A lot of people this year are saying the Utah-BYU rivalry is out of control. Unhealthy, even.
All that taunting and trash-talking. All that stress.
Perceived by many as an ideological conflict, there have been years when that was much more the case. In the 1970s and '80s, BYU always won. It was easier to argue religion (or lack thereof) than arguing about the teams.
At least now football is the largest part of the debate.
Still, for players like former BYU quarterback Jim McMahon, it was never about religion, anyway. His religion was football.
In fact, it was his slightly unchristian gesture that launched a football tradition that remains popular today.
Gimmicks like the "Ickey Shuffle" and the "low five" may come and go, but McMahon's "scoreboard" taunt will live forever in the trash talk hall of fame.
Nobody knows for sure whether McMahon was the first to use "scoreboard" as a taunt. But some who were at the 1980 Utah-BYU game claim that's the case.
BYU had won seven of the previous eight against Utah. The Utes managed a 1978 win, but that was just one of two they claimed in a 20-year span.
Cougar fans had begun calling the annual contest "Utah's bowl game."
They were also calling it a one-sided rivalry, in the sense that it was only a rivalry for Utah.
In 1979, the Cougars shut out the Utes 27-0. But the following season things got worse for Utah. BYU was en route to a 12-1 record, and the outcome was never in doubt at Rice Stadium. BYU rolled to a 56-6 victory.
Late in the game, with the outcome long decided, a contingent of Ute fans was carrying on, having taunted McMahon with obscenities all day. That was no big deal to McMahon, who wasn't above cursing right back.
But this time, after throwing for one of BYU's eight touchdowns, he responded to the hecklers by looking their way and pointing directly to the scoreboard.
It was a move that has been repeated countless times since.
"I remember that he did it a couple of times that year," says his father, Jim McMahon Sr. "He did it at Utah, and he did it in another game I think it was a road game. I had never seen it done before."
Jimmy Mac had introduced the Beehive State and maybe the world to a new and colorful way of shutting up the critics.
Whether he was the first to go "scoreboard" is unprovable. That's like asking whether LaVell Edwards was the first to use the West Coast offense yes, no and maybe. There may have been others, but he helped advance it.
For McMahon, playing Utah was personal but not religious. He wasn't a Mormon, so he wasn't representing a church. In a sense he didn't even represent BYU. He made no attempt to disguise his dislike of the school.
"He wasn't part of that culture," says his dad.
But McMahon was adamant about representing himself and his coaches and teammates.
His father believes Jim not only invented "scoreboard" ("No, it had never been done," he says), but introduced another famous gesture that is still used today helmet-butting. McMahon used that extensively while playing for the Chicago Bears.
"Nobody was doing that before Jimmy," adds his father. "Now everybody has done it."
So if your team wins Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, you might consider celebrating by head-butting a friend. But a smarter thing might be to single out someone wearing the other team's jersey, then majestically point to the screen above the end zone and say "Scoreboard!"
You won't have to say another word.
E-mail: [email protected]