In 2005, athletic director Tom Holmoe and 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 cold, 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.
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. The Cougars' 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 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 their 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 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.
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