BYU football: Cougars' bowl history as rich as it is varied
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.
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