PROVO — Brian McKenzie had a mission in mind: get the opposing head coach to know him by name.

What the former BYU running back ultimately did that day when the Cougars faced rival Utah in 1996 was even more valuable: he learned a critical lesson that could be applied outside the bounds of the football field.

"What really got me burning is that Ron McBride didn’t know my name. He knew Ronney (Jenkins), but he didn’t know my name," McKenzie said Thursday during a 20-year reunion for the 1996 team at BYU's Media Day Thursday. "If you’ve ever watched that game, the first play I think I break (a run) for 40 yards down the field. From that point on, it sparked something in me."

He used that as motivation to rush for 176 yards and a touchdown as BYU rolled past Utah 37-17 while piling up 376 rushing yards in a victory that helped propel the Cougars to their first New Year's bowl that season.

"When I get my mind focused on something and I get that will to win, I can’t be stopped. That whole game had me focused like that. Anytime I am focused on something, I get it done," McKenzie said.

Being back on campus in Provo created strong emotions for these players who once bonded together for one of the best seasons in BYU history.

"When I pulled in to the campus yesterday from the airport, I got emotional," said former Cougar wide receiver K.O. Kealaluhi. "I realized how much I appreciated this place and how much it helped me become the man that I am."

BYU's 14-1 season in 1996 — capped with a 19-15 win over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl — still stands as the last time a Cougar team finished the year ranked in the top five. And the members of that squad are quick to share the way that season has impacted their lives beyond football.

"It was a year and a season that changed the trajectory of a lot of guys’ lives, myself included," said Ben Cahoon, an Orem native who played wideout for BYU for two seasons and is heading into his second stint as the Cougars' wide receivers coach. "(It was) just the camaraderie, guys from all different backgrounds coming together for a single purpose creating a little magic on the field for 14-15 weeks."

Some former players have stayed close to the game. Cahoon is joined on the BYU coaching staff by another ’96 team member, Ed Lamb, a former linebacker and now assistant head coach over special teams and safeties.

Lamb pointed out that many of his teammates were All-Americans, all-conference players and multi-year starters. For him, that wasn’t the case, but his experience at BYU helps in his coaching efforts today. While he didn't reach his personal goals of becoming a regular starter for the Cougars, he learned to enjoy what the team was accomplishing.

"That's given me a unique perspective in coaching now," Lamb said. "I can certainly relate to the guys who are making all the plays, the starters. … But I'm not sure coaches can always relate to the guy who's struggling to find the balance between enjoying the success of his teammates and improving himself to the point where he could be the guy out in the spotlight.

"That's what I remember from 1996 is how much fun it was to be with my teammates and celebrating their success and in some ways, having to put my own goals on the back burner."

Kealaluhi, an energetic wide receiver for the Cougars, is now coaching wide receivers at Grossmont College, the same junior college he attended before transferring to BYU in the mid-1990s.

For others, the path runs to a completely different place. Linebacker Shay Muirbrook is now a customer service manager who processes credit card payments for parking in the Bay Area. He reiterates that the same principles he learned in football apply now, that you've got to treat people the same way you want to be treated. At the same time, you have to be consistent.

McKenzie is a father of four who's been married 16 years and is a supervisor and counselor at the Liahona Academy in Hurricane, where he works with troubled youths to help them get their lives on track. He's been doing that type of work the past 12 years with different organizations, using that same type of focus to aid these kids as he showed when he insisted McBride remembered his name.

That's just a few of the roads that the 105 players on the team have taken since legendary coach LaVell Edwards guided a team that created a national stir.

"The biggest thing is you have to believe it. This group of individuals that you see here, they believed it," Muirbrook said. "We all knew what the opportunities were. Everybody has the same opportunities every year at the start of the season. But what we had, we believed in it and worked for it."

It helped having powerful leaders in quarterback Steve Sarkisian and Muirbrook to right the ship when it got off course, or to lead when a strong voice was needed.

"Muirbrook has the intimidating kind of leadership. Sark just got in your face and told you how it was, whether you like it or not," Kealaluhi said. "If you don’t like it, go. Those two were the alpha males. They were the leaders of the team."

Even from the team's lone blemish — a Week 3 loss to Washington — the players learned a valuable lesson they can take into every bit of their lives now.

"That Washington game, we pretty much hurt ourselves," McKenzie said. "You gotta learn that sometimes you’re going to fail sometimes, and you’ve got to pick yourself up and learn from your mistakes and not make them again. I constantly apply that to my kids, I constantly apply that to the students I teach. You’re going to fail. You’ve just got to pick yourself back up and move on."

Some of their best moments from the 1996 season varied. For Muirbrook, there was the Cotton Bowl and his six-sack performance, as well as the brotherhood he shared with his teammates.

McKenzie recalled the Utah game, as well as his first 100-yard rushing effort of the season against Tulsa.

Special moments for Cahoon included talking with All-America tight end Chad Lewis, joking around with Kealaluhi and cheering wildly when little-used wide receiver Tyler Bolli scored a touchdown.

For Kealaluhi, there is the memory of 40 or so Polynesians on the team deciding to shave their heads, and then spending the better part of a day accomplishing that task and bonding through the process.

"His sense of humor and his ability to sense the light moments in the most intense moments kept everybody light. He enjoyed the heck out of the game," Lamb said of Kealaluhi.

For Lamb, he remembers being on the field in the Cougars’ season-opening win against Texas A&M when BYU forced a fumble and Darren Yancey recovered it in the final moments of the 41-37 victory. “It was a great moment that really riveted our team toward the goal that we could accomplish that year,” he said.

Cahoon, now passing along his knowledge to the next generation of Cougar players, believes that with the right ingredients, another special season can be in the cards for BYU in the future.

"I think any season has the potential. You’ve got to get a little lucky, you’ve got to stay healthy and players have got to make plays," he said. "The coach’s job is to facilitate that and make that happen, get out of their way and allow players to play full speed and without thinking and allow their athleticism and instincts to take over. That’s the challenge we face every day as coaches, not overcoach and simplify things so that they can play fast."

Email: bjudd@deseretdigital.com; Twitter: @brandonljudd