Outgoing Cougar Club director Michael Middleton ‘inherited an impossible task’ at BYU, but helped bring in millions for Cougar athletics
BYU graduate who succeeded legendary Cougars booster Dale McCann is taking a position as assistant dean of external relations at BYU’s law school
PROVO — When the legendary Dale McCann, known around BYU as Mr. Cougar Club, suddenly died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57 on March 31, 1998, his unexpected absence threatened to slow the momentum of the fundraising arm of BYU athletics that he had guided for 24 years.
In stepped McCann’s right-hand man, then-assistant director Michael Middleton, to keep the operation purring and money flowing into the department’s coffers.
“Mike inherited an impossible task,” said Dave McCann, Dale McCann’s son, a BYUtv host, play-by-play announcer and an evening news anchor for KSL-TV in Salt Lake City. “Mike held that office together. Some might have thought he didn’t do it perfectly, but we all have different skill sets. … To his credit, the Cougar Club continued to grow and function after my dad’s passing.”
Middleton, a BYU graduate who began working full time with the Cougar Club in 1994 while finishing his master’s degree, is stepping away after more than 25 years on the job to become the assistant dean of external relations at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.
Middleton, who isn’t an attorney, said there are only two or three jobs on campus he would consider doing, and the one he landed and started at earlier this week happens to be one of them.
“I wasn’t even sure they would consider me,” he said. “I was delighted to be a finalist, and when the offer came we felt good about taking on something else after a quarter century with the athletic department.”
Dave McCann said his father’s passing was so sudden that when the family returned to clean out his office at the old Alumni House, his uneaten lunch was still there from his final day. He feels like Middleton has been underappreciated.
“I think everybody who doesn’t know what it involves would want the job, It seems glamorous, working with celebrities and people you see on television. … And then there is the real work.” — Outgoing Cougar Club executive director Michael Middleton
“Mike was left with a difficult set of circumstances, and I will always appreciate the fact that he fought through that, and kept it going,” Dave McCann said. “We have a great empathy for what he inherited, and the pressure that was on him to keep it building and growing. So, shout out to him for all his great years. For what he inherited on March 31, 1998, nobody was prepared for, and he managed to get through it.”
Middleton was appointed interim Cougar Club executive director in 1998, then given the position later that year. Greg Vehar became assistant director in 2000 and would be a “well-qualified” candidate to replace him, Middleton said.
“I think everybody who doesn’t know what it involves would want the job,” Middleton said with a laugh. “It seems glamorous, working with celebrities and people you see on television. … And then there is the real work.”
What will Middleton miss the most?
“Just the relationships,” he said. “There are so many good people in the department. And the associations with the donors, and the memories we have made together, the strong friendships that I hope will continue. It’s been deeply rewarding working with so many people who have been so interested in making BYU athletics great.”
The Centerville native, who played sports at Viewmont High, worked with former BYU athletic greats such as Chad Lewis, Lee Johnson and Robbie Bosco to raise funds for the school’s 21 sports and more than 600 student-athletes. He oversaw the Cougar Club through four different athletic directors and BYU won eight of its 11 national championships in Middleton’s tenure.
“BYU athletics is very grateful for the 25-plus years that Mike has served so well the members of the Cougar Club,” athletic director Tom Holmoe said in a school news release. “We wish him and his wife, Laura, the very best of success in this new endeavor. … Mike is loyal, strong and true to his beloved Cougars and will be forever.”
Middleton said he originally told Dale McCann he would work part time for him through the summer while completing his master’s degree.
“Twenty-five years later, it has been the best summer job I have ever had,” he said.
Middleton said he’s most proud that the club now raises millions of dollars in a year to improve the lives of BYU’s student-athletes and contribute to their success.
“When I first started working with Dale McCann, we almost threw a party if we hit a million dollars a year,” he said. “Now we have seen individual donors making gifts of that size, and many multiples of that coming in.”
Among his favorite memories are traveling with the women’s cross-country and men’s volleyball teams when they won national championships, and chartering with the 2001 football team that won 12 straight games during coach Gary Crowton’s first year.
His all-time favorite moment might be the famous Beck-to-Harline touchdown pass that beat the University of Utah, 33-31, in 2006.
“I think anybody that was on either side of that outcome will always remember that moment,” he said. “From where my seats were in the BYU booster section in the stadium’s southwest corner, you couldn’t see Jonny (Harline) at the time John (Beck) threw the ball. It was just magnificent as a Cougar fan to suddenly see there was somebody there … You could see Jonny, waiting in the end zone, all by himself. That was one of those moments you never forget.”
Among his favorite student-athlete stories are those of quarterback Taysom Hill and women’s cross country star Jessie Kindschi. Hill’s journey to the NFL, and overcoming four season-ending injuries at BYU, is familiar to most fans. Kindschi’s story went largely untold.
Middleton said she “recruited herself” to BYU from South Dakota State as a non-Latter-Day Saint cross-country runner, was awarded a scholarship by then-coach Patrick Shane and was eventually voted a team captain, an honor she would later describe in a letter to donors with parallel awe and gratitude to earning All-America honors and being part of two NCAA team titles at BYU.
A now-battered photocopy of the letter has hung in Middleton’s office at the Student Athlete Building for more than a decade.
“It will probably be hanging in the law school soon,” he confessed.
“I got to work with some of the greatest student-athletes, coaches, donors and athletic administrators in the country,” Middleton said. “It was absolutely worth it.”
Not bad for what started out as a part-time summer job.