There is, to the best of my knowledge, no online footage of the 1974 football game between Brigham Young and Colorado State. But if we're going to fall into a existential discussion about faith and BYU football, and if we're going to talk about the rise of BYU into an utterly improbable national power in the 1980s -- and if we're going to discuss the murky future of BYU's football program in the College Football Playoff era, which I promise you we'll get to eventually -- then the batty finish of a 40-year-old BYU-CSU game seems like a pretty foolproof way to command your attention from the very beginning. Because I've read the account of this game at least a dozen times now, and I'm still a little reluctant to believe that it actually happened without some sort of visual documentary proof.
Allow me to set the scene for you: In 1974, BYU was a long-dormant football program that had started 0-3 under third-year coach LaVell Edwards, who was attempting to install an against-the-grain offense that would emphasize the passing game over the run. Edwards did this not because he was seeking to start a revolution (even if it eventually kind of helped do so); he did this because he knew he'd have trouble recruiting oversized lineman and fleet running backs to a school that not only had minimal football tradition, but demanded (among other prohibitions) that its players steer clear of Maxwell House. "I figured I was probably going to get fired at some point, anyway, because everyone else had," Edwards said years later, "So I decided that if the ship went down we were going to go down trying something different."
So Edwards found a quarterback to hurl the ball around the yard, a guy named Gary Sheide out of Diablo Valley College, and in 1973 the Cougars went 5-6, and in 1974 they put up a total of 26 points in their first three contests, and then they put up 33 against Colorado State. They led by 13 with six minutes left, and then they led 33-27 and had the ball on their own 16-yard line with six seconds left. So Sheide calls for the snap to down the ball, and the thing squirts loose, and Colorado State picks it up, and it scores on the final play, and in the aftermath of the touchdown, the Rams are assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The extra point is attempted from the 25-yard line, by a kicker who made a 59-yard field goal earlier that same day … and it sails way left. Except the officials raise their arms, and everyone thinks the kick is good, and that the home team has come back and beaten BYU, except, wait … the referee had actually signaled no good, and then raised his arms to signal that the game was over, which one normally does with the ball in one's hands, but since the ball had been kicked into the stands, the referee just raised his arms, because that wouldn't be confusing at all.
It took 20 minutes to sort this out. By the time the game was declared a tie, no one was left in the stadium. It was an ignominious day for BYU, and LaVell Edwards appeared to crawl one week closer to being fired, except for the fact that something equally crazy happened in the aftermath of the Colorado State game: BYU suddenly got really, really good.
The Cougars won their next seven games that season, and made their first bowl game in school history. And after a six-win season in '75, BYU won at least eight games every season under Edwards through 1992, and went to repeated bowl games, and won repeated conference championships. The Cougars threw the ball around year after year, and they won certain contests in miraculous fashion, and they became known as a "quarterback factory," and they captured a national championship in 1984 with a proto-Manziel of a signal-caller named Robbie Bosco. LaVell Edwards, of course, was never actually fired, but quit on his own terms in 2000; eventually, he had a football stadium named after him. "That [Colorado State game] was the only time I can ever recall having any doubts about what we were trying to do," Edwards said.
In retrospect, it's one of the great origin stories in modern college football history. But 40 years after the nadir of that Colorado State game and 30 years after the zenith of that national title, BYU is essentially back where it began, a program with such a murky future that I'm not sure if sheer faith is enough to carry it through this time.
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And this is essentially a story about faith, because at BYU, the football program is not merely the whirring economic engine it's become at an SEC or a Big 12 or a a Big Ten university. At BYU, football is also an engine of the Mormon church, a way of garnering positive publicity for a religion that isn't always portrayed in a positive light on television sets and Broadway stages. Brigham Young's national championship 30 years ago was an earth-shaking event, in part because no one really imagined it could happen, not even the BYU players themselves. But '84 turned out to be one of those seasons when everyone kept losing except BYU, when the eternal and unanswerable college football question of schedule strength versus wins and losses loomed over everything.
In '84, the Cougars beat No. 3 Pitt in the first week of the season, and then they didn't beat any other ranked teams, but ascended in the polls by default as every other national contender succumbed to upsets. They saved their season in late September with a goal-line stand against Hawaii, and they punctuated their season by winning the Holiday Bowl, a pre-Christmas game against a 6-5 Michigan team that they again pulled out in the final minutes after Robbie Bosco hurt his knee. That Pitt team they beat finished 3-7-1; the combined record of their opponents -- if we exclude BYU's 13 wins against them-was 61-73-3. Their best victory was over an 8-4 Air Force team, which means the claim that BYU is the weakest national champion of the modern poll era is empirically true.
But still, we don't really know; we don't have any idea what BYU might have done against, say, Oklahoma, because it wasn't ever going to happen. At that point, BYU was hemmed in to a contract with the Holiday Bowl, and the Holiday Bowl couldn't pay enough money to attract any high-profile teams, which means that even as BYU won the national championship, it was essentially being locked out of the national championship process. And 30 years later, that's still pretty much the case.
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In 2011, BYU dropped out of the Mountain West Conference and became an independent. At the time, it seemed like it might be a brilliantly radical ploy, a way for the Cougars to establish themselves as a quasi-Notre Dame of the West, a method of scoring television time and wending their way into scheduling alliances that would at least elevate the program into bigger-time status than what the Mountain West could provide. And yet BYU was never Notre Dame, in part because there are more than 12 times as many Catholics in America as there are Mormons, but also because BYU never really felt like it had worked its way into the inner-circle of college football. Never mind that the Cougars are (along with Michigan and Florida State) the fourth-winningest program of the past 40 years; never mind that BYU has produced a steady stream of All-Americas, and a Heisman Trophy winner, and a Punky QB. The Cougars are victims of the Boise dilemma: Their style of play, for all those years, made them seem like something less than what they actually were. Even that '84 national championship felt, to the powers that be, like a glorious fluke. If it happened today -- if BYU played that same schedule with those same results -- I'm not even sure they would get a BCS bowl invite, let alone a slot in the four-team playoff.
And so I'm not really sure where BYU goes from here, or if it can survive in big-time football with so few allies, or without a lifeline from, say, the Big 12. At least two conferences -- and arguably the best two, in the ACC and SEC -- have declared that the Cougars are not a worthy, BCS-level opponent. They could run the table in 2014 and most likely get locked out of the playoff; they are facing the repercussions of perhaps the first rules-related scandal in school history, and their coach, Bronco Mendenhall, is successful enough -- and respected enough for reinforcing the precepts of the LDS church -- that its difficult to justify letting him go. And yet, his teams are not interesting in the way Edwards' teams were; I can't remember the last thoroughly entertaining BYU game I watched, and I'm not sure if there's any other way for the Cougars to reinforce their relevance at this point without trying something different. (And the most radical notion-that BYU go after alumnus Mike Leach-is never going to happen.)
"They have to make themselves un-ignorable," wrote Salt Lake Tribune columnist Gordon Monson last week, and maybe that seems impossible in this new reality, but I suppose that's where the faith part comes in. At some point, you have to believe, even when no one else does.