It was supposed to be Pittsburgh’s party.

When the No. 3-ranked Panthers agreed to host BYU to kick off the 1984 season on ESPN’s first live college football broadcast, they expected history to be on their side.

They were mistaken.

Backup quarterback Blaine Fowler took a handoff from quarterback Robbie Bosco and fired a pass downfield to a diving Glen Kozlowski on the first play from scrimmage, and BYU marched on from there to stun Pitt, 20-14.

There was no way the Cougars or ESPN could envision what was about to come next.

For BYU, it started unranked and finished No. 1 with a 13-0 record and the program’s first national championship. For ESPN, it became king of live sports television.

So in the summer of 2010, when BYU was deciding whether to stay in the Mountain West Conference and live with its constricting and restrictive television package, or break free as an independent, it called the king.

Not only did ESPN answer the phone, but it also welcomed BYU into the kingdom and treated the Cougars like no other non-Power Five program in the history of broadcast television.

Access and exposure

“A driving force in our deliberations has been to secure broad, nationwide access to our games for our large national following,” BYU president Cecil O. Samuelson told the Deseret News on Sept. 1, 2010, when BYU declared its football independence.

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In addition to “access,” athletic director Tom Holmoe emphasized the Cougars’ desire for “exposure” as he announced an unprecedented eight-year broadcast agreement with ESPN.

“We have had a great relationship with BYU over the years, thanks in part to LaVell Edwards, who gave us so many signature games in the past that put ESPN on the map in terms of being a college football destination network,” Dave Brown, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisition, told the Deseret News on the Cougars’ big day.

BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall leaves the field after beating Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss., on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011. BYU won 14-13. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

What started at Pittsburgh never stopped. Edwards’, Gary Crowton’s and Bronco Mendenhall’s BYU teams delivered wins on the ESPN/ABC networks against No. 1 Miami, Notre Dame, No. 3 Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington, etc. Even the 50-39 loss to Penn State in the 1989 Holiday Bowl and the 52-52 tie in 1991 at San Diego State turned into must-see-TV for ESPN.

Give and take

To go independent, however, BYU would need them more than ever. It would need ESPN’s money to finance football and the other athletic programs on campus and it would need ESPN’s scheduling power to help book opponents.

In exchange, ESPN would require flexibility on dates and start times, which sometimes didn’t sit well with fans as they were sitting in cold weather while enduring late nights. It would also require BYU to play the bigger-name schools on the road and some at neutral sites with hopes those schools would honor return dates to Provo. Some did, others didn’t.

With ESPN and BYUtv, Holmoe’s proposed pillars of “access and exposure” were in place and each delivered on their promises. ESPN even extended its original broadcast agreement by seven years on Jan. 30, 2020, to run through 2026. That agreement will change after this season by nature of BYU joining the Big 12.

It has been a remarkable journey, one where both sides have come out ahead, with BYU the greatest benefactor. The quality of the football program, and all of those games on the ESPN networks not only fueled the Cougars’ national fanbase, but it converted the Big 12.

Big 12 needed BYU more than BYU needed it

When faced with the possibility of extinction, after Oklahoma and Texas announced their plans to leave for the SEC, the Big 12 reached out to what it considered the best program available, and it was a no-brainer.

In less than a week from the league’s initial phone call last August — BYU was in.

A strong finish

With ESPN’s help, the Cougars last blast as a football independent has all the makings of the best schedule in program history. Seven of the 12 games are earmarked for the ESPN family of networks, including the season opener at South Florida (ESPNU), and home battles against Baylor (ESPN), Wyoming (ESPN Networks), Utah State (ESPN), Arkansas (ESPN Networks), and East Carolina (ESPN2).

The games away from Provo — Oregon (Fox), Notre Dame (NBC), Liberty (TBD), Boise State (Fox) and Stanford (TBD) also all have ESPN’s fingerprints on them in one form or another.

Moving forward, Fox and ESPN will share the Big 12 rights through the 2024-25 school year. The Cougars will still play on ESPN in the future, but they won’t be partners like they have been.

A fun run

There is comfort and financial strength that comes from a conference, but during this wild ride of independence, BYU and ESPN have delivered some amazing moments.

Kyle Van Noy’s strip sack and fumble recovery in the end zone late in the game to defeat Ole Miss 14-13 in Oxford, Mississippi, is how the journey began on Sept. 3, 2011.

No. 10 Oregon State highlighted the home slate in 2012, which finished with Van Noy’s personal demolition of San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl.

BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy flies toward San Diego State Aztecs quarterback Adam Dingwell during the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Taysom Hill’s stunning performance against the Lone Star State in 2013 turned a lot of heads and attracted a lot of viewers. Hill rushed for 259 yards and three touchdowns in BYU’s 40-21 victory against No. 15 Texas in Provo, and he threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns at Houston in a thrilling 47-46 win.

The BYU-Texas rematch in 2014 ended in a similar fashion. Hill rushed for 99 yards and three touchdowns. On one much-talked about run, Hill leaped over a Longhorns defender and did the Texas two-step into the end zone. The Cougars rolled 41-7 on a hot night in Austin in front of 93,463 smoldering fans.

ESPN and BYU Hail Mary passes became a thing in 2015 with Tanner Mangum’s 42-yard bomb to Mitch Mathews on the final play of the game to beat Nebraska 33-28. The victory snapped the Cornhuskers’ 29-year streak of winning their home opener.

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A week later, Mangum threw a 35-yard touchdown on fourth down to Mitch Juergens with 45 seconds remaining to give BYU the lead against No. 20 Boise State. Kai Nacua returned an interception for a touchdown on the Broncos’ next pass to give the Cougars a 35-24 win.

2016 brought BYU to Michigan State for the first time where Jamaal Williams ran for 163 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-14 victory on ABC.

BYU running back Jamaal Williams breaks free against Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016. BYU won 31-14. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Tenth-ranked Wisconsin beat BYU in Provo in 2017, but the Cougars returned the favor in 2018 by stunning the No. 6 Badgers 24-21. Later that season, Zach Wilson replaced Mangum as the starter and tossed his ‘perfect game’ (18-18, 317 yards, 4 TD’s) against Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

2019 provided a double-overtime thriller at Tennessee where BYU upset the Vols 29-26 in front of 92,475 fans. Zach Wilson’s 64-yard bomb to Micah Simon set up the game tying field goal at the end of regulation lit up ESPN and SportsCenter that followed the game.

Another wild finish the following week led to the Cougars 30-27 overtime win against No. 24 USC on ABC. Dayan Ghanwoloku’s interception ended the game and sent BYU fans storming the field in a frenzy.

The 2020 pandemic season showed ESPN’s true colors. With much of college football opting out of the season, the Cougars vowed to play on. ESPN helped rebuild BYU’s gutted schedule and put them together with Navy in prime time on Labor Day night.

BYU took advantage of having the nation’s full attention by hammering the Midshipmen on the road 55-3. Later in the season, when the Cougars needed a boost to try and qualify for a New Year’s Six bowl game, ESPN helped broker a game with No. 14 Coastal Carolina on three day’s notice.

The Cougars opened the 2021 season with three straight prime time Saturday games on ESPN and beat Arizona, No. 18 Utah, and No. 19 Arizona State. The nation also watched as Tyler Allgeier ran for 266 yards and five touchdowns against former BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall and Virginia.

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The capper of the regular season was a Thanksgiving weekend matchup against USC where the Cougars rallied to beat the Trojans 35-31 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. ESPN also showcased the Independence Bowl where Allgeier broke BYU’s all-time single season rushing record held by Luke Staley.

A job well done

Access and exposure. Mission accomplished.

BYU’s win at Ole Miss on Sept. 3, 2011, on ESPN started the first season of independence and on Sept. 3, 2022, on ESPNU, the Cougars will kick off their final season outside of a conference.  

The wild ride is nearly over.

Credit must go to head coaches Mendenhall and Kalani Sitake, their staffs, players and the BYU administration for taking a risk and pulling off independence. But a tip of the cap and a hearty thank-you must also go to ESPN and its family of networks.

BYU grabbed the national scene 38 years ago with an upset at No. 3 Pitt and the undefeated, national championship season that followed. ESPN parlayed that first Cougars broadcast into an empire.

Both won big and they are still winning. BYU’s relationship with ESPN will forever be the catalyst that finally lifted them to P5 status and delivered them to the Big 12.

To think, Pitt thought Sept. 1, 1984, was a day for them to make history. Instead, starting with a handoff from Bosco and a pass by Fowler to Kozlowski, it was the Cougars who won the day. They won again with the national championship, and again with Ty Detmer’s Heisman Trophy, and again with independence, and again with admittance into the Big 12 on July 1, 2023.

Thanks ESPN, BYU couldn’t and wouldn’t have done it without you.

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.

BYU fans cheers on the team during the Cougar season opener with Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011.
BYU fans cheers on the team during the Cougar season opener with Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss., on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011. The game marked BYU’s first as a football independent. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News