Editor's note: This is first in an eight-part series celebrating the 25th anniversary of BYU's 1984 national championship.
PROVO — Twenty-five years later, it reads kind of like a made-for-Disney movie script.
The story of BYU's improbable 1984 national football championship season had unlikely heroes (Adam Haysbert, for example), villains (Bryant Gumbel and Barry Switzer come to mind), dramatic moments (who can forget the image of Robbie Bosco hobbling around on one leg in the Holiday Bowl?), serendipitous events (one by one, teams ahead of the Cougars in the polls fell), an unmistakable underdog quality (devoid of star players at the time, BYU started the season unranked), a certain moxie (four fourth-quarter comebacks) and a penchant for accomplishing something unprecedented (how in the heck did a team from the Western Athletic Conference, from the Mountain Time Zone, win a national title?).
"The way it all came together, it almost had to work just the way it did for it to happen," recalls legendary coach LaVell Edwards. "It was a magical year."
Maybe it was magic. Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was destiny. Maybe the Cougars were somewhat lucky, too.
"In spite of everything we did, it still took a little bit of luck," admits Glen Kozlowski, a wide receiver on the '84 team. "It still came down to a lot of factors that we had no control over."
"It was the confluence of the right group of guys with the right scheme against the rest of the college football world of that moment," explains '84 offensive lineman Trevor Matich, who is now an ESPN college football analyst. "BYU was the mouse that roared. Nobody knew who we were. We were the first school nobody had ever heard of that rose up and grabbed the college football world by the neck and said, 'You will know who I am. You have no choice.' "
The 1984 season catapulted the BYU football program — as well as the LDS Church and the state of Utah — into the national consciousness.
"It was really crazy with all of the media (attention)," says Bosco. "I can remember after the Pitt game going up to Salt Lake with LaVell to be on Good Morning America. It was like, 'Why do they want to talk to us?' "
The season began with a stunning upset over No. 3 Pitt on the road and culminated in a victory over a Michigan team with a mediocre record in the Holiday Bowl — amid controversy as people around the country debated BYU's worthiness as the nation's top-ranked team.
The undefeated, 13-0 Cougars had to wait two weeks after defeating the Wolverines before officially being voted No. 1 by both the Associated Press and United Press International polls on Jan. 3, 1985, touching off a celebration around the state.
Not long after securing the national championship, Edwards visited the White House and met with President Ronald Reagan.
The season was hailed as a breakthrough of historic proportions.
BYU still stands as the last team to enter a season unranked and win a national championship. The Cougars are also the last team from a non-BCS conference to win a national title in football.
A quarter of a century later, for those who played on that national championship team, that accomplishment is sweeter than ever.
"This means more now, 25 years later, than it ever did up until this point," says Kozlowski. "Looking back on it now, it's like, wow, that's pretty cool what we did. Who would have ever thought that?"
"Looking back at my career, (the national championship) means a lot," says Bosco. "One of the great things about winning a national championship is the whole team is involved. It's a team award. You can celebrate that with everybody, and you can talk about it forever."
Commemorating 25 years
Has it really been 25 years since that national championship season? Nobody associated with that BYU team believes it.
"At the time, I was only 22 or 23 years old. To us, at that time, 25 years was like forever," says kick return specialist Vai Sikahema. "We've lived an entire lifetime since then. We were just kids then. I've got three kids at BYU now. It doesn't seem that long ago."
Several months ago, '84 defensive lineman Jim Herrmann was on a flight to Chicago. He sat in his seat and a stranger reached over and shook his hand.
"You're Jim Herrmann, No. 92," the man said. "I remember you from 1984."
In some ways, the gesture surprised Herrmann.
"A part of me said, 'You've got to get out more and quit watching the KBYU reruns.' But I also get it, too. That season was a seminal moment for BYU football in a lot of ways. It was the pinnacle of college football and we attained it. It makes me proud to be a part of it. It's shaped my life, for sure."
Herrmann has been asked by current Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall to address the players before a game.
"I think, 'Oh yeah, these kids watched us play when they were growing up,' " says Herrmann, who has a son in high school who is being recruited by BYU. "Then I realized that these kids weren't even born when we were playing."
"It's almost kind of scary," says defensive back Kyle Morrell. "I go down (to Provo) and run into guys I used to play ball with and they're overweight or have gray hair or have had knee replacements and have had multiple surgeries. But it's fun to see everybody. I can't believe it's been 25 years. Time has flown by."
Today, most of the players from that team are in their mid- to late 40s, working in a variety of careers and raising families. Edwards will turn 79 in October. He has 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Twenty-five years later, their lives, and their stories, continue to unfold.
Of all the great seasons BYU enjoyed in the early 1980s, 1984 seemed the least likely to end in a national championship.
The Cougars had lost quarterback Steve Young, tight end Gordon Hudson and linebacker Todd Shell from the 1983 team that went 11-1, winning its last 11 straight games and finishing with a No. 7 national ranking.
Not only were the '84 Cougars unranked, but in its preseason college football preview, Sports Illustrated picked them to finish No. 3 — in the WAC. It looked like a rebuilding year in Provo for a team breaking in a new starting quarterback and several others at skill positions.
"Going into spring football, there were low expectations around the conference and around the country," Kozlowski says. "We had been so dominant in our conference, everybody thought '84 was the year they could beat us. The guys kind of pulled together. By the end of spring ball, we made a commitment to each other that we were going to try and prove everybody wrong."
When the season-opening opponent, Pittsburgh, debuted at No. 3 in the national rankings, the Cougars sensed an opportunity. On the eve of the season-opener, in a Pittsburgh hotel, the team convened for a meeting.
"We talked about the fact if we could win that game, and go undefeated, we could win the national championship," says Kozlowski.
The relatively low expectations going into the season may have actually helped the '84 team.
"In retrospect, had we started that season in the top 25, we may not have won the national championship simply because we were a young team, we had a new quarterback," Sikahema says. "With the enormous pressure (a national ranking) places on a team, I don't know if we would have been able to do what we did. We started the season with such low expectations, and as the expectations grew, our team grew. We matured as people took notice of us. We had enough veteran leadership on that team to stabilize the team until we matured. We peaked at the right time."
Attributes of a champion
To this day, Edwards maintains that the 1984 team may not have been the most talented squad he coached in his 29 years at the helm. "But it was certainly one of the best teams we ever had because it was a group of guys that got along well," he says.
BYU fans like to debate which Cougar team was the best all-time. The most compelling argument in favor of the '84 squad is this: No other team in school history has recorded an undefeated season.
"I don't know if we had a blue-chip recruit on the team. There were a bunch of guys that were overachievers or guys who felt they had something to prove," Herrmann says. "Guys that had been passed over by the bigger, more prestigious programs and ended up at BYU. They were talented and probably should have been at other schools. Luckily, we all showed up there together, and everybody felt that we were going to prove to the national media and everybody else that we could compete on the highest level."
Bosco remembers that team being one that worked relentlessly. "We didn't ease up in practice. I can remember scrambling in a scrimmage and somebody diving and hitting me. We carried that over to the games. We played really hard every play."
"It was a group of guys who loved to play football and loved to win, and we loved to compete," Kozlowski says. "In our practices, especially early on, our defense was just pummeling us. We'd have a fight every day because we were so competitive with each other, on the offense and defense. But we actually cared about each other, also."
What made that team special?
"We didn't have any egos on our team. We didn't have any superstars," Morrell says. "We were a bunch of hard-working guys, and we were always happy for each other when one was getting the limelight. There was no jealousy. We were all best friends, though we came from a lot of different backgrounds. Some were LDS; some were Catholic. Some grew up without religion. For some reason, we meshed really well together. We were best of friends. That's a big part of it. Everybody knew their spot on the team and they lived with it. I think we all played above and beyond our talents."
While they may not have been highly touted coming out of high school, more than a dozen players from that '84 team ended up playing in the NFL.
"We may not have had the physical specimens, but we had guys like Kozlowski," Morrell says. "You could cut his arm off and he'd go play and catch passes. I used to tease him all the time. 'Kozlowski, we could carry you off the field 30 times a game and you'd still keep coming back.' "
Kozlowski says the '84 team possessed a swagger.
"On most teams I played on, if it was fourth down and 6 yards, most guys in the huddle would put their eyes to the ground and didn't want to be in that situation. They didn't want the ball thrown to them. But everybody on that 1984 team wanted the ball. Robbie would have to fight off all five of us saying, 'Throw it to me!' Everybody literally thought they could make the play. We were behind in quite a few games. It never occurred to us that we could actually lose a game. We always thought we could make the plays to win it."
A disputed title
During the 1984 season, Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer and "Today" show host Bryant Gumbel complained loudly that the Cougars didn't deserve a No. 1 ranking or a national championship. They contended that BYU played a weak schedule. The Cougars' most notable wins came against a Pitt team that finished with only three victories and a 6-5 Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl.
That '84 title is still one of the most disputed college football championships.
Every December during linebacker Leon White's long NFL career, his teammates would mock BYU's national championship. The former Cougar always found himself defending his team's accomplishments.
"We'd definitely have a big argument about the national championship and who was deserving of it," White says. "BYU was at the bottom of that list. But they couldn't argue the point that we were undefeated — they didn't have much to argue about."
Matich says it doesn't concern him when people devalue BYU's championship, which was won before the Bowl Championship Series era.
"You can't compare it to today because it was a different time," he says. "It doesn't bother me at all. That's part of the fun of college football. There is usually great controversy surrounding the national championship team or the process that got them there. There's controversy surrounding the whole national championship procedure every year. I don't mind that. It's healthy for college football."
To Morrell, the record speaks for itself.
"We went out and played our schedule and beat 13 teams in a row. Other teams would come to play us like they never came to play in any other football game. We were undefeated. Our schedule wasn't the toughest in the nation, but we were 13-0 and I believe we deserved the national championship. I'd put our 22 starters against any other 22 starters in that era and I guarantee that we could play with them, if not beat them, on any given day."
On the first floor of BYU's Legacy Hall, The Associated Press and National Football Writers of America national championship trophies are displayed behind a glass case.
On the second floor, a display case devoted to the 1984 national championship features the United Press International national championship trophy. Also displayed are Bosco's helmet from the '84 season, Bosco's Holiday Bowl MVP trophy and White's national championship ring.
But the real legacy of the national championship is not found in trophies or other memorabilia.
"The legacy, really, isn't so much what we did on the field that year. It's what we've done with our lives since that year," Sikahema says. "If you trace those guys from starters to backup players to scout team guys, the legacy of that team epitomizes what LaVell Edwards' teams have always stood for. Those men on those teams have become doctors, lawyers, businessmen, teachers, principals. We became great fathers, good husbands and leaders in our communities and churches. That, to me, is more satisfying than the national championship."
Members of that '84 have remained close over the years. That championship season forged an unbreakable bond.
Herrmann marvels at the impact playing at BYU has had on his life. He grew up in Wisconsin, and he wasn't a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he arrived at BYU. Today, Herrmann is a longtime Utah resident and a member of the church.
"Because of my football experience, and because of that national championship, Utah is now my home," he says. "I have a great network of friends and business associates and people I've met through my college football experience that's shaped my life. Everybody in my wedding line were teammates of mine. I've been the best man of other teammates' weddings. It's really a team fraternity and it's really cool to have those relationships. It's been a huge, positive impact on my life and I'm proud to be on that team."
Morrell says he still keeps in touch with his former teammates.
"Seriously, I probably get two or three e-mails a day from guys I played with, asking if I need help with anything. When something goes bad for someone on our team, we pull together and help them out — financially or being there for them when they've lost loved ones. We band together. Life is tough and there have been ups and downs in everybody's life. When somebody's down, somebody hears about it and they get the e-mail out to the rest of the team and we all come together to help that individual out, regardless of what it is. It's really fun when we get together and we have our kids and our wives. It's exciting to see the direction people take in their lives. When I look back, 22 or 24 of the guys who were the essence of the team, it's amazing how successful they've been in business and in life as well."145 comments on this story
Matich says what he misses most about his days at BYU is the camaraderie with his teammates. Their brotherhood was galvanized through a grueling yet rewarding national championship season.
"As you go through that together, you develop an emotional bond that can't be created easily. That was built week-by-week through the course of an entire season. That bond is something we'll have the rest of our lives, whether we have lunch every day or whether we see each other every ten years. When we get together, it's like we've never been apart. It's like it's 1984."