PROVO — BYU and Navy don’t appear to share much of a history, having played only two games against each other — splitting the pair of contests.

The third meeting between the Cougars and the Midshipmen will be on a giant stage as they collide on ESPN in prime time on Labor Day night at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s the first high-profile game of the 2020 college football season.

When the two programs got together for the first time, nearly 42 years ago, it was on a smaller stage — the start of an upstart bowl game that has enjoyed a distinguished run. 

On Dec. 22, 1978, BYU and Navy played in the inaugural Holiday Bowl in San Diego

Current BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, who helped set up this year’s game with Navy in record-breaking time, was on that 1978 team but did not play because he was redshirting. Holmoe played defensive back for the Cougars from 1979-1982. 

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The Holiday Bowl was created to provide the Western Athletic Conference with an automatic bowl berth for the league’s champion, months after Arizona and Arizona State bolted the WAC for the Pac-8. The Arizona schools took with them the Fiesta Bowl, which ASU hosted and had previously been home to the WAC champ. 

San Diego State joined the WAC in 1978 and became the host of a new bowl game for the league. And the Holiday Bowl was born. For the first several years, the Holiday Bowl pitted the WAC champ against an at-large team. BYU played in the first seven Holiday Bowls.

Glen Redd (41) and coach LaVell Edwards lead victory celebration around Holiday Bowl trophy after stunning win. Dec. 20, 1980.
Glen Redd (41) and coach LaVell Edwards lead victory celebration around Holiday Bowl trophy after stunning victory. Dec. 20, 1980. BYU-46, SMU-45. | Deseret News Archives

More than four decades later, the Holiday Bowl has established a reputation for staging numerous thrilling, high-scoring games and fantastic finishes, such as BYU’s come-from-behind 46-45 victory over SMU in 1980, capped by a game-winning Hail Mary on the last play of the game, known by BYU faithful as The Miracle Bowl. In 1984, the Cougars rallied to beat Michigan at the Holiday Bowl to clinch the national championship.

In 1978, BYU claimed the WAC title to earn a bid to the first Holiday Bowl. It made sense that the bowl invited Navy, considering San Diego is a seaport and Naval Base San Diego is the principal homeport of the Pacific Fleet.

At the time, Navy was an independent program that had just won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and was led by coach George Welsh. It marked the Midshipmen’s first bowl game since the 1963 Cotton Bowl.

After a two-yard run by quarterback Jim McMahon in the third quarter, BYU, which was heavily favored, led 16-3 and appeared to be in control.

But Navy’s diminutive wide receiver Phil McConkey — who would go on to play five years in the NFL after completing his mandatory five years in the U.S. Navy as a helicopter pilot — became a one-man wrecking crew.

The 5-foot-10, 164-pound senior picked up 16 yards on a reverse to set up a late third-quarter touchdown to cut the deficit to 16-10. Later, he ran for 26 more yards on a reverse, which led to a field goal to make it 16-13.

A promotional piece for the inaugural Holiday Bowl in 1978. | Courtesy BYU Photo

In the fourth quarter, McConkey leaped to catch a 35-yard pass from quarterback Bob Leszczynski, then McConkey ran 30 yards for a touchdown. The electrifying 65-yard TD lifted Navy to a 20-16 advantage. The Midshipmen later added another field goal to secure a 23-16 victory over the Cougars. 

For his heroics, McConkey was named the Holiday Bowl’s first Offensive MVP. The man that recruited McConkey to Navy was Steve Belichick, the father of current New England Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick. 

Over the final 12 minutes of the game, BYU’s offense managed just 16 yards. Navy’s defense sacked McMahon and Marc Wilson four times down the stretch. 

“You could feel the momentum switch,” BYU coach LaVell Edwards said after the game. “It swept completely from us after McConkey’s catch. We couldn’t get it back.”

Navy finished the season with a 9-3 record while the Cougars concluded with with a 9-4 mark.

“You could feel the momentum switch. It swept completely from us after (Phil) McConkey’s catch. We couldn’t get it back.” — Then-BYU coach LaVell Edwards

That inaugural Holiday Bowl, played in front of a crowd of 52,500 fans at San Diego Stadium, kicked off the tradition of dramatic endings that the game has been known for the past 42 years.

Eleven years after the 1978 Holiday Bowl, BYU and Navy squared off again on Sept. 16, 1989, in a regular-season game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. 

This time, the Midshipmen took an early 7-0 lead in the first quarter before Cougars sophomore quarterback Ty Detmer helped BYU outscore Navy 31-3 the rest of the way. Detmer completed 26 of 35 passes for 353 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Matt Bellini scored four touchdowns for the Cougars. 

BYU ended the 1989 season with a 10-3 record after losing 50-39 to Penn State in the Holiday Bowl.

No matter the outcome of Monday’s matchup, it will likely be remembered for a long time because of the unusual circumstances surrounding it — for example, due to the pandemic, no fans will be allowed in the stadium.

It’s not the Holiday Bowl, but in BYU’s 2020 season opener, a large number of television viewers around the country are expected to be watching on a holiday night.