Editor's note: Second of a two-part series about the BYU football program's games overseas and if the Cougars could schedule games like that again.
PROVO — Undoubtedly, it was the longest road trip in BYU football history. And it might have been the strangest.
A little more than three decades ago, on Dec. 5, 1987, the Cougars played Colorado State at Princes Park in Melbourne, Australia, in an event dubbed the Melbourne Gridiron Bowl, in the regular-season finale.
The Melbourne (Aussies pronounce it “Melbin”) game’s legacy is shrouded in unusual circumstances and controversy.
“That was a crazy one,” remembered Norm Chow, then an assistant coach at BYU. “It was kind of a fly-by-night deal. The sponsoring guys ran out of money and we thought we were going to get stuck over there.”
“What I remember the most was, we couldn’t get home,” recalled former BYU wide receiver Chuck Cutler. “We didn’t have tickets home. That was not a fun thing to do. We needed to get back to school. Melbourne’s a nice place but you don’t go there for 10 days. If I’m going on vacation, I’d go to Australia. If I’m going to play a football game, I’d take Laramie (Wyoming) over Australia all day long. At least I know I’m going to be there for only 48 hours. Worst case, we could drive home.”
The Melbourne Gridiron Bowl experience featured flying 8,500 miles with layovers in Los Angeles, Honolulu and Auckland, New Zealand; it saw game balls stolen on the eve of the contest; it was played on a field used for rugby, cricket and Australian Rules Football; and was attended by a sparse crowd of 7,652, including a contingent of LDS missionaries and BYU alumni that saw the Cougars edge the Rams (who finished the season 1-11) 30-26.
“If the 18,000 people that organizers were expected were here today, about 15,000 came disguised as empty seats,” BYU coach LaVell Edwards said afterward.
Organizers weren’t able to secure a scoreboard and had to settle for black letters hung up on a small, portable metal sign. The portable game clock and 25-second clocks were about the size of television sets.
The game, pitting the pair of then-Western Athletic Conference teams was, from a financial standpoint, an ill-conceived venture.
In the end, the Melbourne Gridiron Bowl Foundation racked up debts of around $500,000. The group had provided guarantees to both teams at a cost of $250,000. Organizers had hoped for a crowd of 16,000 to break even and fell way short.
Some Cougar players weren’t able to fly home until four days after the game. In Australia, no airline is allowed to have more flights than Quantas, the national airline. BYU had to fly on Continental, which was one of the game’s sponsors. Plus, there were the financial issues.
Charging an exorbitant fee for tickets for the game — $25 (the equivalent of about $56 in today’s dollars) for adults, $15 for children — for a sport Australians didn’t understand probably wasn’t the shrewdest decision.
Garry Linnell, a reporter from The Age in Australia, explained the disconnect between “Gridiron” (what Australians call American Football) and the Aussies in an article the day after the BYU-CSU matchup.
“From an Australian perspective, American football is a perplexing game,” he wrote. “While a game of American football may resemble a gathering of disoriented and drunken Hells Angels wearing their helmets, there is a great deal more to it. Well, a little more to it, anyway … To expect Melburnians to shell out $25 to watch a handful of anonymous Americans go through their paces was probably expecting too much.”
But that wasn’t the first time a BYU football team had ventured overseas to play a game.
Nine years earlier, in 1978, the Cougars played a regular-season game against UNLV in Yokohama, Japan (this year marks the 40th anniversary of that contest). In 1977, BYU traveled to Japan to play games against Japanese All-Star teams in lieu of playing in the Fiesta Bowl, which fell on a Sunday.
Today, as the Cougars head into their eighth year as an independent, some have wondered why they haven’t scheduled an international game.
Perhaps that Australian experience illustrates, in part, why it hasn’t happened since.
Future games on foreign soil?
It would seem to make perfect sense for BYU to play overseas, considering:
• The school’s motto is “The world is our campus.”
• The school’s sponsoring institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, focuses on missionary work throughout the world with 421 missions spread across the globe. Many returned missionaries are on the BYU roster every season.
• BYU’s status as an independent and broadcasting deal with ESPN, which helps the program with scheduling.
Yes, a BYU football game on foreign soil would seem to be a no-brainer.
“BYU and the LDS Church have such a strong presence in many countries that help make for a rather natural relationship to put together a football game,” said athletic director Tom Holmoe. “The fact we play an independent schedule also allows flexibility that conference schools would not have. The chance to continue to gain exposure to a new group of potential fans and simply give access to America Football to citizens of another country is intriguing.”
But, of course, it’s easier said than done.
“Over the course of many years the subject of playing in a foreign county has come up. Putting together a football game overseas involves a lot of logistics, costs and collaboration,” Holmoe explained. “Finding two teams that can work closely together to play internationally is tricky. I’d be open to future discussions but realize the chances are slim right now.”
Other programs have pulled off games in foreign countries in recent years, apparently overcoming some of the pitfalls befell BYU and CSU in 1987.
After that game, it wasn’t until 2016 that an official college game was played Down Under — when California beat Hawaii, 51-31, before a crowd of 61,247 in Sydney. In 2017, Stanford blitzed Rice in Sydney, in from of 33,181 fans in Sydney.
Since 1977, a number of teams have also played regular season college football games in England, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Bermuda. In recent years, Notre Dame defeated Navy, 50-10, at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, in front of a crowd of 48,820, in 2012. The following season, Penn State defeated UCF before 55,000 fans at Croke Park in Ireland.
Is it worth the time, effort and money for BYU’s football program to play a game abroad again?
“BYU would have more reason to do something like that than probably anybody else because it raises their profile and exposure around the world,” said Lee Benson of the Deseret News, who traveled with the BYU football team to Japan twice in the 1970s. “It probably gets missionaries into more homes. But it is kind of weird to go that far to play a game. For BYU and the situation they're in right now, it could raise exposure in a lot of ways. ESPN might have the perfect night to put that game on where it would get a lot of attention. For the LDS Church, the football program has always been a pretty good draw to attract attention to the church in a positive way.”
“I think they are good experiences. Wherever LaVell took his teams, he tried to let them have a good cultural experience,” said Ralph Zobell, who recently retired after 41 years serving in BYU’s media relations staff and was part of all of the program's foreign trips. “Those happened at the end of the season. That’s probably the best way for it to happen. It would probably wipe you out pretty good if you did it in the middle of the season.”
During Media Day on June 22, Holmoe addressed a question about the status of the series with Notre Dame, originally scheduled for six games. Only two of those have been played, both in South Bend.
There has been speculation about the Fighting Irish buying out the contract, but Holmoe is optimistic that more games will be played between the two schools. “Because of that agreement, we’re going to make things work,” he said. “What we have working out right now is going to be better than a check.”
Some have speculated that BYU could face Notre Dame in a place like Dublin or Mexico City or Sydney. But a future meeting would more likely happen in a place like Las Vegas.
BYU gained a lot of positive exposure during its trip to Australia with plenty of new stories about the LDS Church and its missionary program and tenets of its doctrine (“Colorado will be feted from 1 to 3 p.m. with champagne. Brigham will attack the orange juice from 3 to 5 p.m.,” wrote one Australian reporter).
Yes, it was a long way to go to play a regular-season football game. Both teams were joined by administrators from the schools, with the total traveling party from BYU and CSU comprising more than 300 people. Then-BYU President Jeffrey R. Holland, who is now a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, celebrated his 47th birthday in Australia with the team.
“It (the trip) was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” CSU coach Leon Fuller said after landing in Melbourne. “I think if you can survive being tortured for 24 hours in a plane, you can stand about anything.”
“We had to fly commercial down there. They put a small guy next to a big guy," Cutler recalled. "That was a nightmare just flying there. As a receiver, I’m a small guy. I’m sitting between two linemen. “
More than 30 years later, former BYU defensive lineman Steve Kaufusi has fond memories of that unique road trip.
“I personally thought it was a great trip and an opportunity (for Australians) to get exposed to BYU and American football,” he said. “We enjoyed sightseeing and walking around downtown Melbourne. I believe we played our game in one of their Aussie football fields or a cricket field. How lucky we were as players to be able to experience traveling to another country and witness their day-to-day life and culture. I’m grateful that we were able to go and have that experience.”
"The people were nice. Very kind," Cutler said. "They thought it was fun to have American football there. It was a novelty. But it was just that, a novelty. Obviously not exciting enough to make money.”
Could the Cougars play a game in a foreign country again someday?
“Not in the very near future. Our future schedules over the next few years are filling up,” Holmoe said. “This type of game would demand a concerted effort by both teams, the host country, broadcast partners and promoters in the foreign state. That takes time.”
Members of that 1987 BYU team that journeyed to Australia understand that.4 comments on this story
“When I say I don’t have a lot of great memories, it’s not because of Australia or Melbourne. It just was one of the circumstances,” Cutler said. “It was the last game of the season, they ran out of money and couldn’t get us home. All those things combined made it problematic and not a great experience. It wasn’t a bad memory. It was an unusual memory. Now that there’s more interest in America football and it can be a great experience for these college athletes to go to a foreign country. For BYU maybe that’s not as important because there are so many returned missionaries that have been to foreign countries. Playing overseas is something fun for the fans if it’s a fun place to go. I don’t think it’s a bad idea. It’s more about the logistics. And hopefully, they have plane tickets home.”