
By the time that game ended, the ink in pens of sportswriters standing on the sideline had frozen.
THE "Y"-2K BOWL (1999)
Talk about strange places to hold a bowl game. How about Detroit? In December? What, was Siberia booked? At least the Motor City Bowl was played inside the confines of the Superdome.
Despite the bone-chilling temperatures outside, BYU experienced a meltdown of gigantic proportions against undefeated Marshall.
Like Tulane a year earlier in the Liberty Bowl, Marshall had something to prove against BYU. How ironic that in 1984, the Cougars were the upstart team looking for respect in a bowl against a traditional national power. In back-to-back bowl years, BYU faced a version of its former self.
Marshall was nationally ranked and feeling snubbed by the college football world. In both cases, Tulane and Marshall pulled a BYU, beating the team with the bigger name and reputation. The Cougars, who had started the season 8-1, stumbled badly toward the end, culminating with a disastrous effort in the Motor City Bowl.
BYU mustered a field goal, early in the first quarter, and was shut out from there.
It turned out to be the final game for longtime offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who ended up leaving BYU for North Carolina State weeks later. As it turned out, it was LaVell Edwards' final bowl game (he retired after the 2000 season).
How bad was the Motor City Bowl? Well, at the time (just days before Jan. 1, 2000), there were plenty of concerns about Y2K, talk about how computers could malfunction and send society into total chaos. Well, chaotic described BYU that day. It was a "Y"-2K disaster. The Cougar offense experienced the equivalent of a power outage, its motor stopped running, the game plan was short-circuited, its supply of composure ran out and senior quarterback Kevin Feterik was overthrown. And Marshall law was in full effect. By the time the clock struck 0:00, the Thundering Herd, led by NFL-bound quarterback Chad Pennington, had trampled BYU, 21-3.
VIVA LAS VEGAS (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009)
BYU and Las Vegas make quite the odd couple. The LDS-owned school is the perennial No. 1 stone-cold sober university in the nation. It has a stringent honor code and a football coach that emphasizes the spiritual aspects of life.
Las Vegas is nicknamed Sin City and is known for its glitz, glamor and gambling. It features The Strip, showgirls and racy billboards that can make a grown man blush.
BYU's reputation, and that of Las Vegas, clash like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Elvis impersonators. But when it comes to the Las Vegas Bowl, the two disparate entities have complemented each other very well. Thanks to this annual December football game held at Sam Boyd Stadium, for five straight years, from 2005-2009, it was a place where "Come, Come Ye Saints" and "Viva Las Vegas" converge. It was no coincidence that Sam Boyd Stadium sold out those years.
A Las Vegas television personality asked BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall today about the dichotomy of BYU — owned and operated by the LDS Church — making an annual tradition of playing bowl games in Sin City.
"It's an interesting thing, especially considering that last year's game had the highest attendance of any (team) sporting event in the history of the state and it's an LDS school," Mendenhall replied. "It's a fan base that doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't gamble 'at least isn't supposed to. I'm not sure how excited Las Vegas is to have us, knowing we're probably not generating a lot of income for them, other than on game day, we're having a sell-out. Which is what the bowl game is for, from my understanding."
In retrospect, it's somewhat amazing to think that prior to 2005, BYU had never played in the Las Vegas Bowl before making five consecutive trips there as the Mountain West Conference representative.
In 2005, athletic director Tom Holmoe and coach Bronco Mendenhall actually predicted BYU's frequent trips to Vegas. When BYU, under then-first-year coach Mendenhall, accepted an invitation to face Cal in December of that year — marking the Cougars' first bowl berth since 2001 and snapping three consecutive losing seasons — everyone connected with the program was elated about going to the Las Vegas Bowl. And the feeling was mutual. At that time, the Las Vegas Bowl needed to sell more than 29,000 tickets to the 2005 game in order to maintain its bowl charter with the NCAA. That year, BYU delivered the bowl's first-ever sellout.
Starting in 2006, the Las Vegas Bowl became home to the MWC champion.
"This is just the beginning of many more," Mendenhall said in December 2005. "The (Las Vegas Bowl) will be for the conference champion from this point on. What better way, as they're getting ready to go into that role, for us to go into that role as well."
BYU fell in its first appearance, against Cal, but in 2006, the Cougars were ready for their challenge with Oregon, which finished in a fifth-place tie in the Pac-10 standings. Prior to the game, Duck coach Mike Bellotti smugly insisted that BYU couldn't compete with the upper-echelon, or even the mid-level, of the Pac-10. Even after a 38-8 loss to the Cougars, Bellotti didn't budge from his position. "We didn't play like a mid-level Pac-10 team, but no, my opinion of them hasn't changed."
Still, it marked BYU's first bowl victory since the 1997 Cotton Bowl. Another intriguing subplot that night? Former Cougar coach Gary Crowton was calling plays for Oregon as its offensive coordinator.
The following year, BYU earned a narrow win over UCLA on a last-second field goal attempt blocked by Cougar freshman Eathyn Manumaleuna. In 2008, BYU fell to Arizona. But the Cougars bounced back in 2009, claiming a convincing 44-20 victory over Oregon State on a windy night in Las Vegas. Down 7-0 early, BYU scored 37 unanswered points to crush the Beavers. It was a sweet victory for Cougars' senior class, which helped produce a 43-9 record over four seasons.