Fans, football and the search for meaning in BYU’s successful 2020 season
As the 2020 season unfolded amid a pandemic, the slights of pundits and ranking organizations mattered less than the season itself
When Kelli Gard, a 42-year-old diehard BYU fan, watches Cougar football, she sometimes gets a glimpse of her mom, smiling and holding a grandchild, decked out — as ever — in BYU gear.
After Pam Woodall died of cancer before the season’s start, Kelli and her father, Randy, submitted photos of her to be included among the cutouts at LaVell Edwards Stadium. “It’s fun to see her showing up on TV,” Gard said.
The strangeness of 2020 — the year and the college football season held during it — has kept the family from what may have been a natural mourning process, one centered around some 20 people traveling en masse to BYU games. But, Gard says, it has also reinforced the importance of those game day rituals that the family can hold on to, in socially distanced times.
This season has found BYU in a rare position: the center of the college football universe. Their early-season success — which featured blowout wins over Navy, Houston and regional rival Boise State and nine straight wins to open the year — led to controversy when the College Football Playoff Committee ranked the Cougars 13th and 14th in its first two polls.
A furious debate ensued over relative strengths of schedule, the biases built into comparing teams in different conferences (or, in BYU’s case, outside of the conference system altogether), and the fairness of a playoff system that seems built to exclude non-Power Five schools.
College Fooball Playoff’s Gary Barta cited BYU’s schedule in defending the low ranking; ESPN analyst Demond Howard called the ranking “asinine.” Was this a blessing in disguise? It gave BYU perhaps what it values most of all: national exposure to showcase its school and values.
A down-to-the-wire loss to Coastal Carolina on Saturday brought an end to the focused conversation. But to many Cougars fans, the sudden drop-off in notoriety does nothing to diminish the 2020 season. There have been other great years in BYU football — 1984’s national championship, a 14-1 record and Cotton Bowl win in the 1996 season — but maybe no other year has been so important.
Unfolding amid a pandemic, this year is about more than wins and losses. It’s about distraction, building community, shaping memories and providing hope. When ESPN spoke with head coach Kalani Sitake after the initial CFP rankings release, he closed his interview not with a gripe but with a simple plea: “Give thanks.”
A Saturday respite
Spencer Blake, an anchor and reporter for CBS 5 in Arizona, is accustomed to having to fit in his beloved Cougars where he can. Blake often works Saturdays, and his schedule tends to conflict with football. He listens on the radio on his way in to work, or catches up via box scores and recaps when he gets the chance.
This year, though, the pandemic afforded an unusual silver lining. “I haven’t been going on vacation this year,” Blake said, “So (game days) are the days where I’m like, ‘Yep, I’m gonna take those off. I’ll put those on Dec. 12. I’m going to watch the SDSU game.’ I kind of based it around the football schedule,” he said, noting the final regular season game Saturday with San Diego State in Provo.
Blake, who grew up watching games with his family by way of a bulky backyard satellite dish that brought in the Blue and White Network, eventually went to BYU, where he played french horn in the marching band. “One of the reasons I only did it for a couple years was because I was like, ‘Man, I just want to be a regular fan in the stands,’” he said. “‘So I can go crazy instead of having to worry about playing the fight song.’”
The loss to Coastal Carolina, Blake says, hasn’t dampened a season that he’s thankful for even getting to watch in the first place. That schedule that national analysts argue over? He’s just happy it’s had so many games. “We’ve still played more than just about anybody in the country,” he says. “So if we go 11-1 — man, what a fantastic season.”
Bryan Hinton likewise spent his formative years hyperfocused on Cougars football. His parents had both attended BYU, but his family lived in Arizona when he was a child, and would on occasion drive to New Mexico to rent hotel rooms that had the cable channels airing regional BYU broadcasts. He’s now a season ticket holder, and he attends most every home game with his wife and children, in a usual season, as well as one game on the road.
He took the Coastal Carolina loss hard, as true fans do —”There’s a longing for validation,” he said, “and that’s probably the biggest heartbreak”— but he’s also cognizant of how meaningful the season has been.
“Our kids are together with us,” he says of game days, “which is what they know, since they were very little.” There’s even been a dash of full-circle symmetry added in. When BYU staged a comeback to beat Houston in mid-October, Hinton’s family was traveling, and watched the game together from a hotel.
“Watching BYU score 29 points in a row to come back and win that football game, it was very unifying,” he said. “It brought a sense of normalcy for a few minutes.”
Mourning and healing
For some fans, the emotions attached to the 2020 Cougars are weightier still. Gard’s life is inextricable from BYU football; every fall, her family has sent sizable rosters of fans, sometimes 20 strong, to games in a trailer decked out in BYU gear. When her mother died, the family lost the centerpiece of the festivities, the beating heart of the Woodall football traditions.
“They would get as many people as possible as they could to come down, and if you didn’t have a ticket, you could watch it from their trailer,” Gard said of her parents. “One of the last things my mom said to her doctor, when the hospice program asked her what her goal was, she said just to make it through one more football season so she could see them win.”
After Pam’s death, the season turned, for Gard’s family, from a weekly celebration to something else: a means of healing, remembering and carrying on a legacy.
“We don’t get together to do the tailgate stuff like we normally would have,” Gard said, but dissecting games continues to strengthen family bonds. Gard’s brother, Brayden Woodall, works as a video coordinator for the Cougars, and the need to analyze runs in her blood.
“I still call and talk to my dad about the games, what we thought went wrong or what we thought went right.”
Seeing Pam Woodall on TV, in cutout form, resurfaces cherished memories. But the season has also brought no shortage of heartache. “It’s hard on my dad, although maybe easier that he doesn’t have to go to games without my mom this year,” Gard said.
If the segment of Twitter devoted to BYU football has mostly made waves, in 2020, by defending the Cougars’ credentials to the college football committee and other detractors, Gard sees a different side of it. The friends she has made over years of tailgating before BYU games have, in recent years, crystallized as a “Twitter fam” with whom she roots, commiserates and, on occasion, shares burdens online.
“It’s about more than football,” Gard said. “These people show up. I went through cancer twice, and they became my family and my support network, and they did the same thing for my mom when she was sick.” Fellow fans brought Gard snacks and a signed BYU basketball, and even contributed funds for medical bills. When Pam was sick, they delivered cookies and more BYU gear.
To be sure, Gard feels frustration when she perceives BYU being overlooked by college football’s pundit class. “We were a top-10 team,” she said pointedly of the first batch of CFP rankings. (The Twitter fam is not above good old-fashioned axe-grinding.)
But 2020 has brought welcome perspective. “There’s bigger things than football going on,” Gard said. “It’s our stress relief that we can turn to, but I think this year helped us realize there’s more important things in life.”