Editor’s note: First in a two-part series looking back on LaVell Edwards’ final season.
PROVO — Imagine carrying the weight of a coaching giant’s legacy on your shoulder pads.
Twenty years ago, BYU players — especially the seniors — felt optimism, pride, gratitude. And pressure.
How else were they to feel when they learned in August 2000 that their coach, LaVell Edwards, an unlikely legend that revolutionized college football, was retiring at the end of the season?
They would be part of Edwards’ final team in his final campaign. One of those seniors was Kalani Sitake, who today has Edwards’ job as the Cougars’ head coach.
Two decades later, Sitake still gets choked up when talking about his coach and mentor, who passed away in 2016. No doubt, Edwards has influenced how Sitake coaches.
But back then, he was a senior co-captain and fullback.
“It was cool to see the genuine love LaVell had for this place,” Sitake said. “That season was a little bit difficult. It was a long goodbye.”
Sitake and his teammates wanted to send Edwards, who turned 70 years old that season, out with an undefeated season, a national ranking, a prestigious bowl game, a season befitting his remarkable career.
“It was really tough because we all put a lot of pressure on ourselves because we wanted to give him an undefeated season or a special season,” remembered defensive lineman Hans Olsen.
But that’s not how it played out. New coaches in new roles, injuries and three East Coast trips short-circuited plans of a superb season.
Despite everything that went wrong that season, the Cougars created an improbable, magical ending for Edwards against arch-rival Utah that even players on that team still can’t believe. Along the way, those players learned invaluable lessons.
To those who played for Edwards, it isn’t his 257 career wins (fourth most for any FBS coach in NCAA history, behind Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden and Bear Bryant) or a national championship or signature victories that stand out most about him.
“There will never be a coach that has the impact that LaVell had on a college football program again,” said running back Luke Staley. “It’s a different era. He always knew who he was and what he stood for.”
“There will never be a coach that has the impact that LaVell had on a college football program again. It’s a different era. He always knew who he was and what he stood for.” — Luke Staley
“It was one of the most precious moments of my life and one of the greatest opportunities of my life to be at that university in the final year of the university’s greatest coach,” Olsen said. “We all took it as that.”
Defensive lineman, and senior co-captain, Setema Gali decided he was going to take a redshirt year going into that 2000 season after having undergone his fourth surgery. That spring, he wasn’t practicing, but when he walked out of Edwards’ office, he had decided to play.
BYU’s athletic director at the time, Val Hale, remembers both the highs and lows of Edwards’ final season.
“It was such a roller coaster. It was a great season for a lot of reasons. One of them not being because it was a winning season or necessarily a season to remember because of the way we played football,” he said. “But it was a great season because it was a tribute to LaVell. Just about everywhere we went and just about every team we played, they tried to pay tribute in some fashion to LaVell.”
Beginning of the end
There was a complicated prelude prior to Edwards’ final season. In 1999, the Cougars opened with a sparkling 8-1 record before dropping their final three games, including a 20-17 loss at home to Utah and a 21-3 drubbing against Marshall in the Motor City Bowl in Detroit.
That bowl game featured visible dissension on the BYU sidelines as the Cougars experienced an embarrassing meltdown on national television.
In January, Edwards decided after that game that he was going to retire. But he decided to stick around for one final season. A news conference was set up for a day in February but Edwards decided to return for one final season.
Norm Chow, Edwards’ longtime offensive coordinator, left Provo after 20-plus seasons and took a job at North Carolina State. Edwards promoted Lance Reynolds to offensive coordinator.
“Norm had been by LaVell’s side since the mid-1970s,” said Hale, who was BYU’s athletic director from 1999-2004, and oversaw the search for Edwards’ successor. “There was a lot of anticipation about how the offense would work without Norm. Of course, Norm had been the whipping boy of the fans for a long time. The fact of the matter was, Norm was a pretty good offensive coordinator and we found that out.”
Edwards never wanted to have a farewell tour. He had always seen himself riding off into the sunset at a season’s conclusion. During that offseason, he fielded questions, including from recruits, about how long he was going to coach. He told the truth — he would be around for one more season.
There was speculation and whispers about his impending retirement so the school decided to address the issue. On Aug. 17, 2000, Edwards called a team meeting and let his players know that he would be retiring at the end of the season. Later that day, a news conference was held.
To Olsen, the press conference was an anti-climactic event.
“I don’t know what it’s supposed to look like when a hero leaves after that many years of amazing service,” he said. “It almost felt like there should have been 10 lions lined up in front of him and a marching band. It should have been a parade down Provo for an announcement and trumpets playing.
“It should have been a grand stage of exit,” he continued. “But it was like, ‘By the way, this is my final year.’ But we already knew it. It was heavily speculated in the locker room coming out of our junior years.”
Olsen, and another senior, wide receiver Margin Hooks, weren’t surprised when Edwards’ official announcement came down.
“I’d always ask him when he was going to be done,” Hooks said. “One day he told me, ‘When you’re done, I’m going to be done.’ And it happened that way.”
When Olsen was being recruited in 1996 out of Weiser, Idaho, he was committed to Nebraska and coach Tom Osborne. Edwards arrived at Olsen’s house on a recruiting visit.
“He promised me and my parents that he would be there for the five years that I was there. He guaranteed it,” he said. “I asked those coaches if they would be there for the period of time that I would be there. LaVell was the only one of 12 head coaches that I asked that promised that he would be there. I remember getting that announcement my senior year thinking that he made good on a promise. Whether he did it intentionally for me or not, it meant the world to me.”
‘It ripped the guts out of us’
The Cougars’ 2000 schedule opened with a game against defending national champion Florida State. It was billed as a matchup between two legendary figures in college football — Edwards and FSU’s Bobby Bowden.
“When they approached us about playing in the Pigskin Classic against Florida State, a lot of coaches would have said, ‘Are you kidding? I don’t want to do that,’” Hale said. “But LaVell, to his credit, was interested in what the experience would mean to his team and his players rather than the fact that they might lose the game. He was more than willing to play that game.”
So BYU took on the No. 2 Seminoles on Aug. 26 in Jacksonville, Florida.
The deck was stacked against the Cougars. With Chow gone, BYU had a first-year offensive coordinator in Reynolds. The Cougars played two inexperienced quarterbacks, Bret Engemann and Charlie Peterson. FSU had 28-year-old Chris Weinke, who would go on to win the 2000 Heisman Trophy.
At one point during the game, Weinke ran out of bounds on the BYU sidelines and plowed over Edwards, who received a few stitches.
The Cougars trailed 22-0 in the third quarter when Owen Pochman drilled a 42-yard field goal for their only points on the night. The Seminoles won, 29-3, marking BYU’s fourth consecutive loss dating back to the 1999 season.
The loss took a physical and emotional toll. Linebacker Jeff Holtry was lost for the season due to a knee injury. Engemann suffered a knee sprain, running back Luke Staley had a concussion and wide receiver Ben Horton broke a finger.
“I can’t explain to you how badly we wanted to win that for LaVell. We knew LaVell was good friends with Bobby Bowden,” Olsen said. “We knew how bad LaVell wanted that win. And when we lost that game, it really felt like it ripped the guts out of us. It broke our hearts that we couldn’t win them all for LaVell.”
A week later, the banged-up Cougars traveled across the country again to play Virginia. The day before the game, the players, coaches and staff visited Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello.
The manager of the facility pulled Hale aside and told him BYU was the first college football team to play at Virginia that made the effort to visit Monticello.
“LaVell would leave a day earlier if there was something educational or historical that he wanted the team to see,” Hale said. “Even though it was a long way to travel, LaVell viewed it not only as a chance to take the players back and play a football game, but also a chance to show them something that some of them would never see again or have a chance to see. That was the way he was.”
The Cavaliers were playing their season opener and they stormed out to a commanding 21-0 halftime lead against the Cougars, who looked tired and lifeless on a humid afternoon in Charlottesville in front of the largest crowd in school history at that time.
But in the second half, BYU staged a furious rally, scoring on six of eight drives. The Cougars tied the game at 35 to force overtime. Engemann threw for 447 yards and two touchdowns and Pochman hit a 26-yard field goal in overtime to propel BYU to a dramatic 38-35 victory.
Hitting rock bottom
The Cougars were riding high when it traveled to Air Force for their Mountain West Conference opener. But the Falcons surprised them by unleashing a passing attack that resulted in a 31-23 Air Force victory.
Then, on a short week, BYU hosted its home opener against Mississippi State on a Thursday night on ESPN. Peterson made his first career start in place of the injured Engemann. The Cougars fell behind 31-7 at halftime and ended up losing, 44-28. In that loss, BYU lost another star defensive player, and team leader, Josh Lowe, to a season-ending injury.
BYU earned its second win of the season the following week with a 10-7 victory over UNLV with both Peterson and Engemann playing quarterback.
For the third time in a little more than a month, the Cougars traveled East again. The day before facing Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, BYU’s traveling party went to Palmyra to visit Latter-day Saint historical sites like the Sacred Grove and Hill Cumorah, which was an impactful experience for the players and coaches.
“I heard about golden plates buried there,” said Hooks, who is Black and not a Latter-day Saint. “I was like, ‘The golden plates? Where are they?’ Everybody started crying and stuff and I was like, ‘What?’ (Head trainer) George Curtis said, ‘Man, don’t you feel it?’ I was like, ‘I feel a cool breeze.’ My grandmother had 75 acres in east Texas and cool breezes go through there. George just shook his head and LaVell chuckled. I wasn’t knocking it. You ask what I felt? I felt like I was at my grandmother’s place. Which to me, is sacred because I know what went on in those fields. She was my grandmother and was the first generation away from slavery.”
As for the game, the Orangemen jumped out to a 21-0 lead after the first quarter, then extended that lead to 42-7 at halftime.
“I remember sitting by President Bateman during the game,” Hale said. “I turned to him and said, ‘I’m so glad that LaVell announced before the season that he’s going to retire.’ The fans would have come unglued.”
The Cougars looked overmatched and overwhelmed. BYU added a touchdown in the second half to make the final score 42-14.
“That Syracuse game was one of the top five most embarrassing moments of my entire life,” Olsen said. “I had a freshman as we were walking in at halftime who said to me, ‘So what do we do now?’ I looked at him and said, ‘Hey, I’m already mentally on the Matterhorn at Disneyland, brother. I’m not here.’ I was embarrassed for how we were representing the university and how we were embarrassing LaVell.”
Engemann suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and third-string quaterback Brandon Doman burned his redshirt to take some snaps late in the game.
At the halfway point of the regular season, the Cougars were sitting with a 2-4 record.
With their long road trips behind them, the Cougars were hopeful to win out, capture a conference championship and go to a bowl game. The Cougars returned home and beat Utah State 38-14 on a Friday night in Provo.
The following week, BYU hosted San Diego State for homecoming. But the Cougars couldn’t even win that for Edwards as SDSU placekicker Nate Tandberg booted a 36-yard field goal with one second left in the game to lift the Aztecs to a dramatic 16-15 win. It was only SDSU’s second all-time victory in Provo and its coach Ted Tollner, who served as BYU’s quarterbacks coach in 1981, earned his first win over Edwards in five attempts.
It became apparent BYU wasn’t going to win a league title in LaVell’s final year. And it became apparent the Cougars might suffer their first losing season since 1973, Edwards’ second year at the helm.
BYU did bounce back to defeat Wyoming 19-7 at home but things were about to get even worse for the Cougars.
At Colorado State, the Rams went up 38-0 in the third quarter against an uninspired BYU team on a wintry night in Fort Collins. Sonny Lubick’s team didn’t take the foot off the gas as starting quarterback Matt Newton tossed a 51-yard touchdown pass midway through the third quarter to put the Rams up 45-0. Newton remained in the game until the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter.
It was as if CSU was trying to erase 25 years of frustration and futility against the Cougars in one night. BYU hadn’t lost at CSU since 1975.
Was this the lasting impression that LaVell was going to leave after decades of success?
But amid the darkness of that night for the Cougars, there was a glimmer of hope. Hope’s name was third-string QB Brandon Doman, who led three second-half touchdown drives. Final score: CSU 45, BYU 21.
Mercifully for the Cougars, they had a bye week before their home finale against New Mexico.
What did Doman’s emergence in that game mean?
“Let me tell you about Brandon. He had more experience playing than both of those guys,” Hooks said. “He was confident. And he was mobile. If something broke down, he was able to improvise and make something happen. He was a gamer.”
“I was the only scholarship quarterback left on the team. I’ll never forget going out onto the field and being that last resort,” Doman said of the second half of the CSU debacle. “At halftime of that CSU game, there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm or mojo on that team. We were hanging our heads. I was like the stinkin’ Energizer Bunny because I had been waiting for so long.”
Doman was about to get his chance to start for the Cougars — in Edwards’ final home game.
“I had dreamed my whole life to be able to do that,” he said. “It was an unbelievable moment in my life.”
Tomorrow: How the Cougars’ saved LaVell Edwards’ final season.