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Remembering comebacks, and their achitects

Published: Sunday, Oct. 6 2013 6:19 p.m. MDT

BYU QB Jim McMahon against the University of Utah in 1981. McMahon now suffers from early-onset dementia.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY – The news release from the Utah Sports Hall of Fame struck a cord for me that stretched all the way back to 1980.

On a misty December night in San Diego, I was standing in the parking lot outside San Diego Stadium only moments after the Brigham Young University football team, led by quarterback Jim McMahon, had orchestrated what you could argue is the greatest comeback in college football history – overcoming a 20-point deficit in the last 3:57 to defeat SMU 46-45 in a Holiday Bowl that will forever be referred to as the Miracle Bowl.

On my way to the Hilton to write my column, I stopped to interview BYU fans loading onto a charter bus headed for the airport. One of them was Billy Casper, the professional golfer who, after converting to the Mormon Church, had adopted the Cougars as his team.

Knowing that Casper had orchestrated what you don’t even have to argue is the greatest comeback in the history of golf’s major championships – when he made up a seven-stroke deficit to Arnold Palmer over the last nine holes in the 1966 U.S. Open – my question was a natural.

“Which comeback was greater?”

“Oh this one, definitely,” I remember Casper saying in the euphoria of the moment. “In this one they had no chance.”

And while which one really does rank as the greatest will be forever debatable, the fact remains that not only are both feats legendary, but their architects will be side-by-side next Tuesday night, Oct. 15, at Energy Solutions Arena where they will be part of a class of five inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame.

Also entering the Hall will be Marv Fleming, the former Ute who played in five Super Bowls and won four of them; legendary football coach Ron McBride and former BYU volleyball All-American Michelle Fellows Lewis. (For ticket information, call Chuck Schell at 801-262-9095).

I know McMahon’s and Casper’s stories a little better than most because, as luck had it, I would write books with both of them.

McMahon was one of the featured chapters in “And They Came to Pass,” a book I wrote in 1988 that chronicled the string of BYU All-American quarterbacks stretching from Sheide to Nielsen to Wilson to McMahon to Young to Bosco.

Two years ago I got to sit down with Billy Casper and help him write his autobiography, “The Big Three and Me.”

I got to know McMahon at the start of his career. I started covering him when I was a high school sports writer and he was playing at Roy High School. By the time he moved on to BYU I was covering college sports. I remember interviewing McMahon at BYU one afternoon after practice when he asked if I could give him a ride to Salt Lake. I said sure. He took his shirt off and hopped in the car. Wish I had a picture of that. He leaned over and said thanks for getting him out of Provo. In a sports world full of people always measuring what they say, McMahon was as refreshing as a day at the beach.

What everyone remembers about the Miracle Bowl is the perfect spiral McMahon somehow threw 60 yards that somehow ended up in Clay Brown's arms in the end zone when time expired. What’s not as remembered is when there were eight minutes left in the game and the Cougars, facing fourth down and behind by three touchdowns, sent in the punt team. McMahon turned to the coaches on the sideline and screamed “What?! Are we giving up?! (that’s the printable version). LaVell Edwards and Doug Scovil waved off the punting team and the miracle was underway.

I got to know Casper after his career was over. His last win on the PGA Tour came in 1975 when I was just getting started as a sports writer. I knew Casper had a tremendous record, but I didn’t fully appreciate his stature as one of the very best golfers of all time until we sat down in his trophy room in Springville and he spilled out his life story. As the hours passed it dawned on me that this is easily the most underrated champion in the history of golf.

His 51 PGA Tour victories are seventh-most ever. He won the U.S. Open twice and the Masters in an age when he did not focus on majors. In a ranking of every single golfer who has played the Tour in the modern era, Casper’s winning percentage of 9.2 percent is third highest of them all. The only two ahead of him are named Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.

But he did all his winning in an era dominated by first Palmer and then Nicklaus, using a controlled, conservative, non-flashy golf game – and at the very apex of his career, just six months before he overcame the game’s most popular player at the 1966 U. S. Open, he joined the Mormon Church.

Geez, I’d chide Casper during our sessions, why didn’t you also enter the witness protection program?

At that he’d just laugh and say if he could go back and change any of it, he wouldn’t.

Casper will be there Tuesday. I hope they sit him next to McMahon. They’d have a lot to talk about.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: benson@deseretnews.com

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