Fourteen months of glory. 

The era of BYU sports between the spring of 1980 and early summer of 1981 may stand as the greatest collaboration of success in school history.

Sure, there have been amazing moments that hold their own in a head-to-head debate — football’s 1984 national championship, Ty Detmer’s Heisman Trophy, Jimmermania and even this past fall when Cougar sports combined to rank No. 1 in the Director’s Cup — ahead of Notre Dame, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State.

All are worthy, stand-alone accomplishments that warrant their own historic fanfare. But the 14 months between Tina Gunn-Robison’s last basket and Keith Clearwater’s birdie putt represent an era that is unmatched, both in success and in individual notoriety.

Women’s basketball

The BYU women’s basketball team went 24-9 during the 1979-80 season. Gunn-Robison scored her last basket in the South Sectionals against Old Dominion on March 15, 1980. She was named to the Kodak All-America Team after leading the nation in scoring during that senior season. 

Gunn-Robison’s 2,759 career points remains unmatched in program history, and it came without help from the 3-point line, which wasn’t introduced to college basketball until 1987. Even without it, her record stands 45 points ahead of Tyler Haws who used the 3-point shot to become the men’s all-time leading scorer in 2015.


BYU lost the first game of the 1980 football season at New Mexico, but quarterback Jim McMahon and the Cougars didn’t lose again.

The dramatic Hail Mary finish to beat SMU 46-45 in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 19, 1980, capped a run of 12 consecutive victories.

McMahon threw for 5,017 yards and 51 touchdowns during his junior season on his way to amassing more than 70 NCAA records over the course of his Cougar career.

Men’s basketball

When Danny Ainge drove the length of the floor and scored the game-winning basket to upset Notre Dame on March 19, 1981, he took BYU basketball to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament — a place it had never been before, nor has it been back since.

The uniqueness of that group and its accomplishment will be celebrated Saturday night at the Marriott Center during halftime of the BYU-Portland game (7 p.m. on BYUtv).

After stunning ninth-ranked Utah in the regular season finale 95-76, BYU beat Princeton 60-51 in the first round of the Big Dance. The Cougars rocked No. 10 UCLA 78-55 to reach the regional semifinals. The stunning 51-50 win against No. 7 Notre Dame brought them within a victory of the Final Four. But No. 5 Virginia, led by 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson, beat the Cougars 74-60 to end their dramatic run.

Ainge was honored with the John Wooden Award as the nation’s best college basketball player. He, Greg Kite and Fred Roberts each went on to play in the NBA. They will join Steve Trumbo, Steve Craig, Greg Ballif and the rest of the ’81 roster on the Marriott Center floor in a tribute Saturday that has been 41 years in the making.

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Playing in the shadow of BYU’s basketball and football successes, the Cougar baseball team amassed 45 wins and claimed the WAC Championship on May 18, 1981. The roster included two young players who went on to do big things — Wally Joyner and Rick Aguilera. Both earned All-Star status in Major League Baseball. Joyner hit 204 home runs over 16 years and Aguilera won two World Series Championships with the Mets and Twins. 

Men’s golf

Not to be outdone by a Gunn-Robison record-setting basket, a McMahon touchdown pass, an Ainge game-winner, or an Aguilera strikeout, the men’s golf team beat Oral Roberts by two shots to win the national championship on May 30, 1981.

After finishing as the national runner-up in 1980, Dick Zokol, Keith Clearwater and Rick Fehr each scored top 15 finishes to lead coach Karl Tucker’s Cougars to victory.

Greatest in BYU history

All of that success on campus between March 15, 1980, and May 30, 1981 makes for the best 14-months in the history of BYU athletics, with the big names to back up the big stories.

In no way does this diminish the football team’s 1984 national championship, or Jimmer’s rise to rock-star status. It doesn’t take the shine off Detmer’s Heisman Trophy or any coolness away from Mikayla Colohan and women’s soccer. 

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Track and field’s recent national dominance is staggering. In fact, you name the sport on campus, and there is a national achievement or ranking ready to defend — just ask Jeff Judkins and the No. 17 ranked women’s basketball team. Kalani Sitake, after another 10-win football season, might also have something to say.

The 2021-22 athletic year is on an unprecedented path of success, but when the cheers ring down on Ainge, Kite, Roberts and the others on Saturday night, as BYU remembers its 1981 trip to the Elite Eight, let us not forget, this team also represents 14 months of sports on campus that was very much elite, if not the greatest run, with the biggest names, in the history of BYU sports.

Sorry Steve Young. Your Cougar debut didn’t come until three months later.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.

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