All things considered, Brigham Young University has had an outstanding athletic program for more than a half-century. The Cougars have ranked No. 48 or better in the final Learfield IMG College Directors’ Cup standings since their inception in 1993, and last July they finished No. 17, their highest ranking since 2000–01.
BYU is headed toward another top-25 finish when the current academic year ends next July.
Clearly, something special is going on in Provo these days. It’s good to be BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, the architect of the program that manages, on a whole, to overachieve on an annual basis, given that it doesn’t enjoy the type of funding that many Power Five programs do.
Of course, BYU’s status as a non-Power Five athletic program will change in 2023, as the Provo school sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enters the Big 12. More on that later.
For BYU athletics, these truly are the glory days — particularly for the Olympic sports, women’s sports and in individual championships. Cougars are climbing on the podium in individual events like never before.
BYU has tasted greatness from its sports teams before — the 1984 national championship and the 1996 Cotton Bowl win in football come to mind, as well as national titles in men’s volleyball (twice) multiple national crowns in men’s and women’s cross-country, a men’s golf championship in 1981, a piece of the national championship in men’s track and field in 1970 and NIT men’s basketball championships in 1951 and 1966 when that tournament was viewed more highly than the NCAA Tournament.
But rarely has almost every team on campus been as successful as they are now, evidenced by the “no-loss November” when BYU’s teams combined to go 29-0 last month and Cougars Whittni Orton and Conner Mantz swept the individual titles at the 2021 NCAA Cross-Country Championships.
In short, 2021 will go down as one of the most significant and successful years in BYU sports history — on and off the fields and courts of play.
Here’s the Deseret News’ look at the 10 biggest stories of the year for BYU sports.
BYU accepts Big 12 invite
In the words of Holmoe, “the stars aligned and it all came together” on Sept. 10, the day BYU was admitted into the Big 12. Years, even decades, of hard work finally paid off, and the Cougars, an independent in football and a member of the West Coast Conference in most other sports, will join Group of Five schools Cincinnati, UCF and Houston in the Power Five league in 2023.
“This would not have happened without Tom Holmoe,” BYU President Kevin Worthen said.
The Big 12 invite stands as not only the most newsworthy BYU sports development in 2021, but perhaps the last decade — at least since BYU announced in 2010 it was going independent in football and joining the WCC in basketball, etc., the following year.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the Cougars were an outstanding candidate in 2016 when the league considered expanding, then decided against it, and that the Big 12 never forgot about BYU’s “impressive following” and worldwide fanbase. He called it a “long-awaited marriage” between the Cougars and the conference that will see Texas and Oklahoma eventually depart for the SEC.
BYU posts another double-digit win season, but loses bowl
Sure, the Cougars’ disappointing 31-28 loss to UAB amid driving rain and heavy winds in the Independence Bowl left a lot of fans with a sour taste in their mouths. But they shouldn’t forget that very few people predicted a 10-win season for the Cougars in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year with a new starting quarterback and the loss of more than a dozen other graduating starters.
After BYU improved to 5-0 with a 34-20 victory over eventual Mountain West champion and LA Bowl winner Utah State, the Cougars were ranked No. 10 in both The Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls, almost matching their highest ranking in 2020 when they went 9-0 and were as high as No. 8 in one poll before falling at Coastal Carolina.
The Cougars fell 26-17 to Boise State and 38-24 to Big 12 champion Baylor before recovering nicely with five straight wins despite a plethora of injuries to key players on both sides of the ball before their lackluster performance in Shreveport, Louisiana, which will probably cost them a second-straight top-15 ranking in the final national polls.
Wilson becomes highest Cougar ever taken in NFL draft
Superstar quarterback Zach Wilson’s emergence was arguably BYU’s No. 1 sports story in 2020, along with the Cougars’ 11-1 finish. But the product of Draper’s Corner Canyon High was taken No. 2 overall by the New York Jets in the NFL draft on April 29, 2021, in Cleveland, making that development not only one of the biggest stories for BYU sports, but the state of Utah as a whole, this past year.
Wilson’s story threw BYU football into the national spotlight, as the fresh-faced kid from the Salt Lake City suburb 20 minutes away from Utah’s capital city walked down the runway at a makeshift stage and hugged vaccinated NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, donned a Jets ball cap, slapped hands with Jets fans and told them the Jets “are going to be a special team, baby” and that they were “going to the Super Bowl.”
Flanked by his family, his girlfriend Abbey Gile, Corner Canyon coach Eric Kjar, BYU coaches Kalani Sitake, Fesi Sitake and Aaron Roderick and quarterbacks coach John Beck, Wilson told the Deseret News that night that it took dozens of people to get him to that point in his life.
“I’ll never not be grateful for them,” he said.
Sitake signs ‘unprecedented’ contract through 2027
After Sitake’s name popped up as a candidate for head coaching openings at USC, Washington and Oregon, among other schools, BYU signed the six-year coach to a “new, unprecedented” contract on Dec. 10 that should keep him in Provo through 2027.
Although financial terms were not disclosed (and probably never will be), Sitake said in a Zoom meeting that day that the entire program — from the players to his assistant coaches to support staff and office personnel — would benefit, which is what makes it unprecedented in his view.
“When we talk about unprecedented, it is about what we can do at BYU,” Holmoe said.
Added Sitake: “This is about getting our players the opportunities and the resources they need, and that is why, in my opinion, the unprecedented part of it involves more than just me.”
The announcement came a few days after the Oregonian reported that Sitake had interviewed for the Oregon vacancy. The Deseret News reported that Oregon officials did a Zoom call with Sitake on Dec. 7, and Sitake never made a visit to Eugene for an in-person interview.
Men’s team makes NCAA tourney for first time in six years
After the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament and prematurely ended coach Mark Pope’s first season in Provo (the Cougars almost certainly would have received an at-large invitation to the Big Dance), BYU’s men’s basketball team didn’t let the loss of Yoeli Childs, Jake Toolson, Zac Seljaas and T.J. Haws keep it from getting to the tournament for the first time in six years in 2021.
BYU went into the Big Dance with a 20-6 record and a No. 6 seed, but drew No. 11 seed UCLA and historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana — where the entire tournament was played — and struggled against the Pac-12’s Bruins from almost the opening tip.
Johnny Juzang scored 27 points and UCLA won, 73-62, to eliminate the Cougars before making it all the way to the Final Four, where the Bruins lost 93-90 to Gonzaga in the national semifinals.
Star senior guard Alex Barcello returned for another season in Provo, a noteworthy development in and of itself, and the Cougars picked up in November where they left off last spring. They beat San Diego State 66-60 in Provo, upset No. 12 Oregon 81-49 in Portland and downed rival Utah 75-64 in Salt Lake City and were 9-2 heading into the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii and being projected as a No. 7 seed by Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology.
Cross-country teams maintain status as elite powerhouse
On March 15, BYU’s Conner Mantz won the men’s individual title at the NCAA Cross-Country Championships and coach Diljeet Taylor led the BYU women to the team championship in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The championships came after the 2020 season was delayed due to the pandemic.
For the winning Cougars, Anna Camp (11th), Aubrey Frentheway (15th), Whittni Orton (17th, Sara Musselman (33rd) and McKenna Lee (41st) contributed to the team title. BYU won by 65 points, the largest margin of victory in the championships since 2012.
“It was a total team effort,” Taylor said. “I’m speechless.”
Eight months and a few days later, BYU was shut out of the team titles in the 2021 NCAA Cross-Country Championships on Nov. 20 in Tallahassee, Florida, but swept the individual titles.
Mantz won the men’s title for the second time in the calendar year, while Orton claimed her first national championship in the final race of her star-crossed BYU career.
It was only the second time in NCAA history that the winners were from the same school, matching an Indiana feat in 1988.
“It was a wild moment, for sure,” Orton told ESPN.
BYU’s women finished second as a team, slightly behind North Carolina State, while the BYU men finished seventh for the second straight championships.
It should also be noted that BYU’s Camp won the NCAA 1,500 meters national championship on June 12 in Eugene, Oregon, with a school record-breaking time of 4:08.53.
Cinderella BYU plays in NCAA women’s soccer title game
Led by All-Americans Mikayla Colohan and Cameron Tucker, No. 4 seed BYU made it all the way to the championship game in the NCAA Women’s Soccer Championships before falling in penalty kicks to No. 1 overall seed Florida State.
After neither team was able to score in regulation or overtime in Santa Clara, California, the Seminoles won the shootout 4-3 to win their fourth national title on Dec. 6. The Cougars had advanced to the Final Four for the first time in the 27-year history of their program, and knocked off Santa Clara in penalty kicks in a semifinal.
“We had a phenomenal year,” said BYU coach Jennifer Rockwood, the only coach in the history of the program. “We are just really proud of the way we competed tonight, the way we represented ourselves and our school and our conference.”
Having tied Santa Clara for the WCC championship, the Cougars finished the season 18-5-1.
BYU snaps 9-game losing skid to Utah, goes 5-0 vs. Pac-12
The Cougars’ football exploits in 2021 have already been mentioned, but this achievement deserves its own designation. A day after the BYU-to-Big 12 announcement, the Cougars made sure it was a weekend to remember with a 26-17 win over the Utes in front of a sellout crowd at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Joyous BYU fans, thousands of them, stormed the field to celebrate the Cougars’ first win over the Utes since 2009. The win became even more impressive when Utah won the Pac-12 championship to advance to its first Rose Bowl game.
But BYU didn’t just stop there. Having defeated Arizona in their opener in Las Vegas, the Cougars went on to defeat Arizona State, Washington State and USC to go 5-0 against Pac-12 teams. The Cougars also defeated Bronco Mendenhall-led Virginia (before the former BYU coach resigned on Dec. 2 in Charlottesville) to finish with six wins over Power Five schools, the most P5 wins in a season in school history.
Men’s volleyball advances to national championship match
After it sparkling 2020 season was cut short by COVID-19, BYU’s men’s volleyball team picked up where it left off in 2021 with another stellar season. Led by star outside hitter Gabi Garcia Fernandez and a host of other talented players, the Cougars defeated Lewis in a national semifinal match in Columbus, Ohio, to advance to the final against No. 1 Hawaii.
However, the No. 2 Cougars came out flat in the championship match, and were swept by the Warriors 3-0 to finish their season at 20-4.
After having won the national championship in 2004, BYU has now lost 12 straight sets in national title clashes, falling to UC Irvine, Ohio State (twice) and Hawaii.
Coach Shawn Olmstead called the year one of the toughest of his career, but also “probably the most rewarding” as well.
Women’s basketball team makes March Madness run
Coach Jeff Judkins’ Cougars went undefeated (9-0) at home and finished with a 19-6 record last spring. After upsetting Rutgers 69-66 in a 2021 NCAA Tournament game, the Cougars led eventual runner-up Arizona with five minutes remaining but lost the lead and the game, 52-46.
With star guards Paisley Harding and Shaylee Gonzales returning, the Cougars (9-1) are off to another strong start and were ranked No. 19 in the country the week before Christmas.
They beat Pac-12 schools Utah, Arizona State and Washington State in nonconference play and also won the St. Pete Showcase in Florida, downing No. 17 Florida State and No. 22 West Virginia to claim that title.
All told, it has been a phenomenal fall for BYU’s women’s teams, as soccer made it to the College Cup championship match and women’s volleyball went 30-2 and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the ninth time in 10 seasons.
The Cougars went 18-0 in league play to win the WCC championship and downed Boise State and Utah in the NCAA Tournament before losing a five-set heartbreaker to No. 6 Purdue in Pittsburgh on Dec. 9.