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How the Cougars rescued LaVell Edwards’ final season

Edwards’ final two games included two wins, the naming of the stadium after him and an improbable comeback against the Utes.

BYU coach LaVell Edwards is congratulated by Utah coach Ron McBride after BYU’s 34-27 win in 2000. The legendary figures were two of the the Mountain West Conference football coaches when the league originally began play in 1999.
BYU coach LaVell Edwards is congratulated by Utah coach Ron McBride after BYU’s 34-27 win in 2000. The legendary figures were two of the the Mountain West Conference football coaches when the league originally began play in 1999.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Editor’s note: Second in a two-part series looking back on LaVell Edwards’ final season.

PROVO — With two games remaining in the 2000 season, coach LaVell Edwards’ legend was being tarnished, not burnished, in his final campaign.

The Cougars had just been on the wrong side of a 45-21 rout on national television at Colorado State.

“That season was so frustrating,” said defensive lineman Hans Olsen. “It’s hard to relive because we wanted to give LaVell the world and we let him down from so many different angles.”

Sporting an abysmal 4-6 record, BYU returned to Provo bruised and beaten as they prepared for the home finale against New Mexico. The Cougars’ confidence was dragging.

But Brandon Doman didn’t feel that way.

The junior QB, who started the season third on the depth chart, was fired up. “I knew we had good players on our team,” Doman said.

Despite his second-half performance at CSU leading three second-half touchdown drives, the coaching staff waited 10 days before naming Doman the starter. First-year offensive coordinator Lance Reynolds designed a game plan that focused on Doman’s strengths — including utilizing his mobility.

During practice one day, something happened that changed the course of the rest of the season — and beyond.

Center Jason Scukanec was dealing with a lot of pain as a long season was coming to a close.

“I wasn’t the friendliest of guys. We were bad. At that point, we just wanted the season over. Everything hurt. My back hurt. My hand hurt. I was playing with these stingers in my neck.”

Doman lined up behind his center after calling for the cadence on 2. Scukanec snapped the ball on 1. The ball hit the ground and the coaches blew their whistles and everyone was angry and frustrated.

Doman yelled something at Scukanec, who didn’t appreciate it.

“The last thing I wanted was some crappy third-string guy telling me to get going in practice,” Scukanec said. “I was ready to fight him.”

“Next thing I know, he turns around and slugged me. I was a little overzealous and he punched me,” Doman said. “It was exactly what I needed because my competitive juices started flowing. I was in a full-blown brawl with my center.”

The coaches stepped in to break things up. Edwards kicked Scukanec out of practice.

“You look back and say, ‘How embarrassing is that? I was fighting the starting quarterback,’” Scukanec recalled. “I felt like a real jerk. After that, I had a lot of respect for (Doman). Brandon is the nicest guy in the world. I was bullying him and he stood up to me. That gave me a measure of respect for him. After that, he was our guy.”

LaVell’s final home game: ‘Don’t muff it’

One of the many subplots entering the game involved discussion about how BYU would honor Edwards in his final home game.

Before the contest, President Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wearing a fedora and an overcoat, entered BYU’s locker room and offered a brief but inspiring pep talk.

“This is your last chance to get a victory for LaVell on his home field. Don’t muff it,” President Hinckley said as part of his short speech.

Later, on the field, just before kickoff, President Hinckley made a special announcement: Cougar Stadium would be changed to LaVell Edwards Stadium.

“I remember fighting back tears because I was so grateful that the university was recognizing his greatness,” Olsen said. “I was emotionally overwhelmed with gratitude that BYU would show the love and respect that they have for that man to put his name on the stadium. I was probably 5 feet away from him and (LaVell’s wife) Patti when they announced it. I remember looking at their faces and almost seeing a look of embarrassment in his eye instead of pride. It was like, ‘I can’t believe they’re doing this.’ Total humility.”

As for the game, New Mexico was led by Provo-born head coach Rocky Long. His defensive coordinator was Bronco Mendenhall, who would, five years later, become the Cougars’ head coach.

Making his first start in Edwards’ final home game, Doman looked like he had been starting for the Cougars for years. He completed 21 of 35 passes for 349 yards with one interception. He also ran for 51 yards and a touchdown. BYU earned a dominating 37-13 victory.

“I knew that (Doman) was a scrappy, no-quit, tough guy,” Olsen said. “I felt like Brandon would give us a strong level of commitment and toughness. I just didn’t realize what level. Brandon was the spark. Absolutely. When he took over, he was a leader.”

For Doman, it was an experience he’ll never forget.

“It was a heckuva start for me and a great finish for coach Edwards in that stadium,” he said. “I have this picture in my office of my first start in the first game at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The whole thing was unbelievable.”

Fourth and 13: LaVell’s last miracle

One game remained on the schedule — against archrival Utah. The Cougars were 5-6 and the Utes were 4-6.

BYU traveled to Rice-Eccles Stadium the day after Thanksgiving for the season-finale. The Cougars were looking to send Edwards out as a winner in his final game and help him avoid just the second losing season of his 29-year career.

On BYU’s first series of the game, Doman threw a pick-six as Andre Dyson put Utah up 7-0 moments after the opening kickoff.

From there, Doman and the Cougars settled down, scoring 19 unanswered points. BYU dominated the first half but left a lot of points on the scoreboard by settling for field goals instead of touchdowns.

At the end of the third quarter, the Cougars led 26-10 after Doman completed a 36-yard touchdown pass to Mike Rigell.

Utah wasn’t going to go down easily, however. The Utes made a change at quarterback, replacing Lance Rice with Darnell Arceneaux, who led the Utes to 17 straight points. Suddenly, with 2:16 remaining, Utah led 27-26.

Was this how it was going to end for LaVell?

The Cougars were without their top wide receiver, Margin Hooks, who left the game in the third quarter with a hamstring injury.

On BYU’s final offensive series, it faced fourth-and-13 after a pass that was batted up in the air and was almost intercepted, a 10-yard sack and a controversial play — a 7-yard catch by Luke Staley on a short pass on third-and-20. Staley lost the ball as he was tackled but the referees said it wasn’t a fumble. Utah coach Ron McBride, to this day, disagrees vehemently.

“The game was over because we recovered the fumble,” McBride said. “They never called it.”

“It was a bam-bam play,” Staley said. “It was close.”

On fourth-and-13, BYU’s coaches called the play “64,” which required the two outside receivers, including Jonathan Pittman, to run 10-yard outs to catch the ball and get out of bounds to stop the clock. Doman signaled “64” to his receivers. Pittman shook him off and signaled that he was running a fade pattern.

“We were arguing with hand signals,” Pittman said.

Doman took the snap, dropped back, rolled out to his left and launched a deep pass that was caught near midfield by Pittman, a 34-yard gain. Pittman beat Ute cornerback Jeff Ray by sealing him off, coming back to the ball.

“As I dropped back, I instinctively thought, ‘I’m throwing this thing to Jonathan.’ He had single coverage and so I did,” Doman said. “Jonathan made a great play. He was a good player and a savvy football player. I look at all the recognition that I got for those plays but he made it happen.”

How did McBride see that play?

“Our safety blew the coverage. We were supposed to double the wideout. He was sitting on the underneath route,” he said. “It was fourth-and-13. Doman threw it up and made a great throw and the receiver made a nice play.”

On the next play, Doman completed another long pass — a 36-yarder — to Pittman again to the Utah 13-yard line.

“We ran the same play four times in a row,” Pittman recalled.

Aaron Roderick, who is currently the BYU quarterbacks coach and was a grad assistant for the Cougars in Edwards’ final season, praised Pittman and Doman.

“Pittman got lined up and just ran by their corner again the very next play. It was a great effort play that gets overlooked. Just how hard it is for a guy to do that in a two-minute drill,” he said. “That’s a receiver with a great motor and gutsy playmaking by Doman. And guys were blocking.”

Then came a 9-yard run by Staley, followed by an option run by Doman, who followed his blockers, shed tacklers and lunged over the goal line for the touchdown with 23 seconds remaining. Doman completed a pass to Soren Halladay for the two-point conversion to lift the Cougars to a 34-27 lead.

Arceneaux threw a Hail Mary on the final play of the game that was batted down by a host of BYU defenders in the end zone. As the game ended, Edwards was hoisted onto the shoulders of a few of his players.

“It’s a great sendoff,” Olsen said after the win. “A great ending to a crappy season.”

Setema Gali, a defensive lineman and team captain, maintained faith during the final drive.

“In my heart, I knew we were going to win. There’s no way LaVell was going out with a loss, especially on that field,” he said. “I was like, ‘To the football gods, we need to cash in on a miracle. It hasn’t been our year.’ It was awesome. It’s like it was yesterday.”

From the opposite sideline, McBride met Edwards on the field, congratulated him and the two shared a hug.

“We gave them the game but they earned it. I wasn’t happy about that series and what happened there,” McBride recalled. “But I was happy for LaVell because he needed to go out on a positive. I have really mixed feelings.”

Pittman is grateful to have played such a key role in a memorable drive.

“I’m just happy to be a part of it and happy that I could be in the history books. It was quite a moment. It’s one I talk about with my family all the time. It’s one of those moments I’ll remember until the day I die.”

BYU’s newest head football coach Kalani Sitake talks briefly with former head coach LaVell Edwards following a press conference in Provo Monday, Dec. 21, 2015.
BYU’s newest head football coach Kalani Sitake talks briefly with former head coach LaVell Edwards following a press conference in Provo Monday, Dec. 21, 2015.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

LaVell’s lasting legacy

Edwards died in 2016 at the age of 86. When he passed away, tributes poured in from all over the country.

For many, Edwards’ name is synonymous with BYU football. Ten years after his retirement, the Cougars went independent and struck a long-term deal with ESPN, which was due, in part, to the network’s relationship with Edwards.

“LaVell’s shadow still resides on this program. His shadow is still over everything that happens with BYU football,” former BYU athletic director Val Hale said. “It’s amazing to think that there are students at BYU today that weren’t even born when LaVell coached his last game.”

Doman has his place in the lore of Cougar football, which includes his first two starts under Edwards.

“I have to pinch myself sometimes to remember that I got to be the final starting quarterback for LaVell Edwards,” Doman said. “He coached so many good ones. To be the last quarterback when he retired and score that final touchdown, it doesn’t feel real. I have to pinch myself and remember what a phenomenal opportunity that was.”

As much as Edwards did to shape BYU football, Olsen credits him for helping him overcome personal trials.

“If I didn’t have that direction from him at that time in my life, there’s a good chance that I’m with a traveling circus dressed as a bearded woman,” he said. “I owe him everything. He was in the temple with me for my marriage. He saw the full evolution of who I would become.”

Many of the players on that 2000 team shared how much it meant to them to witness the loving relationship Edwards had with his wife, Patti, and how that set an example of how men should treat their wives.

“He was so unique in showing love that you gravitated toward that aspect of life,” Olsen said. “You saw his happiness with Patti and everyone wanted that happiness. We followed his example. I really can’t put into words what he did for us and for our lives, especially in that final year, our senior year.”

Today, a senior fullback and team captain on Edwards’ 2000 team, Kalani Sitake, is BYU’s head coach.

“I know the impression LaVell left on him played a big part in Kalani deciding to become a coach,” Olsen said.

Edwards also influenced Roderick, who gave him his first coaching job as a grad assistant.

“He wasn’t concerned about trying to be like anyone else,” Roderick said. “He wasn’t wearing a headset, acting like he was calling plays. He was just out there, running the show his way. I learned humility from him, too. It was always about the players.”

In 2001, under new coach Gary Crowton, the Cougars won their first 12 games, earned a top-10 ranking, produced one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Doman, while Staley was named the winner of the Doak Walker Award, emblematic of the nation’s top running back.

“I want to make sure that everyone knows that’s how LaVell is — setting the table better for someone else when he’s not there,” Sitake said. “When he left the facility, he made sure that the cupboards wouldn’t be bare. That’s a noble way to say goodbye. He did it by establishing a solid foundation and making sure it was set for success for the next year.”

Added Sitake, “I think Brandon Doman is a great story because sometimes there are guys that need to be in that spotlight. It’s kind of changed my view on evaluating players, too. You’ve got to give people a chance to prove themselves.”

Hooks learned a lot from Edwards.

“He would pull me aside and we’d have conversations about serious issues,” he said. “He treated everyone the same, no matter your ethnicity, your religion, your background.”

“There were a lot of instances where players were able to get second chances or more opportunities to do right and better their lives,” Staley said. “You look at how many people came through that program — LDS or non-LDS — he did what was right by that athlete … LaVell saw you for who you were and the good that you had in you.”

During his first season as BYU’s head coach in 2016, Sitake would meet with Edwards every Wednesday at 10 a.m. He misses those weekly get-togethers. Today, he works to carry Edwards’ legacy.

“I wish he were still here with me. I cherish those moments and interactions,” Sitake said. “We all felt like we were LaVell’s favorite. That’s the kind of impact he had on all of us. There are great moments that still now are a huge impact on my life from those years being a player here under LaVell. I hope to give that same type of feel to the players that I have on the team right now. As a head coach, if there’s anything good that’s coming from what we’re doing as a program and the culture here, it looks very familiar because it’s borrowed from a legend.”