Did we just witness the best week in BYU sports history?
Longtime Cougar sports observers and head football coach Kalani Sitake weigh in on the significance of the seven days from Sept. 4 to Sept. 11, 2021, for BYU athletics, which included a huge football rivalry win over Utah and, more importantly, a conference invite from the Big 12
After he threw for 148 yards and three touchdowns and ran eight times for 92 yards to lead BYU past No. 21 Utah 26-17 on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, and snap the Utes’ nine-game winning streak in the rivalry game, Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall was asked where the past week ranked in the annals of BYU sports history.
Cougars on the air
No. 19 Arizona State (2-0)
At No. 23 BYU (2-0)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MDT
LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Radio: KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM
“I think it is definitely up there,” said Hall. “It is absolutely near the top.”
As any BYU follower with a pulse now knows, the seven-day stretch that will never be forgotten whenever Cougar fans gather started in Las Vegas when more than 55,000 fans nearly filled Allegiant Stadium to watch the post-Zach Wilson era begin with a 24-16 win over Arizona.
Of course, one day before the sold-out home opener at LaVell Edwards Stadium, BYU and Big 12 officials jointly announced that the Cougars were joining the Power Five conference in 2023.
It was truly a great week to be a BYU fan, or really anyone associated with the school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Congratulations, Cougar Nation,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said at the news conference in BYU’s Broadcasting Building Friday morning. “It has been a long time coming, and here we are.”
In the wee hours Sunday morning, after thousands of BYU fans — young and old alike — had stormed the field to celebrate the breakthrough against the Utes, and after head coach Kalani Sitake had danced on the sidelines and in the locker room, he paused to make sense of an incredible seven days for a program whose days as a nomad wandering the college football landscape as an independent are finally coming to an end.
“That was something special,” Sitake said.
Monday, as the newly ranked BYU football team, No. 23 in both major polls, turned its attention to Saturday’s showdown at LES against No. 19 Arizona State (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN), Sitake was asked to put the last seven days into perspective for his program, which is trying to post back-to-back 3-0 starts for the first time since 1952 after the 2020 team won its first nine games and finished 11-1.
“Man, I am not even thinking about the next two years,” Sitake said. “I am just thinking about this week. In regards to the Big 12, I am happy for our athletics department. I am really happy that we get to do it as an athletic department. I believe we have great coaches and student-athletes at this university and am really excited that we get to do this together, that all our sports will be included.”
Sitake said he is “especially happy” for the fans who remained loyal and supportive through the nine straight losses to Utah, the rough 2017 season (when BYU went 4-9) and some other setbacks.
“When I first got here as a head coach, I wanted to get things set and started putting work together with our staff to develop talent and develop some depth. That is going to be our focus and we are going to do it with the mindset of our culture in mind. That’s an environment I got to enjoy when I played under LaVell Edwards.
“So I am going to keep working toward that,” Sitake continued. “I am going to keep working for the student-athletes as much as I can and we will do that as a staff. I am lucky that I am surrounded by great coaches, great support staff and great administrators that will allow that to happen.”
There will be time later to more fully analyze what the week will do for not just football, but all of BYU’s 21 sports teams in the future, what Power Five status and money will do for recruiting at what is already a national brand but one never really seated at the big kids’ table until now.
The week after, however, feels like a good time to answer the question posed to Hall, a trailblazer in his own right as the first African American to start at quarterback for the Cougars, having first accomplished that distinction in 2019 at South Florida.
Was this the best week in BYU sports history?
To answer that question, the Deseret News turned to local media members and longtime observers of Cougar sports, including some of our own writers, to get their perspective. Here are some of their thoughts.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist:
“There have been plenty of great weekends in BYU history: Ty Detmer winning the Heisman while in Hawaii, the Hail Mary from Jim McMahon to Clay Brown in a miraculous comeback win over SMU in the 1980 Holiday Bowl, and of course all the hype surrounding the conclusion of 1984, the No. 1 ranking and consensus national championship and what it brought to the program, the pinnacle of the LaVell Edwards run.
“But when you consider the circumstances of Big 12 weekend it might just be the best uplift in school history. The fact BYU had wandered around in the desert of independence while its football program turned over two coaching staffs, strived to get ranked, and lost nine straight to Utah in a 12-year span, fans of the program became starved for a morsel of triumph, validation and a win over the chief rival.
“Recruiting had suffered for more than a decade as opponents used non-Power Five status against BYU. Losing to Utah game after game became sort of a curse. Many young fans and roster after roster of Cougars football players had never witnessed BYU win. When a Big 12 invite did not materialize in 2010 or 2016, it was a major downer in Cougarville to everyone but the administration. They did not give up.
“Because of the set-up here, the 30-hour period of witnessing the Big 12 announcement and then seeing a convincing no-fluke win over Utah to prevent 10 in a row, well, this weekend for Cougar Nation is like nothing I’ve seen in 45 years covering the program. The relief, the feeling of validation, the hope of new horizons for all the sports programs in a year the school finished No. 17 in the Directors’ Cup? The force of such news and happenings last week was fuel to the collective souls of those who follow BYU worldwide.”
Patrick Kinahan, The Zone Sports Network sports radio host:
“With apologies to BYU’s lower-profile sports, which have won multiple national championships, the greatest moments in the school’s athletic history involve football and men’s basketball. It’s hard to top the week of this past Sept. 4 through Sept. 11 that started with the football team beating Arizona at the 1-year-old Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas and ended with the program’s best win since going independent 10 years ago. The 26-17 win over Utah, which had won the previous nine games between the fierce rivals, signaled that Kalani Sitake’s program is capable of winning consistently.
“In between the two wins, the entire athletic program received the lifeline it needed by getting an invitation to join the Big 12 Conference. The affiliation should give football and basketball a significant boost.
“Two other moments stand out in BYU history, starting with football winning the national championship in 1984 and Danny Ainge’s buzzer-beater over Notre Dame to lead the basketball team into the Elite Eight in 1981.”
Jeff Call, Deseret News sportswriter:
“Over the past 40-plus years, there have been a lot of monumental events in BYU sports history, including the 1980 Miracle Bowl; advancing to the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament in 1981; the 1984 national championship; the 1990 upset over No. 1 Miami, the defending national champs; Ty Detmer winning the 1990 Heisman Trophy; the victory over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl in the program’s first and only New Year’s Day bowl appearance; the 2006 Beck-to-Harline victory over Utah in 2006; the 2009 football upset of No. 3 Oklahoma; the 2018 football upset at No. 6 Wisconsin.
But it’s hard to top what happened over a 48-hour period last weekend.
Who could have imagined BYU receiving an invitation to the Big 12 Conference on Friday, then upsetting Utah the next day, snapping a nine-game losing streak — all in the same weekend?
Those two events will have a long-lasting impact on BYU sports, especially, of course, joining the Big 12. The Cougars have finally received their golden ticket to the Power Five. It’s something that will be talked about for decades to come, just like the ’84 national title has been.”
Dave McCann, BYUtv sportscaster:
“During a seven-day stretch, BYU filled Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas with the most Cougar fans to watch a BYU sporting event outside of Utah. They were invited to join the Big 12 and gain the coveted P5 status, and they upset No. 21 Utah in front of sold-out LaVell Edwards Stadium after a COVID-19 year that kept the fans away — If there is a bigger week than this, it hasn’t happened yet.”
Brandon Gurney, former Deseret News sportswriter and Total Blue Sports contributor:
“I don’t know if it was the greatest weekend in BYU sports history, but I do believe it’s the most significant since I started covering the BYU sports programs in 2003. What has plagued BYU since going independent has been the inability to change the overall narrative and real progression of the football program. Not having any real opportunity to advance to the college football playoff, let alone a bowl game above what the team was locked into, has been a tough sell for prospective fans and recruits. Couple that with the inability to defeat Utah and it’s all very much compounded.
“All of that flipped significantly in just one weekend. BYU now is back on top of the rivalry with a two-year hiatus to revel in that fact. Couple that fact with affiliation into a Power Five conference and there’s a real light at the end of the tunnel for the first time since 2011.”
Mitch Harper, Cougar Sports Saturday & Cougar Tracks host and KSLsports.com writer:
“There are only a few options to consider. The 1984 national championship, 1996 Cotton Bowl win, BYU basketball advancing to the Sweet 16, the formation of the original WAC, and the Big 12 invite.
“To me, the Big 12 invite paired with a win over Utah is the top weekend in the history of BYU athletics. For years, BYU fans have been craving validation from a power league. Now they have it. With that validation, BYU can chart paths to the highest levels of college athletics for the first time. Its place within the football power structure in the state of Utah might once again be at the top. Three months ago, no one would have believed that was within reach.
“BYU sports has never had a brighter and more stable future. That’s what separates the Big 12 invite and Utah win from the rest.”
Greg Wrubell, Voice of the Cougars:
“The weekend on which you win a national championship is hard to beat, but even after BYU won the Holiday Bowl on a Friday night in December of 1984, the title wasn’t official until the final polls came out a couple of weeks later, so the nebulous nature of the time frame makes declaring “best weekend ever” a little harder to do.
“I think what transpired last Friday and Saturday could go down as the most momentous weekend in BYU athletics history: an accepted invitation to ascend to the highest tier of collegiate sports, followed by a win that ended a historically long losing streak against BYU’s fiercest rival.
“The emergence of the Power Five dynamic had raised the stakes in college sports, and the latest realignment shift created a prosperous opportunity for which BYU had labored through a decade of football independence and WCC membership.
“Beating Utah before another rivalry hiatus perhaps signaled that when the series resumes, the Cougars will be more consistently competitive and triumphant, while sharing a level P5 playing field with the Utes.”
Jay Drew, Deseret News sportswriter, former Salt Lake Tribune sportswriter:
At the risk of being accused of recency bias, I’m going to agree with my colleagues and say the seven days starting with BYU’s 24-16 win over Arizona at Allegiant and culminating in the Sept. 11 win over Utah at LaVell Edwards Stadium constitutes the best week in Cougar sports history. That’s why I wrote this piece, right?
There’s a long-running sentiment among Cougar fans I’ve talked to or corresponded with since I began covering BYU full time in 2008 that BYU does not handle prosperity well. Beat Gonzaga, lose to Portland. That sort of thing. So when the Cougars received and accepted the Big 12 invite last Friday, I really expected the Utes to throw a wet blanket over the whole thing Saturday with another beating at the Ed. Didn’t happen. For the first time since the famous Max Hall curse game in 2009, I found myself writing about a BYU football win over Utah, rather than a loss.
Since then, the word I’ve heard most BYU football fans use to describe Saturday is ‘cathartic.’ The words most BYU fans have used to describe the Big 12 invitation are “overjoyed” and “ecstatic” and “thrilled” and “grateful.”
So that win, coupled with the proceedings of the past seven days, stamped the week as the best ever in BYU sports history, in my mind. Really, only time will tell.
To me, only the 1984 Holiday Bowl win over Michigan and subsequent national championship designation in the polls a few days later comes close.