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Miracle Bowl, 34 years later: I don’t know how you could top this one’

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Editor's note:Friday is the 34th anniversary of the "Miracle Bowl". The following is the final of five excerpts from "Hail Mary: The Inside Story of BYU's 1980 Miracle Bowl Comeback" by Ryan E. Tibbitts. The book chronicles the 1980 Holiday Bowl on Dec. 19 between BYU and Southern Methodist University in San Diego. The Cougars trailed 45-25 with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, but rallied to win 46-45.

The 1980 Miracle Bowl is consistently listed as one of the top ten finishes in college football history. After the telecast, Ray Scott knew he had just witnessed a contest destined to go down in football lore. (Ray had been the voice of the Green Bay Packers during the Vince Lombardi era and had called the famed “Ice Bowl” in December 1967 between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers and who had also announced four Super Bowls and seven NFL championship games.) This is how he summed it up: “Brigham Young in an absolutely unpredictable, wild finish has defeated SMU in one of the most spectacular college football endings I have ever ... ever seen. ... This is one of the most improbable, fantastic finishes we have ever seen.”1 Radio announcer Tony Roberts exclaimed, “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it, and yet I saw it!”2 That was a near universal reaction to the wild ending to the game.

Just a few days before the Holiday Bowl, on December 14, 1980, Scott had called the action for the NFL playoff game between the Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Brown, which ended on a famous Hail Mary pass from Viking quarterback Tommy Kramer to receiver Ahmad Rashad to beat the Browns and advance in the playoffs. At the end of the Holiday Bowl broadcast, Scott mentioned that NFL playoff game and exclaimed, “We’ve done it again!” Then he concluded that the BYU comeback and ending were even more dramatic, “I don’t know how you could ever top this one!”

In its 1996 post-season college bowl game issue, TV Guide listed the “Best Bowls of All Time.” The 1980 Holiday Bowl was listed as number five. In 2002 ESPN.com included “McMahon’s Prayer” on its list of College Football’s Fantastic Finishes. In 2003 ESPN’s “Page 2” listed Holiday Bowl III as the number four greatest bowl game of all time. In 2006 CBSTV uploaded highlights from the game on YouTube and labeled the segment “Greatest Bowl Comeback Ever?” By 2014 that YouTube segment had over a half-million views and people were still adding laudatory comments to the segment on a regular basis.

The 1980 Holiday Bowl is an ESPN “Classic” football game and is included in EA Sports’ NCAA College Football 2005 computer game as one of the “College Classics” games where players can try to recreate the conclusion of the game or create some other ending to the game. That segment of the game is described as “America’s Most Exciting Bowl Game.” Players pick up the game when the score is 45 to 31 and try to finish out with a win on their computer game consoles. This is how it is explained:

1980 BYU vs. SMU

The Situation: “America’s Most Exciting Bowl Game,” otherwise known as the Holiday Bowl, was an old-fashioned shootout in the 1980 version of the game between BYU and SMU. BYU is trailing 45-31 late in the 4th quarter. Can you lead a “Cougar Comeback,” just as the legendary BYU quarterback did over 20 years ago?

The Strategy: This is one of the toughest of all the College Classics. You begin by kicking an extra point. Go ahead and blast it through to bring the score to 45–26. Afterwards, you’ll have to execute an onside kick. The best way to do this is to point the kick directly at the ground, at a 45 degree angle to the opposition’s line. Go halfway up on the left side of the kick meter and stop in the yellow. This gives you the best chance at [recovering] the kick, probably off of a deflection. You can also try to aim a kick waist-high directly at a player, and try to bounce it off of him, then recover that.

Even if you don’t get the onside kick, you can still pull off the win. You’ll just have to stop them on subsequent plays, calling timeouts in between. You need three total scores, and that means two onside kicks need to go your way, or you have to pick up a turnover on defense, or you have to wait out an extra opposition drive and strike quickly when you get the ball. On defense, you know they’ll run to burn clock, so stack against it. On offense, use five wide receiver sets to spread the field and get the most players open as possible.

In 2007, following the dramatic “Statue of Liberty” victory by Boise State over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, msn.foxsports.com asked the question, “Where does the 2007 Fiesta Bowl rank?” In that article, Pete Fiutak wrote: “For the improbable and impossible, the 2007 Fiesta Bowl still can’t quite touch the 1980 Holiday Bowl, when BYU was down 45 to 25 to SMU with less than four minutes to play, and got a blocked punt, a defensive stand, and a Hail Mary, or as BYU called it, a “Save the Game” pass from Jim McMahon to win 46–45.”

In January 2011 deepintosports.com posted a story entitled “10 Most Dramatic Bowl Games of All Time—NCAA College Football.” It ranked the 1980 Holiday Bowl as number eight. In February 2011, sportsthenandnow.com ran a story entitled “Do You Believe in Miracles? Top 20 ‘Miracles’ in Sports History.” The 1980 Holiday Bowl is listed as number 11. Not surprisingly the February 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” when Team USA Hockey beat the Soviet Union to advance to the gold medal game in the Lake Placid Winter Olympics, is ranked number 1. Number 10 on the list is the 1954 Milan Miracle, when tiny Milan High School won the Indiana state basketball championship with a last-second shot. This game was the inspiration for the wonderful 1986 movie “Hoosiers.”

In the fall of 2011, the website Yardbarker listed the Miracle Bowl as the number three college Hail Mary play of all time. (The 1984 “Hail Flutie” and 1994 “Miracle at Michigan” were chosen as numbers one and two, respectively.) In December 2011 Bleacherreport.com senior writer Dan Vasta compiled a list of the “50 Most Exciting College Football Bowl Games of All Time.” In that compilation he lists the Miracle Bowl as 47 out of 50, with number 50 (somewhat confusingly) being the most exciting. Vasta notes that McMahon threw for 446 yards and 4 TDs and concludes: “Well, the miracle was answered as McMahon connected on a third attempted pass to Clay Brown as he was surrounded by four different Mustang defenders. They tacked on the extra point and pulled off the comeback, 46–45, in arguably the most dramatic finish to any bowl game in the history of the sport.”

The Miracle Bowl is sandwiched between the 1979 Cotton Bowl where Notre Dame defeated Houston in the famous Joe Montana “Chicken Soup Bowl” and the January 1984 Miami Nebraska Orange Bowl where Nebraska went for a two-point conversion rather than kicking an extra point to tie, failed in the attempt, and lost the game. The greatest bowl victory, in Vasta’s opinion, was the 2006 national title Rose Bowl between USC and Texas where Vince Young led Texas to victory over the Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush–led Trojans 41 to 38.

In April 2013 top10onlinecolleges.org ran an article entitled “10 Iconic Moments in College Football History.” The Miracle Bowl came in at number 5—just behind the 1967 USC/UCLA classic and just before the 1969 Texas/Arkansas “Game of the Century.” In that article Schoepflin’s punt block is called the “miracle block.” The 1982 California/Stanford “The Play” game is the number one iconic moment—thanks to the Stanford band.

In August 2013 BYUtv aired a program entitled “BYU Football: Top 50 Plays.” In that program Vai Sikahema’s 83-yard punt return was listed as play number 39, Bill Schoepflin’s punt block was listed at number 23 and the McMahon-to-Brown Hail Mary play was listed as number 2. As indicated in the broadcast, there is room for debate about the order of these plays, and the top ten plays were chosen by fans rather than football specialists or professionals.

Many, including me, think the McMahon-to-Brown pass should have been ranked number 1, given the national attention that game and play still generate and what it did for the BYU football program, but that is how the votes came out. As it is, the number 1 play, as chosen by the fans, is the 2006 John Beck to Jonny Harline no-time-on-the-clock game winner against Utah in Salt Lake City. Number 3 is the 1990 Ty Detmer scramble and touchdown to Mike Salido in the third quarter of the game against number-one-ranked Miami. The top ten plays are all amazing plays, for sure, but none have come close to generating the type of national attention—for more than thirty years—as the McMahon-to-Brown Hail Mary.

As recently as September 2014, Matt Brown, for sportsonearth.com, listed the McMahon-to-Brown Hail Mary number four of the “Best College Football Hail Marys” of all time.

Bruce Binkowski has been with the Holiday Bowl since its inception in 1978. He is currently the executive director. Bruce also is the Qualcomm Stadium PA announcer. Bruce explains, “I have called many exciting Charger and Padres games and many other sporting events, including pro playoff games, major league baseball all-star games, and even a Super Bowl. When people ask me which sporting event is the most memorable to me, I still go back to the 1980 Holiday Bowl. Nothing has ever topped it.”

So in every decade since the game, the 1980 Holiday Bowl has ranked with the greatest finishes in college football bowl history. The game is still being recognized and discussed in the press and earning accolades for the superstars of the game. Replays of the game can still be seen on sports channels running the greatest games ever played, and sometimes at the most unexpected times. On Thanksgiving Day 2011, my children flipped on the television while we were visiting their grandmother in Idaho and, believe it or not, KBYU was replaying the complete 1980 Holiday Bowl— on Thanksgiving morning no less—that many years later!

"Hail Mary: The Inside Story of BYU's 1980 Miracle Bowl Comeback" is available at Deseret Book, Barnes & Noble, Seagull Books, Dolly's Bookstore and BooksAndThings.com and Amazon.com. Tibbitts will be signing his book at the Rexburg, Idaho, Deseret Book on Dec. 13 from 1 to 3 p.m. and at the University Village Deseret Book in Orem on Dec. 20 from 2 to 4 p.m., along with special guests Coach LaVell Edwards and former BYU kicker Kurt Gunther.

Hail Mary

In a five-part series, the Deseret News has received permission from Cedar Fort Publishing to publish excerpts from Hail Mary: The Inside Story of BYU's 1980 Miracle Bowl Comeback.

Thursday: The Set-Up

Saturday: Sizing Up the Enemy

Monday: Taking a Risk

Wednesday: Wanting it More

Friday: I Don't Know How You Could Top This One