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The rise and fall: An inside look at the decline of BYU's marquee sports programs

PROVO — It was the golden age of BYU sports. The late 1970s and early 1980s were to Cougar athletics what the '60s and '70s were to rock ’n’ roll.

In 1980, Jim McMahon threw a Hail Mary touchdown pass to complete a 20-point comeback in the final three minutes of the Holiday Bowl, later to be known as the Miracle Bowl. Three months later, Danny Ainge famously dribbled from one end of the court to the other to beat Notre Dame and send the Cougars to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Later that spring the BYU golf team won the NCAA championship.

The football team produced All-American and future NFL quarterbacks like an assembly line. After a half-century of futility, the Cougars won conference championships with boring regularity and in 1984 won the national championship. That same year BYU graduates Paul Cummings, Doug Padilla and Henry Marsh won the three distance races at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Los Angeles, and Ed Eyestone was the NCAA cross-country champion (a year later he would claim the triple crown of distance running by winning NCAA titles in cross-country and the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs in track). Wally Joyner, Cory Snyder and Rick Aguilera made waves in the major leagues. McMahon won the Super Bowl. It seemed the run of BYU fortune would never end.

But it did.

Interviews with former coaches, former BYU athletic directors, players, alumni and an analysis of decades of results reveal a troubling pattern of decline as societal changes, politics and big money stand in contrast to BYU’s commitment to its honor code and religious and educational mission.

Can BYU overcome the obstacles and return to athletic excellence in such an environment? Athletic director Tom Holmoe, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has maintained a level of optimism, telling reporters last November, “We control our own future. I’m convinced we have a fantastic future ahead of us.”

Others are not so sure.

Football and basketball

The football team, the flagship of the program, is back where it started before LaVell Edwards pumped life into it. Supporters note BYU was ranked a respectable 31st last year in the Directors' Cup rankings — the measure of a school’s performance in all sports combined — but this was based on the performance of baseball, softball, women’s soccer, men’s volleyball and the men’s and women’s golf and track teams. Those sports don’t put people in the stands, money in the bank or market the mission of a school.

Football drives the national sports conversation, and BYU has not been a significant part of the conversation for years.

BYU quarterback Joe Critchlow looks upward after getting sacked by Massachusetts Minutemen in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

"It feels like the decision to be independent clearly has not worked,” said Dave Checketts, a BYU alumnus and the former general manager of the Utah Jazz and president of the New York Knicks who has maintained close ties with BYU. “It feels like they need a conference, like it’s a necessity. It’s no secret it hurts them in every way. … They thought they would be invited into a conference sooner rather than later when they left the Mountain West. … What are their choices — go back to the Mountain West?”

But the problems at BYU go beyond the football program and its decision to go independent. The men's basketball program is also mired in mediocrity. Much has been made of BYU’s 12 consecutive 20-win seasons in basketball, but that is no longer a meaningful benchmark for success in an era in which teams routinely play 30-35 games a season. The Cougars, who have won 29 conference titles, have yet to win a championship after six years in the West Coast Conference. They are 13-34 against ranked opponents in the past dozen years, compared to 14-11 in the 1980s.

The Cougars can flare to life with the arrival of a rare super talent — as was the case with 2011 College Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette — but they have not been able to sustain a high level of play. After appearing in the top 25 of the final AP rankings three times in the ’80s, they have done so only three times since then and could do no better than NIT berths the past two seasons.

The most precipitous and meaningful decline, however, has been that of the football team, which, with a touch of irony, comes during the first season following the death of Edwards. It is also the most troublesome development because of its high profile. This season the Cougars are 3-9 after starting the season 1-7 and will close out the season at Hawaii Saturday.

It’s a mighty fall for a program that cracked the final top-20 rankings nine times from 1977 to 1996, won 23 conference championships, the 1997 Cotton Bowl and that national championship. In the 20 years since then, BYU has finished in the top 20 just three times, the last of which came in 2009. The Cougars’ problems are deep and are unlikely to be fixed any time soon.

They were able to hide their shortcomings last season behind three future NFL players — Taysom Hill, Jamaal Williams and Harvey Langi — but the slide had already begun. Since 2009 the Cougars are 14-22 against Power 5 teams and 3-13 against ranked teams. Only 10 BYU players were taken in the past 12 NFL drafts (11 if you count the supplemental draft); there were 29 drafted the previous 12 years before that. Currently, there are nine BYU players on active rosters in the NFL. In 2005, there were 24.

The frustrations on the field have continued off the field, which is equally disconcerting for a school that represents The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and stands firmly behind an honor code. Star linebacker Francis Bernard, who had already been declared a redshirt for the season for unspecified reasons, was arrested in October for suspicion of driving under the influence, and Ulakai Tolutau, one of the team’s most promising rushers this season, was charged with possession or use of a controlled substance (marijuana).

In still another blow to the athletic program, Nick Emery, a starting guard on the basketball team, is being investigated by the NCAA for receiving improper benefits from a booster. Emery, who has since left school, also made headlines in 2015 for punching a University of Utah player, which led to a suspension of the rivalry game by Utah. This came a year after the football team brawled with Memphis following the Miami Beach Bowl.

BYU President Kevin Worthen, through a spokesperson, declined to be interviewed or comment for this story. But perhaps no one sizes up the situation better than Vai Sikahema, a BYU/NFL running back in the ’80s and now a TV anchor in Philadelphia. “So many trends have worked against BYU, and a lot of them had nothing to do with sports.”

Off the field

Legal problems, political correctness, conference infighting and even the increased scrutiny wrought by social media have all had a profound impact on BYU athletics. BYU itself has chosen a course that makes matters more difficult for its own athletic teams. As a result of events that occurred in 2004, when 14 football players were charged with honor code and/or criminal acts ranging from assault to allegations of rape, recruiting standards were tightened.

Jim McMahon celebrates with his dad Jim McMahon Sr. at the Holiday Bowl in 1980. | Deseret News Archive

“A lot of us from the ’70s and ’80s would not have even gotten into BYU if we were coming up now,” says Sikahema, an LDS stake president in New Jersey. “The bar has been raised incredibly high. They (BYU) became a lot more selective, and they can, frankly. Kids want to go there. There are kids I think would excel at BYU who don’t get in. I haven’t sent any athletes to BYU from my stake. I’m not complaining at all. It’s just an observation. When you raise the bar academically, socially and ecclesiastically … if you’re an athlete, it’s probably even harder. A lot of athletes at BYU in the ’70s, ’80s and even ’90s would not have qualified. So now they’re not getting as many great athletes."

"The school put its foot down, especially after 2004," said Val Hale, BYU’s athletic director from 1999-2004 and now executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

It's probably no coincidence that the number of former LDS missionaries has increased — there were 52 of them on the 1984 national championship team and 55 on the 1996 Cotton Bowl championship team, compared to 74 in 2003 (Crowton era) and 74 in 2010 (Mendenhall era).

On Oct. 5, 2005, ESPN published an in-depth story about the recruiting challenges Mendenhall faced after he became head coach in the wake of all those player dismissals.

"Higher academic and moral standards will further squeeze the Cougars' recruiting pool," wrote Chad Nielsen. "(BYU targeted 125 prospects last spring, compared with over 1,000 a year earlier.) Recruits will need a church leader to vouch for them before they can even visit the campus, and their parents will be asked to come along. And then there will be background checks.…"

Lenny Gregory (formerly Gomes), who played for the Cougars in the early 1990s, told Nielsen, "There's no way I would have been allowed in the university. Or even recruited."

The article discussed the discretion that Edwards was allowed when it came to retaining and working with players who failed to meet the requirements of the honor code. According to Nielsen, the school was no longer comfortable with this situation as early as the mid-'90s. "We had to do some tough things that were not always popular with the coaching staff or fans," said Alton Wade, who in 1994 became vice president of Student Life, which oversaw the honor code office at the time.

Paul Tidwell, the former recruiting coordinator, running backs and linebacker coach through the Edwards, Crowton and Mendenhall eras, currently works in the athletic department helping athletes with post-athletic career opportunities. During his time on three BYU staffs, Tidwell had unique insight into some of the recruiting changes and direction that occurred after Mendenhall was hired.

Bronco Mendenhall was named the new head football coach at BYU during a press conference on Dec. 13, 2004. | Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

“Bronco embraced the mission of BYU and tried to implement it into our football almost on a daily basis," Tidwell said. “We constantly talked about fit, who was the right fit. Did we always get the right guy? No, but we always tried. Bronco always stressed that. I don’t remember that being emphasized as much with the previous staff, and it ended up costing Gary his job — he brought in the wrong people."

Despite this narrowing of the talent pool, it should have been offset by the growth of the LDS Church, from about 4.5 million in 1980 to nearly 16 million, but many top LDS athletes now opt to go elsewhere — Jabari Parker to Duke and the NBA, Manti Te’o to Notre Dame and the NFL — and BYU can’t educate all LDS kids anyway. The result is that Mormon athletes are no longer a lock to play for their church’s school, and certainly the downturn in BYU’s performance won’t help. Some schools that were once hesitant to accommodate LDS missions are now eager to do so, among them Stanford and Utah.

Conference shakeup

As if all this didn’t create enough challenges, BYU faced another one. When Utah bolted the Mountain West Conference to join the Pac-10 in 2011 during a shakeup of conference affiliations, BYU was passed over for an invitation. BYU arrived at a crossroads. It could remain in the league or go it alone. BYU gambled and chose independence for its football program, and that gamble has not yielded the desired results. BYU bet it eventually would earn an invitation to join a Power 5 conference. That would have been a winning wager if invitations were based on the merit of their athletic program, but politics and societal changes brought negative impacts.

When the Pac-10 passed on BYU, it was widely reported that it was because BYU was not a research institution. Others pointed to the elephant in the room. Mendenhall, BYU’s head coach at the time, told KSL Newsradio in 2011 that the newly formed Pac-12 "made it very clear that it did not want a religious-based school.” In other words, Pac-12 schools lean far to the left politically and weren't open to the inclusion of a conservative church school, never mind all the talk about diversity.

Athletic credentials didn’t matter. Were they even mentioned? Until this season, BYU’s football program would have measured up with most of the programs in the Pac-12 and Big 12. BYU's football team had four decades of success. It had a much better record in football than its rival Utah. Its overall athletic program is among the top 35 in the nation annually. The school offered first-class facilities, a national following and strong academics (according to U.S. News and World Report's annual rankings, BYU is tied for 61st among all U.S. universities, ahead of seven Pac-12 schools).

BYU thought it could continue with business as usual when it went rogue and dumped the Mountain West, but performance has not kept up with expectations. Independence means a front-loaded schedule of tough opponents, while the back half is a hodgepodge of leftovers that happened to have no conference games on a particular weekend.

It also means coast-to-coast games, no conference title or honors to play for to maintain fan interest, more recruiting challenges and the loss of conference revenues (Big 12 members split a reported $304 million in 2015-16). Almost everyone affiliated with college athletes raises the specter of independence when asked about the state of BYU athletics these days. It is central to everything.

Former BYU athletic director Glen Tuckett, June 10, 2015, in Provo. | Tom Smart, Deseret News

“We don’t have a home,” said Glen Tuckett, BYU’s athletic director during the golden ’80s. “That’s a real problem, and it’s not getting any better. We had the two (recruits) de-commit from BYU and now they’re going to Utah. There is the draw of a conference and a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow with a championship. It’s made things difficult. We have to go undefeated to make the national playoff. And we have to play a tough schedule.”

But a return to the Mountain West, if even an option, would not necessarily take BYU where it wants to go.

“Ignore wins and losses, and talk from a broader perspective,” says Rondo Fehlberg, BYU’s athletic director from 1995 to 1999. “BYU is in a difficult situation. … A lot more people heard about BYU and the Mormons because of the extraordinary press coverage.”

Fehlberg says he was involved in discussions about the future of athletics at Ricks College, an LDS school that converted from a junior college to a four-year school in 2001 and changed its name to BYU-Idaho. In 2003, the church dropped the school’s intercollegiate athletic program, which had been a national powerhouse in the JC ranks.

As Fehlberg puts it, “From the perspective of the church we got whatever benefit we would get from BYU football — and BYU basketball does some. BYU football is the one that matters. Ricks College athletics doesn’t do that. BYU-Hawaii didn’t do that. The equation doesn’t work to spend that much money for the narrow benefit of a very few students.”

Fehlberg pauses after this explanation and then concludes: “So now you can see why we headed toward independence. With the broader national exposure, the church gets what it wants from this program. Let’s face it, we didn’t get it from the (Western Athletic Conference) and Mountain West. It’s that ongoing exposure.”

By leaving conference affiliation, the Cougars would get more national exposure for their school and church with an ESPN contract to broadcast BYU games and a schedule filled with teams from all regions of the country, all while hoping for an invite from a Power 5 conference.

But the plan has gone awry. BYU has failed to be admitted to another conference for all the nonathletic reasons to which Sikahema alluded.

Big 12, Pac-12

In 2016, the Big 12 seemed ready to invite BYU to join its ranks. The Associated Press reported that Mitt Romney, Gov. Gary Herbert and Jazz president Steve Starks lobbied behind the scenes for the Cougars’ Big 12 push.

Romney called billionaire T. Boone Pickens, an Oklahoma State booster, and Herbert called Texas governor Greg Abbott and later made a pitch for BYU with Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin at a meeting, but even that wasn’t enough. (Meanwhile, governors from other states were doing the same thing.) Politics and a loud minority entered the scene. More than two-dozen LGBT groups campaigned against BYU's inclusion in the league, citing BYU's honor code for prohibiting "homosexual behavior." Iowa State's student government passed a resolution denouncing BYU’s candidacy.

“The LGBT community's opposition … severely diminished BYU's candidacy,” wrote ESPN’s Jake Trotter.

After a monthslong dog and pony show that had more than a dozen schools jumping through hoops for an invitation, the Big 12 tabled expansion without explanation.

The Cougars also failed to get an invite to the Pac-10 when Utah and Colorado were invited to join that league in 2011, but to really understand what happened you need to go back to 1997. BYU had just completed a 14-1 season in which it won the Cotton Bowl and finished No. 5 in the final polls. Fehlberg, who was athletic director at the time, approached Pac-10 officials to solicit an invitation for BYU to join the league. During meetings with Pac-10 athletic directors, Fehlberg says they all told him the same thing — it was a no-brainer; BYU put more fans in seats on the road than any other school, even most of their rivals.

“I spent a lot of time working under cover of darkness to get us in the Pac-10,” Fehlberg says. “It was a done deal, but it didn’t happen.”

Former BYU athletic director Rondo Fehlberg. | Malcolm Brenner, Gallup Independent

The Pac-10 told Fehlberg that BYU would need a travel partner. Fehlberg suggested Utah, but the idea was dismissed immediately — BYU already brought the Utah TV market to the league. Fehlberg approached Colorado, which immediately liked the idea of joining the league. But, as Fehlberg tells it, Colorado later reneged. He says CU officials told him that Texas governor Ann Richards threatened to sue if Colorado left the Big 12, which included many Texas schools.

That left BYU without a travel partner. According to Fehlberg, BYU’s move to the Pac-10 was put on hold. In the following years, two events occurred: Utah had two extraordinary, undefeated years in football and Proposition 8 went on the California ballot.

“The entire equation changed,” says Fehlberg.

Proposition 8 was a ballot initiative and a proposed amendment to the California Constitution that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The LDS Church joined the Catholic Church to form an alliance that would lobby for the passage of the proposition. It became a flashpoint for the same-sex marriage debate, particularly after it passed. Opponents lambasted the LDS Church for its support of Prop. 8, and the subject was raised by the media when BYU was considered for Pac-10 expansion.

When Pac-10 officials again considered expansion, this time for 2011, they invited Colorado again, but this time they didn’t invite BYU — they chose Utah as Colorado’s travel partner.

“We have been systematically kept out of not just the Pac-10, but after that, the Big 12,” says Fehlberg. “This has been good, old-fashioned religious discrimination masquerading as academic snobbery that legitimizes an otherwise untenable position.”

Holmoe last November told reporters that he is pleased in how the school has dealt with the disappointment of not gaining a Power 5 conference invitation.

“We all know there are great financial resources in the Power 5 conferences, and it was hard not to dream about what we could do with that money," Holmoe said. “As our staff went through the process of self-evaluation, I pondered on how we can get even stronger in the areas of adaptability and resources. Many people don’t see this side of BYU athletics, but I believe our teams do more with less than almost every school in the country.”

BYU also made a serious bid to join the Big 12 when Utah joined the Pac-12. Fehlberg was no longer athletic director but he was invited to a reception at BYU for Big 12 ADs and coaches. “They were blown away by our facilities and BYUtv,” says Fehlberg. “Dave Brown (senior vice president of ESPN) was leading that.” Eventually, it was one more failed attempt.

So here are the Cougars six years later, stuck on the outside looking in as one of four independents in college football. There’s never a good time to win only three of 12 games, but when a school is clinging to the hope of receiving a Power 5 invitation and hoping to maintain a national identity through cable TV contracts, well, the timing couldn’t be worse.

Dave Checketts, a BYU alumnus and former general manager of the Utah Jazz and president of the New York Knicks, is shown in 2007. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Clearly, they want to get back into a conference,” says Sikahema. “Their survival depends on it … You can get left behind so quickly.”

As Fehlberg puts it, “If our whole purpose was to find a way to compete out there in the college arena, then we might go back to the Mountain West, but that is not our objective.”

Such considerations aside, there are more mundane, practical reasons that a return to the Mountain West no longer offers much for the Cougars, most notably in terms of exposure or schedules.

“Imagine Utah has Arizona State and USC coming to town, and BYU is playing CSU and New Mexico,” says Checketts. “When Utah went to the Pac-12 that changed everything. They have UCLA, USC, Washington and Oregon coming to town — it’s such an attractive weekend. They get sellouts and coverage.”

Coaching change

Aside from conference considerations, BYU faced another crucial turning point when it searched for a head coach to replace Mendenhall. It became a choice between Ken Niumatalolo — the head coach at Navy — and Kalani Sitake — the Oregon State assistant and former BYU fullback — but it also was a choice between two vastly different offensive philosophies.

Niumatalolo would bring the triple option — a running attack — and Sitake would bring Ty Detmer and the pro-style passing attack that the Cougars (and Detmer) made famous in the '80s and early '90s. After much behind-the-scenes vacillation, the Cougars chose Sitake, the passing game and Detmer — they were a package deal. The pass offense has flopped.

“At BYU we have romanticized the quarterback position to the point that it’s hard to remove ourselves from that notion that we’re ‘Quarterback U.,’” says Sikahema, who has close ties to both Sitake and Niumatalolo. “We haven’t been ‘Quarterback U.’ for 30 years. Detmer’s offense could very well work — they’ll have time to see — but if we need to change it up and do something else, do it. Let’s not be married to being ‘Quarterback U.’ USC doesn’t run the I formation anymore. Oklahoma and Texas and Alabama don’t run the bone anymore. They’ve moved on. I’m just saying let’s not pigeonhole ourselves.”

BYU quarterback Jim McMahon and BYU head coach LaVell Edwards in August 1981. | Mark Philbrick, BYU

Even before he became BYU’s head coach in 1972, Edwards decided that the Cougars would need to become a passing offense to succeed. The forward pass would be the equalizer, he reasoned, for a team that could not recruit the big, blue-chip players nor go toe-to-toe with the I backs and line in the trenches. Instead of trying to run over opponents, they would use finesse to get around them. It was a novelty. Almost no one else was passing the ball with such abandon at the time. They were decades ahead of their time and difficult to prepare for. They paved the way for the passing era that has overtaken all of football today.

The Cougars have stuck with what worked in the ’80 and ’90s but it’s hardly unique. As Sikahema suggested, they might have to find a new niche — say, the triple option, which would seem to be a good fit for a school that has always attracted brawny, athletic Polynesian players.

“For so many years that offense was so novel,” says Hale. “It won a lot of games for us. No one knew how to defend it. Now the schemes have caught up with us.”

Can BYU return to its glory days or at least some level of their previous success? Before it even broke from conference affiliation, BYU already faced unique challenges in competing in big-time collegiate athletics, given the honor code, holding the line on Sunday play and the missionary program.

Says Checketts, “I certainly think they can. They can recruit worldwide, and get the kids who understand the standards. … But in my view they need to be part of a conference.”

He added: "I want them to succeed in the worst way. Everyone has a different definition of what success is. I love Kalani Sitake and Tom Holmoe and (basketball coach) Dave Rose is a quality guy. There are the other sports that do well, but football is struggling.”

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake walks onto the field at the end of the Massachusetts Minutemen game in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. Massachusetts Minutemen won 16-10. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Says Starks: “I believe BYU needs to be in the Big 12 and should be. They fit the profile of a school that should be considered in a P5 — the facilities, the track record and history, the academic credentials. All of that is beyond question.”

Four of the five Power 5 conferences seem content to stand pat with their current memberships. The Big 12 is the most restless of the Power 5s, but it has whiffed on previous expansion attempts.

BYU has been caught in the crosshairs of several political debates — Prop. 8 and LGBT issues, for starters — but it has also won respect for sticking with the school's principles and high standards. In 2011, BYU suspended center Brandon Davies — a future professional player — for the remainder of the season for an honor code violation, at a time when the Cougars had a team that was set to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, led by Fredette.

Jim Rome, the sardonic national radio personality, echoed the sentiments of many when he led off his show by saying, "Credit to (BYU) for not compromising its integrity and selling out for the millions they could've made for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. How many programs would've let a player skate for violating a rule right before the (NCAA) tourney, especially if you're looking at your best season ever? … I respect it. I definitely respect that."

Emery’s issues notwithstanding, the Cougars have won people over because they aim for standards that are becoming increasingly rare in the high-stakes world of college athletics — to wit: the corruption scandal that has rocked college basketball this year.

Whether all that will help them in the crucial search for a conference home remains to be seen.

Hale was at BYU during the golden '70s and '80s, first as a student and then as a junior varsity football player and later a member of the administration. He said he believes there are better days ahead for the Cougars.

“It was new and exciting to have the football team rise out of the ashes and become nationally prominent,” he says. “It was fun to ride that train. It comes and goes in cycles. I feel bad for Kalani and (Holmoe) and the team. I have no doubt they’ll bring it back. The road of independence is a hard one.”

Contributing: Dick Harmon and Jeff Call.