PROVO — Three times during its history, BYU has exported its football product overseas.
In the 1970s, the Cougars made two trips to Japan, including one official regular-season game against UNLV. In 1987, BYU played a regular-season game against Colorado State in Melbourne, Australia.
Here’s a look back on BYU’s foreign football forays.
Silk Bowl/Yokohama Bowl (1977, 1978)
Prior to the 1977 season, BYU was one of the favorites, along with Arizona State, to win the Western Athletic Conference title. The league champion would receive an automatic berth to the Fiesta Bowl.
However, that season, the Fiesta Bowl was scheduled to be played on Christmas Day, which fell on a Sunday. Because BYU doesn’t compete on Sundays, it announced before the season that if it were to win the WAC, it would decline an invitation to the Fiesta Bowl.
As it turned out, BYU did win the WAC title, winning the tiebreaker scenario with ASU. That paved the way for the Sun Devils, in their final season as members of the WAC before leaving to form the new Pac-10, to play in the Fiesta Bowl.
In place of a bowl game, BYU’s athletic director Glen Tuckett planned a goodwill trip to Japan. The Cougars played two exhibition games in an event called the Silk Bowl against Japanese All-Star teams.
"It was a great experience for the team, a great trip for the kids," Tuckett remembered of the 1977 trip to Asia. "You don't get to go to Tokyo very often."
Helping facilitate the trip was Chris Pella, who was the athletic director and football coach at Yokosuka Navy Base in Japan. He had previously arrange exhibition games for Utah State to play two Japanese All-Star teams in 1971, marking the first time a college team had played in Japan. Years later, Pella became the head coach at USU and eventually was hired as an assistant coach at BYU.
What was the quality of Japanese football?
"They know the game pretty well, but they were just overmatched," late BYU coach LaVell Edwards once said. "They were competitive little guys. The night before the game I remember thinking, 'This would really be big if we lose.'"
As part of his duties with BYU, Ralph Zobell, who recently retired after 41 years in the media relations department, traveled to Japan a week before the team to help organizers promote the goodwill tour in 1977.
Japanese sponsors ordered Zobell to tell the Japanese media in a press conference that quarterback Gifford Nielsen would play as a way to sell more tickets. Nielsen had suffered a season-ending knee injury earlier that season.
“I knew he wasn’t going to play,” Zobell recalled. “The question came up. ‘Will Gifford Nielsen play?’ I didn’t want to lie and I didn’t want to offend our hosts. So I answered it by saying, ‘I don’t know if he’ll play or not. You’ll have to ask him when he gets here.’”
Zobell remembers the entire team boarding a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto.
“You had to get on and off so fast. They warned us about it,” Zobell said. “They were amazed that the entire football team could get on in a two-minute period. In Japan, they hire people to shove people onto the train. They didn’t have to shove any of the players.”
During that trip, a BYU player, Gary Peterson, was invited to compete against a Japanese sumo wrestling champion.
“The BYU guy won unconventionally,” Zobell said. “He lined up and picked up the other guy and set him outside the ring. There wasn’t a lot of pushing and shoving.”
The exhibition games against the Japanese players were also mismatches.
“When we played against the Japanese All-Stars, our DBs were bigger than any of their players,” Zobell said. “You’d see the determined looks in their faces but they were going against bigger, stronger athletes. Their quickness helped them from time to time to make it competitive.”
“To me, it was just a goodwill trip for BYU. It seemed like it was good for the team and the coaches, kind of a bonding experience,” remembered Lee Benson of the Deseret News, who covered both trips to Japan.
Benson remembers showing up at an event and the Japanese fans mistakenly thought he was star quarterback Gifford Nielsen.
“I was surrounded by kids hounding me for autographs,” he said. “It was pretty funny.”
Because BYU's trip to Japan in 1977 was viewed as successful, the following year, on Dec. 2, 1978 — this year marks the 40th anniversary of the game — the Cougars returned to Japan to play its regular-season finale against UNLV at Yokohama Stadium in Yokohama, Japan in the regular-season finale for both teams.
BYU, led by quarterbacks Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon, beat the Rebels 28-24 in the first meeting between the two schools.
BYU rallied from a 17-7 halftime deficit and scored a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
It was UNLV’s first season as a Division I program and it finished 7-4.
The game was played at Yokohama Stadium, which had opened just months earlier and is the home of pro baseball team the Yokohama DeNA BayStars.
A crowd of 27,500 attended, just a few thousand short of a sellout.
“You take for granted chalk for sidelines,” Zobell recalled. “It was a rice paste, from what I can remember. They did the best that they could. We were lucky to win that game.”
Less than three weeks later, the Cougars played Navy in the inaugural Holiday Bowl in San Diego. BYU lost 23-16 and finished with a 9-4 record.
For Benson, those two road trips to the Land of the Rising Sun were memorable.
“I experienced the cultural shock of using chopsticks and all the stuff that goes along with being in Japan,” he said. “I thought it was good in a cultural way. Football-wise, I thought the trips were really odd because Japan doesn’t have a real affinity for football. On the UNLV trip, we landed in Salt Lake on Christmas Eve because we gained a day coming back. It was like the longest Christmas Eve ever. But it got us home in time for Christmas."
Melbourne Gridiron Bowl (1987)
As part of a Western Athletic Conference initiative to take college football overseas, BYU and Colorado State traveled to Melbourne, Australia, days before they played in the Melbourne Gridiron Bowl at Princes Park on Dec. 5, 1987.
In 1985, UTEP and Wyoming played in Melbourne, Australia, drawing a crowd of 19,107. The UTEP-Wyoming game was considered an “entrepreneurial debacle” in Australia, according to Australian newspaper accounts. Both teams alleged they weren’t paid what they were owed.
That should have been a red flag.
Still, the WAC commissioner, Joe Kearney, signed off on the game between BYU and CSU. Organizers wanted to establish the American game in Melbourne and promote tourism between the two countries.
A game between WAC members San Diego State and Air Force was scheduled to take place in 1988 in Melbourne but it ended up being played in San Diego instead.
BYU and CSU announced in March 1987, that they would square off in Melbourne in December. The game was originally scheduled to be played in Fort Collins, Colorado. The programs were paid by the Melbourne Bowl Gridiron Foundation before agreeing to play the game.
The “home team,” CSU, was given $180,000 and the “visitors,” BYU, received $50,000 for its trek across the Pacific Ocean.
About one-third of the total cost of $750,000 needed to fund the event came from U.S. television advertisers (the rights to the game were sold to KUTV in Salt Lake City, which broadcast the game to viewers in Utah).
The rest of the money had to come from ticket sales and local sponsors. Organizers were hoping to break even.
The two teams traveled on the same airplane and they shared the same hotel and buses and they practiced next to each other.
The game week festivities included the teams visiting Australia’s Parliament Building, a parade through downtown Melbourne, a trip to the zoo, an Australian Rules Football match and a barbecue.
Players enjoyed shopping for Crocodile Dundee hats, boomerangs and kangaroo souvenirs. Norm Chow, then BYU’s offensive coordinator, recalled the coaches’ wives made shopping for memorabilia a priority on that trip.
“They went to this shopping mart to buy Christmas ornaments that were so unique to Australia,” he remembered. “They bought them up and brought them home. We get home and they’re all for sale at the K-Mart. The same ornament that they had to take a special trip to get in Australia.”
While the Aussies were good hosts, they didn’t exactly embrace American football — or at least not these two college teams — evidenced by the sparse crowd of 7,652 that attended the game.
According to one newspaper account, “Giving them a parade in the mall on a Friday seems to be taking things too far. Surely that is the sacred domain of our gladiators and not the place for a bunch of university players who haven’t even made it to the pros.”
This matchup was billed as a revenge game for the Cougars, which had lost at home to Colorado State the previous year. But there really wasn’t much on the line because the WAC championship had already been decided and the Rams had won only one game all season.
BYU learned during a layover in Honolulu en route to Melbourne that Wyoming beat Hawaii that day to claim the league title, knocking them out of a chance to play in the Holiday Bowl.
The BYU-CSU game kicked off at 1 p.m. Saturday in Australia, which was 9 p.m. Friday in Utah.
When less than 8,000 fans showed up — most cheered for CSU because it was a heavy underdog and because its school colors, green and gold, are the national colors of Australia — the game was seen as a failure.
“Melbourne 1, Gridiron 0” screamed one headline in the Melbourne Sun the next day.
BYU, led by quarterback Sean Covey, held off Colorado State, 30-26, highlighted by three field goals by Cougar placekicker Leonard Chitty. The Cougars finished the regular season 9-3 while the Rams ended up 1-11.
But in the Australian papers, the final score was only a footnote.
“If you take the vodka out of a Bloody Mary you get a tomato juice. If you take American football out of America, you get a similar effect,” wrote Australian journalist Richard Hinds. “The Melbourne bowl gridiron game satisfied those with a thirst for the game, the expatriates and the late-night television supporters. But it lacked that extra buzz the try-anything-once sports fans go looking for.”
In the BYU section of the stadium, alcohol, caffeine and nicotine were banned. CSU coaches who normally would set up in the press box decided to set up their phones and called the game from the stands among the crowd.
“The game clock was not very big,” Zobell remembered. “It was hard for the quarterbacks to see. I think the referees may have counted it down for them. The game clock was very small.”
One thing that made the game strange for the players, former BYU wide receiver Chuck Cutler said, was the field did not have a crown. It was a field designed for Australian Rules Football, rugby and cricket.
“It felt like a scrimmage because we were playing on a flat field, like a practice field. That was weird,” Cutler said. “Both teams stayed at the same hotel. Everything was kind of weird. We’ll go have a scrimmage and see each other at the hotel. It was just different. But hey, I got to Australia, for what that’s worth.”
Seventeen days after the contest, road-weary BYU lost to Virginia in the All-American Bowl in Birmingham, Alabama. In between, they had to complete their final exams.
The game was costly for the Cougars in terms of injuries, too, as Mike O’Brien and Thor Salanoa suffered knee injuries. Byron Beatty suffered a hand injury and David Futrell hurt his shoulder. Off the field, Chris Bisho broke his finger when it got caught in the door of a taxi.
“We won the game but we had a lot of injuries coming out of that game,” Cutler said. “That hurt us going into the bowl game. We got beat up while most teams were getting healthy."
Cutler said organizers went to the hotel trying to sell commemorative Melbourne Gridiron Bowl sweatshirts and T-shirts to the players.
“They were trying to unload them,” he recalled. “You could tell this was a financial mess all the way around.”
Game organizers “embargoed the team equipment as ransom when we were done,” Zobell said. “They were trying to get BYU to pay to get its team back but that was not part of the contract.”
As the trip went on, the quality of the meals declined.
“The food started out really good,” Zobell said. “Then after the game, not knowing that the organizers’ budget was declining, the food was really skimpy.”
Weeks later, it was determined that the Melbourne Bowl Gridiron Foundation was $500,000 in debt due to the shortfall in ticket sales and the exorbitant cost of hosting more than 300 people associated with the BYU and CSU football teams.
One Australian newspaper called it “a $500,000 flop.”
The CSU contingent left for home first while some BYU players didn’t get home until four days after the game.14 comments on this story
Former Cougar defensive lineman Steve Kaufusi was one of those players. But he took it all in stride.
“We had no money left to go anywhere so we just sat around the hotel and killed time,” he recalled. “BYU provided us with meals so that wasn’t too bad. Going international comes with different challenges compared to as if you’re just traveling to New York City to play in a kickoff classic. You just have to roll with the punches and enjoy all of it despite little obstacles along the way. It’s part of the travel.”