A conversation with Gary Sheide — ‘the guy that got it all started’ for BYU football
Quarterback Gary Sheide was LaVell Edwards’ first gamble — a gamble that’s still paying off in Provo all these decades later
During the fall of 1972, first-year head coach LaVell Edwards needed someone to put the BYU football program on the map. So, he flew to Antioch, California, and found a young man who had never heard of BYU at all.
To make matters worse, the player Edwards was after — told him no.
“LaVell came to our school after my senior season,” said Gary Sheide. “I thanked him and told him I appreciated him recruiting me, but I’d never heard of his school, and I wasn’t interested and he went on his way.”
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound prospect held offers from schools nationwide, but he wasn’t interested in playing football at all.
“My senior season wasn’t that fun, and I wanted to play baseball,” he said. Sheide opted for an opportunity at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California. But it wasn’t long before Diablo’s football team came calling, even begging.
“The entire team came to my house and asked me to play because their two quarterbacks were hurt,” Sheide said. “I told them I’d consider it if they promised to throw at least 25 times a game and if I didn’t have to run in practice. The coaches agreed and I said, ‘What the heck, let’s do it.’”
Diablo Valley started winning but Sheide’s season was cut short by a broken wrist that required six months to heal. He decided to stay at Diablo and play for a second season before a broken arm sidelined him again.
It was the break Edwards was looking for.
“Coach Edwards came out again and asked if he could visit with me and my parents,” Sheide said. “He and Pete Whitbeck came to my house for dinner. They talked about BYU and all the good things that were happening there. After they left, my mom came to me and said, ‘Gary, I really like that man. I think you should go visit the school.’”
The rest is BYU football history.
“I think that LaVell felt Gary had the ability and the talent to incorporate his concept of the passing game,” said Patti Edwards, wife of the late football coach. “He must have really believed in him, or he wouldn’t have gone back a second time.”
With Dewey Warren as offensive coordinator, Edwards set out to change the game of college football and Sheide was his first choice in a series of firsts for BYU football.
On his first throw
A thigh bruise kept Sheide from starting the 1973 season opener against Oregon State. He made his Cougars debut in the fourth quarter and threw his one and only pass of the game to Sam Lobue.
“Sam was running a go-route and I hit him in stride about 50 yards down the field,” Sheide said. Lobue ran into the end zone for a 68-yard touchdown. “I was excited about the play, but on the other hand, I was disappointed that I didn’t start. I wanted to be the guy.”
On his first start
Sheide made his first start two weeks later against Iowa State. A penalty took away what would have been BYU’s game-winning touchdown in a 26-24 defeat.
“We had them. It was something college football hadn’t seen before,” Sheide said. “We threw the ball 41 times for 439 yards. That set the tone for what LaVell wanted to do — which was throw the football.”
On his first win
Sheide threw six touchdowns and ran for another to rout New Mexico 56-21 for his first win at BYU. Along the way, Jay Miller set an NCAA record with 22 receptions for 263 yards.
“When Jay was one catch from the record, they put me back in late in the game to try and throw another completion to him,” Sheide said. “When the defense knows you are going to throw to a guy, it makes it difficult. They put a defender a foot away from his face. I had to zip it in there to get the record. That 22nd pass was hard to complete.”
On first blowout in the rivalry game
“I saw what was going on over there and I said, man, I want to play with that guy,” said Jeff Blanc while watching Sheide and the varsity squad at practice before the showdown at Utah. The 175-pound, 18-year-old was assigned to the freshman team until an injury to Mark Terranova pulled him up to the varsity just days before the game.
“I was scared to death,” he said. “But Gary got with me and said, ‘Look, I know this is kind like of throwing you to the wolves, but I think you can do it Jeff. So, we’ll mix it up with runs and passes. If I can’t get someone down field, I’m gonna hit you out of the backfield.’”
BYU took the field at Rice Stadium in a blizzard. Sheide threw for 354 yards and four touchdowns. Blanc rushed 22 times for 87 yards and two touchdowns, and caught four passes for 57 yards. The Cougars won 46-22, scoring more points against Utah than the previous 54 games of the rivalry.
“I remember coming to the sideline and getting pelted by snowballs from their fans,” Sheide said. “We just crushed them.”
For Blanc, Sheide’s tutelage also provided a glimpse into the rest of his college career.
“I wouldn’t have gone to BYU if I thought they were going to be a passing team,” Blanc said. “The reason I went to BYU was because of Pete Van Valkenburg the year before. I thought, ‘Wow, this is my chance to go to a team that is going to run the football.’”
After finishing the 1973 season with three convincing wins, Blanc and everybody else knew that the days of running the football at BYU were over.
On first WAC title
After a surprising 0-3-1 start to the 1974 season, Sheide, Keith Rivera and Bart Oates spearheaded a players-only meeting. “We needed to focus on the team instead of ourselves,” Sheide said. “It was a very emotional meeting. There were tears in that room. We pushed the reset button.”
With Dewey gone and new offensive coordinator Dwain Painter’s plans struggling, Edwards reverted to the play-calling from the previous season and the team took off.
The Cougars won seven straight games, including wins over No. 16 Arizona and No. 16 Arizona State to claim their first Western Athletic Conference championship.
Sheide threw five touchdown passes in Tucson to rout the Wildcats 37-13.
In the showdown with the Sun Devils, he threw four touchdowns — two for Arizona State by way of interceptions and two for the Cougars, including the game-winner in the fourth quarter.
The favored Devils were bedeviled by BYU’s creativity, including a surprising halfback pass to Sheide himself.
“I tried to put a move on their great defensive back Mike Haynes,” Sheide said. “I caught the pass inside the 5-yard line.
BYU’s 21-18 win sent the Cougars to the Fiesta Bowl.
On first bowl game
There were only 11 bowl games in 1974 and for the first time, No. 17 BYU was in one of them. A crowd of 50,878 nestled into Sun Devil Stadium, including Spencer W. Kimball, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“He shook my hand before the game and said, ‘I wish you the best of luck,” Sheide said.
The Cougars jumped out to a 6-0 lead on a pair of Mark Uselman field goals and were driving again when Sheide suffered a late hit delivered by Oklahoma State’s 6-5, 253-pound linebacker Phil Dokes.
“I released the ball and he hit me and drove me into the ground and stayed on top of me,” Sheide said. “The first thing I remember is I couldn’t get any air and I was gasping to get my wind back. I couldn’t get my arm up either. I felt like throwing my helmet into the air and screaming because I was so disappointed.”
X-rays in the locker room revealed two torn tendons in his right shoulder.
“That was the end for me,” he said.
Sheide contends Oklahoma State placed a bounty on him to get him knocked out of the game and says a former Cowboys player confirmed that a few years later.
With Sheide on the bench, and three interceptions thrown by backup quarterback Mark Giles, Oklahoma State won, 16-6.
The hit proved to be even more costly as Sheide had to withdraw from both the Hula Bowl and Senior Bowl to heal up. He was selected by Cincinnati in the third round of the 1975 draft, but the aftermath of his injury, including elbow tendinitis, took the zip out of his passes and the first BYU quarterback to be drafted was the last man cut from the Bengals roster before the season opener.
It should come as no surprise that Oklahoma State is the team Sheide wants to beat the most when the Cougars join the Big 12.
“Yes!” he said. “I want them to remember BYU.”
On first Heisman run
Sheide finished eighth in the 1974 Heisman Trophy voting, but he laid the groundwork for BYU’s eventual winner 16 years later.
“Gary paved the way for the quarterback tradition at BYU,” said former Cougar and 1990 Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer. “He isn’t mentioned as much as the others, but he was the guy that got it all started.”
Sheide was also BYU’s first All-America quarterback and won the Cougars’ first Sammy Baugh Trophy as the nation’s best quarterback.
Watching from a distance
As Sheide’s understudy, Gifford Nielsen spent his 1974 redshirt season at practice studying the starter’s every move. Farther away from campus, another future star had also taken notice.
Marc Wilson was throwing touchdowns at Shorecrest High in Shoreline, Washington, and reading press clippings out of Provo.
“When Gary led the nation in passing, I think every high school kid that was paying attention had to decide, do I want to go to a school that hands the ball off 40 times a game, or do I want to go to a place like BYU where I can throw it 40 times?” Wilson said. “Everyone assumes that I came to BYU because I was an LDS kid. I came because Gary Sheide led the nation in passing and I wanted to do that, too. That’s the reason. If it wasn’t for Gary, I probably wouldn’t have come.”
Wilson finished his Cougars career with 7,637 passing yards and 61 touchdowns. He was 22-4 as a starter, winner of the Sammy Baugh Trophy and was BYU’s first consensus All-American. Wilson was selected in the first round of the 1980 NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders — where he won two Super Bowls.
“I think he’s the forgotten guy. In so many ways, Gary was the linchpin that made it all go,” Wilson said. “Who knows what would have happened if Gary hadn’t come to BYU? Would LaVell have stuck to the passing game? Would Giff have developed into such a great quarterback? Would I have come? Would Jim (McMahon) have come? Doug Scovil, Mike Holmgren, Ted Tollner, Norm Chow, would those great offensive-minded coaches have come? It’s all so interrelated and so fragile, and the reality is, it all goes back to Gary.”
On being the new kid in town
The Sheides grew up attending the Lutheran Church in Antioch, where Gary and his brother Greg, during their teens, served as the candle lighters at Sunday services. Sheide’s recruiting trip not only brought him to a school that he didn’t know existed, but it also exposed him to a religion that would slowly change his life.
“On our recruiting trip, the five of us players were assigned to young ladies as our dates and we went to one of the girls’ homes,” Sheide said. “Once inside, a girl stood up and asked ‘Who had the opening prayer? The lesson? and the treats?’ Looking back, I realize they had taken us to family home evening. I had never seen anything like it, especially with people my age. It was really neat.”
A second eye-opener came after Sheide enrolled in school. One Sunday morning, he and his roommate went to the cafeteria for breakfast only to find the doors locked.
“A guy came walking by and I asked, ‘Why are the doors locked?’ Sheide said. “The guy told us it was ‘fast Sunday.’ We asked him, ‘What is fast Sunday?’ He sad, ‘It’s when we don’t eat for 24 hours.’ We went to a stake conference and there weren’t any steaks. Everything I learned was totally new.”
A Book of Mormon class filled Sheide’s mind with questions and his professor and teammates helped walk him through the maze of new and different ideas.
While on a date to the visitors center at Temple Square, his companion suggested he sign up to take the missionary lessons.
“She said it would be good for me. I resisted and then figured the odds of them finding me in California are pretty low, so I signed up,” Sheide said. “I go home and two days later two missionaries are knocking at my door. I said, ‘How did you find out so fast?’ They said, ‘Find out about what?’ Turns out, they just happened to be out knocking on doors in the neighborhood. They didn’t know I had signed up to have them come teach me.”
Sheide and his brother Greg joined the church just before the start of his senior season.
‘Had to be with that girl’
“She walked out of the Richards P.E. Building, and I was walking out of the football office,” Sheide said of the moment he came to know the woman he would marry. “I just thought that I had to be with that girl.”
Sherree Stevenson was popular and that proved to be a little divisive.
“Gary was one of a kind. The thing I liked about him was he was such a nice guy,” Blanc said. “We only had one disagreement, and that’s when he stole my girlfriend.”
The incident went down in the summer of 1975.
“I flew from Boise to Virginia to visit her. I didn’t know Gary had been there the week before,” Blanc said. “We went to a nice dinner and during the meal her dad called me ‘Gary.’ I looked at Sherree and she looked at me. She shrugged her shoulders and I said, ‘No, I’m Jeff.”
Blanc knew he was doomed.
“I had no problem with him marrying my girlfriend,” he laughed. “It must have been meant to be.”
Sheide and Stevenson were married the following summer in the Washington D.C. Temple.
“If you ever look at something that was meant to be, the odds of me going to BYU were as low as you could think of, but it really changed my life,” Sheide said. “I joined the church, married in the temple and we have five children and 20 grandchildren. It wasn’t an accident that I ended up at BYU.”
Rough start, smooth finish
Sheide started his first high school football game for Antioch against Ygnacio Valley, where he completed all 12 of his passes — six to his team and six to the opponent.
“The ball never touched the ground,” he laughed. “After the game I went over and shook their hands. My mom said to my dad, ‘Look, Bill, isn’t Gary a good sport? He’s the only player over there shaking hands and congratulating them on their victory.’ My dad said, ‘Well, he probably has more friends over there than he does over here!”
Sheide bounced back and won the next nine games, including an upset of rival Pittsburg for the first time in 22 years — and he was just getting started.
“It’s an honor to be part of a tradition that changed college football,” Sheide said. “When I was inducted into the BYU Hall of Fame, (2011) LaVell got up and said ‘Gary, I made a decision to throw the ball at the college level. If that had failed, we both wouldn’t be here right now.’”
It didn’t fail. It succeeded on an enormous level.
“LaVell was a visionary person,” Patti Edwards said. “He knew what needed to be done to win at BYU and he stuck with it, and he knew Gary was capable of doing it. There have been a lot of great quarterbacks here and I think Gary opened the door for all of them.”
It’s been quite a journey for Sheide, who this fall will begin his 20th year teaching physical education at Mountain Ridge Junior High in Highland and next spring will be his 18th season as a baseball/softball analyst for BYUtv.
Sheide can’t help but smile as he drives by LaVell Edwards Stadium. Five decades ago, the Cougars needed someone to put them on the map, so they went to Antioch to find a quarterback who had never heard of them before — and look at all that’s happened since.
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.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that Harold B. Lee was in attendance at the 1974 Fiesta Bowl and wished Gary Sheide best of luck. It was Spencer W. Kimball, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time, who greeted Sheide before the game.