They were a little out of focus in that third game, but the rest was perfect.
That is the legacy left by the 1996 Cotton Bowl victors who will gather for the first time since that season for a 20th reunion. More than 50 members of that squad will be present and featured Thursday at BYU Football Media Day’s afternoon session that can be viewed live on BYU-TV, BYUTVsports.com and ESPN 3.
This is the group that featured plenty of NFL talent led by dual tight end threats Chad Lewis and Itula Mili. Ranked as high as No. 5, it featured one of the best defenses in school history with corners Omarr Morgan and Tim McTyer and linebackers Shay Muirbrook, Derik Stevenson and the late Brad Martin.
This team had a lot of storylines that are relevant today.
Current BYU assistant head coach Ed Lamb was on that team. Lewis is now an associate athletic director for development. It was a squad led by a former USC and Washington head coach, quarterback Steve Sarkisian, a 4,000-yard passer who had Brian McKenzie and Ronney Jenkins in the backfield. James Dye, whose son now plays for the Cougars, was a return specialist who continually made huge plays.
K.O. Kealaluhi led the team in receiving that year, and as current receivers coach at Grossmont College in San Diego, was key in getting current receiver Nick Kurtz to come BYU’s way.
But that squad may have been the only BYU team in history designed to play zero coverage (man on man with corners) a major part of the time. It is a scheme new coach Kalani Sitake wants to implement in 2016 if he can get the right personnel.
No Cougar team since 1996 has been as successful playing man coverage. “Tim and Omarr gave us blanket coverage on the outside,” said Stevenson. “That allowed us to do some crazy stuff with the rest of the nine defensive players.”
That third game?
To a man, players regret the pregame distraction that rattled through the ranks of the team on that first road trip. There was an issue about aspects of their attire, putting spats on shoes and wearing all white; helmets, jerseys, pants, socks and shoes.
The team captains went to LaVell Edwards and pressed the issue, they wanted it desperately. “LaVell didn’t have very many superstitions, but doing that, going all white, was something he couldn’t get with,” said Stevenson. “It was a distraction for us. We never had any distraction on that team all season, or the rest of the way, but it was that day on our first road trip. Against a very good team on the road, you cannot have even a little distraction.”
It might sound like an excuse now, but that squad was in position to do special things after opening up with a home victory over Texas A&M. But that trip to Seattle will haunt the team for all time.
The 41-37 win over the Aggies from College Station, Texas, was big time, held early on Aug. 24. A 58-9 beat-down of Arkansas State followed on Aug. 31. So, this Sarkisian-led team was 2-0 before September and rolling.
At Washington, the Cougars came out disjointed with disharmony and lack of focus, got behind early and lost 29-17. They would average 39.5 points a game after and nailed Bill Snyder and Kansas State in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl 19-15 in one of the more exciting bowl games of that season.
“We’ve never done a better job of focusing on the task at hand,” Edwards said of that Cotton Bowl team prior to kickoff.
That season wasn’t without controversy. BYU’s lofty No. 5 finish ranking led to exclusion by the Bowl Alliance for an at-large bid open for the Sugar and Fiesta bowls. No. 2 Nebraska, who’d lost to Texas in the Big 12 championship game, got the Sugar Bowl slot and No. 12-ranked Penn State went to the Fiesta to play Texas.
That season ended with WAC Commissioner Karl Benson and league presidents firing off proposals and counter proposals to the Bowl Alliance, ultimately leading to congressional hearings and a threatened lawsuit.
That season led to creation of the BCS, which has now been replaced by the College Football Playoff, for many of the same reasons discussed in 1996.
That 1996 team made history. History, we should always remember, tends to be an important topic of study.