”... the immediate outlook for the Cougars is not bright!” – The 1949 BYU media guide
PROVO — BYU’s 2017 football season will go down as one of the worst in the school’s history — 1-7 and counting — but it could be worse. It has been worse. There was the 1949 season, which has largely been forgotten — and for good reason. The Cougars were 0-11, and that doesn’t even fully describe how bad it was.
In 2015, writer Matt Brown researched the worst college football teams of all time, assigning point values based on the margin of defeat and strength of schedule, with zero being an average team. He created two lists — one for all teams and one for Power 5 teams. After acknowledging that BYU is not technically a current power-conference school, he included BYU’s 1949 squad as the worst on the Power 5 list, with a score of -27.97, followed by 1942 Arizona State (-26.40), 1950 Virginia Tech (-26.12), 1902 Boston College (-24.97) and 1960 Virginia (-23.05).
The ’49 Cougars scored 105 points in 11 games; their opponents scored 372. The average score: Opponent 33.8, BYU 9.5. The Cougars even managed to lose to Pacific Fleet, a military unit that created a football team with former players.
The late Rex Berry, a junior halfback and defensive back on that team who would go on to stardom, liked to say, “We were undefeated; we didn’t defeat anybody.”
BYU has no surviving statistics from the ’49 season beyond the scores, but after doing considerable research, sports information director Ralph Zobell found, among other things, the 1949 media guide. The guide offered this foreboding and surprisingly honest assessment of the team’s prospects for the season.
Outlook for ’49 …
- A completely revised coaching staff with little or no spring practice.
- A great lack of depth in critical positions and very little experience.
- A lot of sophomores; quite a few juniors; only a few seniors.
- The toughest schedule in many years, a game each week for 11 weeks.
“Putting aside all rose-colored glasses,” it continued, “the immediate outlook for the Cougars is not bright! Such a confession from the Provo camp will not be greeted with delight by Brigham Young’s fighting alumni, but to say anything else would most certainly be hypocritical …”
BYU had never been much of a force in football anyway and wouldn’t be for some time; in a half-century of collegiate competition, the Cougars had averaged four wins per year and produced only 16 winning seasons. Four of those winning seasons occurred in the late ’60s, when quarterback Virgil Carter pumped life into the team. That gave LaVell Edwards, then an assistant coach, the idea to convert the Cougars to a passing team when he became head coach in 1972, and the Cougars became a regular top-25 program for the next three decades.
But that was much later. For the 1949 season, BYU hired a new head coach — 31-year-old Chick Atkinson, the football coach at Pocatello High. He would endure seven seasons and finish with an 18-49-3 record. His assistant was Reed Nilsen, who left a playing career with the Detroit Lions to coach the freshman team at BYU and then was promoted to the varsity team by Atkinson. Bob Bunker coached the freshman team.
Dick Hill is seen when playing football for Brigham Young University in 1950. He played from 1947-51. | Provided by Dick Hill
Two of their best players that season were Dick Hill and Dave Lindstrom, who live within a few blocks of each other on the Orem-Provo border, both 88 years old. They were linemen on offense and linebackers on defense (players played both ways in that era), weighing 180 and 185 pounds, respectively.
The media guide says Lindstrom “has a big future in football,” and Hill, who also was a standout on BYU’s baseball and wrestling teams, “was a bulwark on defense (the previous season) and (is) one of this year’s best line prospects.”
Against Utah State, Hill and Lindstrom butted heads with LaVell Edwards, a center/linebacker who would one day make BYU a national powerhouse. One of their teammates was freshman Paul Mendenhall, whose son Bronco would become the head coach of the Cougars a half-century later.
“Our coaches were just out of high school, and it was tough putting them with a young team and playing the teams we played,” says Hill. “We played some big-time teams. We were battling for every point we could get. We tried our darndest.”
Says Lindstrom, “We had a lot of young guys. We didn’t have too much success. That’s a few years ago and I don’t remember a lot about it. I know we had some bad seasons along through there. But it was a fun time.”
Hill and Lindstrom, as well as Berry, came from tiny Carbon High. All three were injured during that futile ’49 season. Lindstrom broke a collarbone against Denver and was sidelined for a few games; Hill injured a leg against Colorado State and missed the next game; Berry broke his ribs but played anyway.
Dave Lindstrom laughs as Dick Hill tries on his old football helmet in Provo on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. Lindstrom played from 1947-49 and from 1952-53. Hill played from 1947-51. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
According to Hill, “Rod Kimball, our trainer, took a tin pie plate and taped it over (Berry's) ribs so he could play. We didn’t lose too many from injuries who didn’t jump in there and play.” Berry’s son, Doug, confirms this story about his father as “absolutely true.”
Berry was the most successful player of that era. After four years in the Navy during World War II and a year at Carbon College, he planned to join the Utah football team but en route to Salt Lake City he stopped at BYU.
According to his son, “Someone said, Just stay here, and he did. He was glad he stayed in Provo — he met my mom there. But he said the team just wasn’t very good.” Berry was named to the all-conference team in 1950, and the San Francisco 49ers made him the 162nd player taken in the 1951 NFL draft. He became team captain and an all-pro defensive back with the 49ers, collecting 22 interceptions in six seasons. Berry died in 2005.
“I don’t know how he got drafted off that team, but he did,” says Doug Berry. “There were more fans at 49er practices than there were at BYU games. Later, he loved being a BYU fan because they got so good. He remembered the bad times.”
For many players the 1949 season marked the end, or the suspension, of their college football careers even though most of them were underclassmen. The Korean War heated up and the draft was in effect. Most of the players had signed up for the National Guard and their units were activated.
“Half the team went into the military in the fall of 1950,” says Lindstrom. “A lot of them ended up in Korea.” Hill was able to play for the Cougars the next two seasons, but Lindstrom was sent to train with his guard unit at Fort Hood, Texas.
The army formed a football team at Fort Hood composed of former college players. They played six- and 11-man football games against teams from other military bases in the South, sometimes two games in a week.
Dave Lindstrom is shown in a yearbook while playing football for Brigham Young University. He played from 1947-49 and from 1952-53. | provided by Dave Lindstrom
“All the guys activated in our unit stayed together,” says Lindstrom. “Half the team was from BYU and they combined us with some players from the Missouri national guard. It was fun. They gave us brand new uniforms.”
Someone convinced the battalion commander to arrange a game between that Fort Hood team and BYU in Provo as a fundraiser for the school’s new fieldhouse. On Nov. 25, 1950, BYU beat Fort Hood 28-14 to finish the season with a 4-5-1 record. A year later the Cougars were 6-3-1.
By then, Lindstrom and his guard unit were on their way to Korea. He spent almost seven months there, most of it in the winter. “It was a miserable place,” he recalls. “It was very cold. There were no roads, just trails. I saw a lot of people get killed.” He returned to play football again for BYU in 1952. The Cougars won four games that season.
After graduating from BYU, both Hill and Lindstrom became high school teachers and coaches. Lindstrom coached football, wrestling and track at Lincoln, Orem and Mountain View high schools for 36 years. Hill was the head football coach at Grand County High and then coached football (among other sports) at Provo High from 1954-87 and never had a losing season.
Asked what he would tell the current BYU football team as it limps through the season, Hill says, “You’ve gotta stick with it. There’s nobody who’s going to be cheering for you because you’ve lost so many games ... When we played and had those bad years, our coaches told us to just gut it out and there’d be another year. That losing was a learning season. We had to dig in and work for the next year … I can’t say it was always fun, but I enjoyed every minute of playing football.”