BACK BEFORE THERE were 65,000 seats in Cougar Stadium, and before there were any serious thoughts of Heisman trophies or national championships, nobody at BYU really knew much about becoming famous. What was a publicity-hungry football team supposed to do? Phone up Red Smith? Send a resume to Howard Cosell? Nobody had sent BYU the videotape on "How to Become a Famous Football Team," primarily because nobody had invented videotape.
Undaunted, BYU's publicists decided to drum up some interest. It was 1976, and star quarterback Gifford Nielsen was informed he was about to make a promotional trip to get the BYU name out. To which he replied, "Huh?""I thought, `Back to New York for interviews?' I had no idea what this was about," says Nielsen.
It wasn't just that BYU had little experience with fame; it was that fame had little experience with with BYU. This was a team that avoided home games during the deer hunt for fear nobody would show up.
"People back East didn't even know where Provo was," says Nielsen.
But that was only at the beginning. In an era of conservative running offenses, the Cougars felt they could catch the imagination of football fans everywhere by passing the ball. They wanted to become the Starship Enterprise of college football, going where no one had gone before.
Once the Cougars began racking up unheard of offensive numbers, the publicity was quick to follow. Nationally syndicated news commentator Paul Harvey took to reciting Nielsen's stats every week. The Cougars had been found out.
"At that point, people started to see we had something special," says Nielsen. "They saw that yes, indeed, there was a school and a university in the mountains of Utah that could have an impact on college football."
Apparently the Cougars did just what they intended. Tuesday night in New York, Nielsen was among 12 players and two coaches inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. This time Nielsen needed no introduction. He was the one wearing makeup. Now the sports anchor for KHOU-TV in Houston, he is on the air at 5, 6 and 10 Monday through Friday in the nation's fourth-largest television market.
Oddly enough, Nielsen is one of those athletes who became better known once his playing career ended. Now he's on television every night, which couldn't be said when he was with the Houston Oilers. He doesn't appear on the highlights anymore, he rolls 'em.
Nielsen has always been adept at being both in and on the news, though. At Provo High, he was named Utah's outstanding prep athlete. He moved on to BYU, where he became the first in a long string of all-America quarterbacks on the Provo campus. He established 13 school and 13 WAC passing records, and three NCAA marks.
Drafted by the Oilers, Nielsen spent his entire six-year career there, mostly as a backup quarterback. A communications major in college, he also noted that once he got out of football, being in the media could be a good way to make a living. There was free food in the pressbox, and you didn't have to worry about running into Lawrence Taylor. All he had to do was learn how to ask the tough questions instead of answering them.
Even though he is now reporting the news, Nielsen still can't seem to stop being a story. He has long been rumored as a candidate to become the athletic director at BYU.
"I told the university one and a half years ago . . . that if they wanted to approach me at the appropriate time, I would be happy to talk," says Nielsen, warming to the subject. "I would be foolish not to explore it. Up to this point, though, there have been no talks. There's been no exploring of that position. I am anticipating that at some point, the heirarcy at BYU will get in touch with me and want to know my feelings."
If Nielsen does return to Provo, it's a safe bet the story will be on Houston TV first.
Nielsen now laughs about his inexperience as young college star. In 1976, the Senior Bowl called BYU coach LaVell Edwards about Nielsen appearing in the postseason game. "I was sitting in LaVell's office and he said, `I don't know what to do. I have no idea.' I said, `I don't know either.' We'd never been through this," Nielsen says. "I guarantee the quarterbacks who were there after I left knew what they were going to do. That shows how infant that program was."
Since then, both Nielsen and BYU have grown up. BYU is a nationally reknowned football school with a reputation as a quarterback factory, and Nielsen is in the Hall of Fame. And nobody asks him for directions to Provo any more.