The course of BYU football following a time of sadness

Published: Saturday, Sept. 10 2011 6:00 p.m. MDT

We've all got our own 9/11 stories. I'm sharing mine, with a BYU football perspective.

None of us will ever forget Sept. 11, 2001, a day that reminded us how fragile life can be. A day that put life, and sports, into perspective.

On Sept. 8, 2001, the Cougars traveled to Berkeley, Calif., and thrashed the California Golden Bears, 44-16, to improve to 3-0. On the strength of that victory, BYU burst into the national rankings, at No. 24, and it seemed that first-year coach Gary Crowton, who had replaced the legendary LaVell Edwards months earlier, could do no wrong. BYU was averaging 55 points a game and quarterback Brandon Doman and running back Luke Staley were toying with opposing defenses.

While at the time almost everyone figured Crowton would lead the Cougars for 29 years, like LaVell did, it was the man coaching on the opposite sideline that day that would actually play a much bigger role in BYU's future than Crowton.

That would be Tom Holmoe, a former Cougar defensive back whose days as Cal's head coach were numbered. That loss to BYU, ironically, pretty much sealed his fate in Berkeley. By the end of the season, Holmoe's coaching career was over.

Who could have guessed that just three years later, Crowton would be gone and that Holmoe would be on the verge of being hired as BYU's athletic director? Who could have guessed that, 10 years later, Holmoe would lead the program into independence?

Then again, it was Crowton who hired Bronco Mendenhall as BYU's defensive coordinator — and, of course, Mendenhall replaced Crowton as the Cougars' head coach. And Holmoe was instrumental in the decision to hire Mendenhall.

Anyway, following that Sept. 8 win over Cal, BYU was looking forward to a showdown on Sept. 15 at No. 16 Mississippi State. A victory in Starkville would be huge for the program.

"We know that's going to be a slobberknocker," BYU center Jason Scukanec said.

But three days later, on the morning of Sept. 11, everything changed.

In those days, when I woke up, I'd help fix the kids' breakfast, then turn on cartoons for them to watch. But on that particular morning, something told me to turn on the news instead. The indelible image that filled my television screen was that of smoke billowing out of the twin towers. I remember hearing that this was part of a well-planned, well-coordinated plot by terrorists. We would soon learn more about those hijacked planes. The twin towers fell, and the Pentagon was engulfed in flames. We began to hear stories about true heroes — not ones that score touchdowns — risking their lives to save others, in New York City and Washington, D.C., and also on a plane that crashed in a remote part of Pennsylvania.

Thousands of lives were lost. It was a surreal day, filled with shock and sadness.

Suddenly, sports didn't seem that important anymore.

And yet, my job as a Deseret News sports writer required me to go to BYU's football practice that afternoon. I didn't feel like leaving my family, which included five boys under the age of five years old — including twin boys born less than a month earlier, on Aug. 12.

I got into my car and made the drive to Provo, listening to the news on the radio. Airports were being shut down. There were reports of the possibility of athletic events being postponed, including the BYU-Mississippi State game.

I've covered hundreds of practices at BYU over the years. On that day, practice started with the coaches and players on the practice field, kneeling in prayer. It was the first, and only, time I've seen that.

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