Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2009, 25 years after BYU's national title.
PROVO, Utah -- Twenty-five years ago this fall, BYU hijacked college football. The sport has been fighting back ever since.
Unranked at the start of the season, playing in the lightly regarded Western Athletic Conference, the Cougars finished the 1984 season as the nation's lone undefeated team. No formal championship game existed then, and two weeks after rising to No. 1 the Cougars beat a 6-5 Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl. In a highly controversial decision the AP and coaches voted the 13-0 Cougars national champions.
Twenty-five years later, BYU remains the last school from outside of today's major conferences to win a national title. Today, coaches and players from that triumphant '84 BYU team wonder whether it will ever happen again.
"With the way the [BCS] system is now, there's no question we wouldn't have been No. 1," said BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco. "We probably would have gone to a better bowl, and that would have been great, but there would have been four teams higher than us in the polls."
That's essentially what happened last season to BYU's rival, Utah, which finished its regular season unbeaten but never rose higher than No. 6 in the BCS standings. The Utes earned a lucrative trip to the Sugar Bowl, but despite stunning SEC runner-up Alabama, had to settle for No. 2 in the final AP poll behind 13-1 Florida, which toppled 12-2 Oklahoma in the BCS Championship Game.
The snub touched off yet another postseason controversy. "We recognize the Florida Gators as the national champions last season," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "But we certainly would have welcomed the opportunity to find out whether or not we were the best team in the country."
Representatives from Utah's conference, the Mountain West, have made it clear they'd like to see a college playoff, but BCS officials recently extended their current arrangement through 2013.
The Mountain West isn't just fighting for Utah. As he enters the cafeteria on the second floor of BYU's athletic complex, current Cougars quarterback Max Hall walks right past a glass case that displays BYU's 1984 national championship trophy.
"You respect it a lot more now because of how hard it is to get to that point," said Hall, who's gone 21-5 in two seasons as a starter and played in two Las Vegas Bowls. "You really have to be perfect, and even sometimes you do have a perfect season and don't get a shot, like Utah last year."
To be perfect this season, BYU will have to accomplish the daunting feat of beating Oklahoma and Florida State and running the table in the Mountain West, which last year produced top 10 teams Utah and TCU. It seems unfathomable, but if it happens the Cougar-faithful will expect their just reward.
"If BYU could pull off a miracle and beat Oklahoma and Florida State, you'd like to think they'd have a chance," said LaVell Edwards, the Cougars' Hall of Fame coach from 1972-2000. "It sure would be interesting."
Twenty-five years ago, Edwards' team pulled off its own miracle -- one that has yet to be replicated.
Heading into 1984, Edwards' program had already won eight consecutive WAC championships and appeared in six straight Holiday Bowls. The Cougars had gained national recognition for their innovative passing offense, which had produced star quarterbacks like Jim McMahon and Steve Young. BYU won its final 11 games the year before and earned the school's first top 10 ranking.
Still, to most of the country BYU was something of a circus act -- a cute Mormon school out West that threw the ball a lot. Even within the program, "No one had ever discussed the national championship," said return specialist Vai Sikahema. "Not once."
The first time the topic came up, Sikahema said, was the night before BYU's season opener at Pittsburgh. The Panthers, led by future NFL stars Chris Doleman and Bill Fralic, were ranked third; the Cougars, having lost first-round draft picks Young, tight end Gordon Hudson and linebacker Todd Shell from the previous year, were unranked. The game would be ESPN's first live college football broadcast and the Cougars' first nationally televised regular-season game in five years.
"One of our team captains, Craig Garick [now deceased], stood up in a team meeting and said, 'If we win tomorrow, we will have a clear shot at running the table, and possibly a shot at the national championship,'" said Sikahema. "It was the first time I had ever heard BYU and national championship in the same sentence."
On the bus ride from the hotel to Pitt Stadium, center Robert Anae, now BYU's offensive coordinator, could tell that his seatmate, freshman running back Freddie Whittingham (brother of the current Utah head coach), was nervous.
"He said, 'Do you think we can just call up Pittsburgh and let them know we'd rather play touch than tackle today?'" recalled Anae.
Those fears proved unfounded as BYU pulled off a 20-14 stunner. The next day, the Cougars debuted in the AP poll (which at that time ranked 20 teams) at No. 13.
BYU returned home the next week and pounded Baylor -- a bowl team the year before -- 47-13, with Bosco throwing five first-half touchdowns. In just two weeks, the Cougars had risen from unranked to No. 8. "I was still a little bit of a pessimist [after the Pitt game]," said Bosco, "but after the next week, we all felt we could be pretty good."
BYU endured a couple of close calls upon entering conference play. It took a miraculous goal-line stop by safety Kyle Morrell to turn the tide in an 18-13 win at Hawaii, and a last-minute touchdown to edge Wyoming. Skeptical voters dropped the Cougars slightly in the polls after each scare. "We felt like we had to win by 40 every week," said backup quarterback Blaine Fowler, now a color analyst for the Mountain West's TV network.
Eventually, however, the Cougars began rolling, beating overmatched foes by scores like 42-9 and 34-3. While Bosco threw for 3,875 yards, earning him a third-place Heisman finish, the defense, led by future NFL linebackers Kurt Gouveia and Leon White, held opponents to just 14 points per game.
All the while, other highly ranked teams across the country were falling each week. "You didn't talk about it in front of the coaches," said Fowler, "but we knew exactly where we were ranked, we knew exactly who was in front of us and who they were playing that week, and we were rooting against them."
By the time BYU reached its annual rivalry game against Utah on Nov. 17, the Cougars had risen to No. 3 in the country, behind only 9-1 Nebraska (which had moved up to No. 1 a second time) and 9-0 South Carolina. On the same day the Cougars topped the Utes 24-14, No. 6 Oklahoma handed the Cornhuskers their second loss, while the Gamecocks inexplicably fell to 3-5-1 Navy.
BYU rose to No. 1.
"That's the first time I thought, "Holy cow, this is possible,'" said Edwards.
Writers from the nation's major papers began descending on Provo to profile Edwards' improbable team. Rumors began to swirl that BYU would get out of its contract with the Holiday Bowl to play in the higher-profile Fiesta Bowl. That didn't happen, but officials from the six-year-old San Diego game (which had hosted BYU every year of its existence) tried feverishly to find a worthy opponent for the top-ranked Cougars.
Executive Director John Reid, hampered by his game's $500,000 payout, later recounted seven schools turned him down, including Doug Flutie-led Boston College. The selection committee settled on 6-5 Michigan, which had risen as high as No. 3 early in the season before QB Jim Harbaugh broke his arm in the fifth game.
Heading into the Dec. 21 game, Wolverines coach Bo Schembechler did not seem particularly awed by BYU's prolific passing attack. "We've played passing teams," he said. "There's no way this team should be a better passing team than Illinois, Miami, Iowa or Purdue."
Midway through the first quarter, it appeared the Cougars' passing game would indeed be crippled -- Bosco, injury-free all year, had to be carried off the field after Michigan pass-rusher Mike Hammerstein barreled into the quarterback's left leg on a late hit. "Oh boy," thought Edwards. "There go our chances."
Bosco, however, came back in the second quarter despite suffering knee and ankle sprains. Visibly hobbled, he and the Cougars still racked up 483 yards to just 202 for Michigan, but they also committed six turnovers, allowing the Wolverines to take a 17-10 lead into the fourth quarter.
Early in the final period, however, receiver Glenn Kozlowski made a leaping catch in the back of the end zone to tie the score; then, with 4:36 remaining, Bosco took over at his own 17 and quickly marched BYU down the field. On third down at the Michigan 13 with less than two minutes remaining, Bosco connected with running back Kelly Smith for the game-winning touchdown -- then limped off the field.
Afterward, while Schembechler groused at his postgame press conference that BYU "should be outlawed" because the Cougars were "the worst holding team in the United States of America" (they weren't flagged on a single play), Bosco, who had finished 30-of-42 for 343 yards, left the stadium on crutches.
The rest of the Cougars left for their respective hometowns to celebrate Christmas -- and to wait in agony until the release of the final polls 12 days later.
Twenty-five years ago, "strength of schedule" was not the hot-button subject it is today. If it had been, BYU may never have made it to No. 1.
As the season played out, some of the Cougars' early-season triumphs lost their luster. Pitt finished its season 3-8, Baylor 5-6. Only two of BYU's opponents, Air Force (8-4) and Hawaii (7-4), finished with seven or more wins.
In late November, NBC invited Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer on the Today Show to promote its upcoming broadcast of the Orange Bowl, which the network had dubbed an unofficial national title game. Switzer's team (9-1-1) was ranked second; its opponent, Washington (11-1), was ranked fourth.
"How can you rank BYU No. 1?" Today host Bryant Gumbel wondered aloud. "Who'd they play -- Bo Diddley Tech?"
Gumbel was instantly branded an archenemy in Provo, where a group of players were convinced he'd attended a Big 8 school. ("Then we looked it up and found out he went to Bates College," said Fowler. "What did he know?") Switzer began trumpeting the schedule card any chance he got in the days leading up to the Jan. 1 Orange Bowl.
"They play in the worst conference in the country," said the Oklahoma coach. "BYU beat its schedule, but it didn't beat the world."
Several pollsters shared his sentiments. Prior to the Orange Bowl, the Miami Herald surveyed the 60 AP voters and found 19 did not plan to vote BYU No. 1, regardless of the Orange Bowl outcome. "I have no respect for BYU," said one.
Switzer found little sympathy, however, from the nation's newspaper columnists, many of whom had fallen in love with Cinderella. "People such as Switzer keep asking: Whom did BYU beat?" wrote the Washington Post's Tony Kornheiser. "Hey, who beat BYU?"
Larry Guest wrote in the Orlando Sentinel: "It's not [BYU's] fault that all the bigwig teams took the money and ran to bigger bowls, where they called press conferences to brag about how they'd bloody BYU's noses if only they could get at 'em."
For his part, Edwards said after the Holiday Bowl: "We have as legitimate a claim as anyone. ... I'm sure Nebraska would love to go back and play Syracuse. Oklahoma would love go back and play Kansas, and South Carolina would like to play Navy. We had our Kansases, our Syracuses and our Navies, and this particular group of guys has always come out winners."
In the end, Switzer's lobbying proved moot. Washington downed the Sooners, 28-17, in a game remembered primarily for one indelible moment. With the score tied 14-14 in third quarter, Oklahoma had a 22-yard field goal nullified by an illegal procedure penalty, then got docked an additional 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct when the Sooner Schooner -- OU's pony-drawn wagon -- came on to the field thinking the field goal was good and got stuck in a patch of mud. The Sooners' subsequent attempt from 42 yards was blocked.
Edwards watched the game from his hotel room in Palo Alto, Calif., where he was preparing to coach in the East-West Shrine Game. The next morning, Baylor coach Grant Teaff joined him at breakfast.
"Grant said to me, 'Did you hear about the about the big investigation going on in Miami?' Word is out that the driver of the Boomer Schooner was a Mormon.'"
Even in defeat, Switzer leveled one more shot at the team from Provo. "Washington deserves to be No. 1," he said. "They are 11-1, have the next-best record, and I guarantee you they are a better team than Brigham Young."
Weeks later, Switzer received a bunch of letters from Midvale, Utah, with pictures enclosed. The local government there had passed a resolution that renamed its sewage center "The Barry Switzer Bowl."
"I had nothing personal against LaVell Edwards and his team -- they were an excellent team," Switzer said recently. "It was my job to promote my team and promote the Orange Bowl for the national championship. I was just doing my job, and I got a sewer system named after me."
A group of anxious reporters spent the afternoon of Jan. 2 hanging around the football offices in Smith Fieldhouse waiting to hear the results of the final AP poll. Most of the coaches were on the road. With secretary Shirley Johnson flooded with calls from curious fans, receivers coach Norm Chow wound up inadvertently fielding the AP call in his office. He emerged to deliver the news that would soon be displayed on a dot-matrix banner on the side of the building.
"BYU National Champs."
Today, Chow is the offensive coordinator at UCLA. In 2003 and '04, he served in the same capacity for USC's back-to-back national championship teams. Asked about that '84 season, Chow says, "No, I don't think it could happen again -- because of the BCS."
The BCS, which began in 1998, was designed to avoid situations like the one in '84, when the top two teams in the polls could not meet in a bowl game. However, because the system was founded by the six major conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC) and Notre Dame, it's become significantly harder for a team from outside that group to rise to No. 1 or 2.
Starting in the late-'90s, the five leagues without automatic BCS berths (the Mountain West, WAC, MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt) came to be known as "non-BCS" conferences, an unwanted label that undeniably influences voters' perceptions of their teams.
Since 2004, six "non-BCS" teams have completed undefeated regular seasons, but none have rated higher than sixth in the BCS standings. The most ambitious goal such teams can realistically hold is to finish in the top 12 and earn an at-large berth to one of the BCS games. Four such teams -- Utah in 2004 and '08, Boise State in 06 and Hawaii in '07 -- have done that.
"They've opened it up a little bit for the non-BCS schools," said Edwards. "But playing in one of the BCS games is a far cry from playing in the national championship."
Both Boise in '06 (which beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl) and Utah last year emerged from the postseason as the nation's only undefeated teams, but neither entered the national-title discussion until after their bowl upsets. "There were a lot of people still wondering if we were for real," said Whittingham.
It's easy to see why. Even with wins over 12-2 Alabama, 11-2 TCU, 10-3 BYU and 9-4 Oregon State, last season's Utes ranked just 56th in Jeff Sagarin's strength-of-schedule ratings. By comparison, Florida rated fourth and Oklahoma seventh. While BYU was rewarded in '84 simply for going undefeated, today's voters place far more emphasis on who teams beat.
Considering the non-BCS conferences will always face an inherent schedule handicap, is there any possible scenario in which the voters would place one of their teams in the championship game?
"I would never say never," said Philadelphia Daily News columnist Mike Kern, a Harris Poll voter, "but it would probably mean that just about every worthy BCS team would have to finish with two losses, to give me a good enough reason. I just don't feel that in most cases the schedules are equitable."
Many inside the game share that sentiment. "If the cards fall just right, yes, it could happen," said Florida Sate coach Bobby Bowden, a coaches poll voter. "Some of the big names would have to fall flat and not have good years. You know how people are about history and tradition -- it's hard to break those old habits."
BYU running backs coach Lance Reynolds -- who was also on the Cougars' staff in '84 -- believes non-BCS teams would have to go on an extended winning streak like those Cougars did. "By the time we got to the end [of the '84 season], we'd won 24 straight games," said Reynolds. "And during that time we'd beaten UCLA, Missouri, Pittsburgh, Michigan and Baylor -- and Baylor was really good then. It's not like we had this one-year flash."
Fowler agrees. "I think for a Mountain West or WAC team to play in the national championship game, they have to have back-to-back amazing years like we did in '83 and '84," he said. "If Utah were to be undefeated again this year, there would be a lot of sentiment to put them in the national title game."
Amongst present-day programs, Boise State most closely resembles BYU of the mid-'80s. The Broncos have dominated the WAC this decade, winning the league's championship seven of the past nine years, and earned considerable notoriety when they stunned Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Boise finished last season 12-1 and ranked 11th in the AP poll, and it opens the '09 season against Oregon, a top 10 team last year.
However, the Broncos' conference is held in lower regard than the upstart Mountain West. Besides Boise, no WAC team finished higher than 71st in last year's Sagarin ratings. Voters would be hard-pressed to justify the Broncos' inclusion over a one-loss team from the power conferences.
The 2009 team best suited to pull off '84 BYU's achievement may well be ... BYU.
"If you play big teams like an Oklahoma, or a Florida or a Texas -- teams that are in contention every year -- and then you go undefeated, I think you absolutely should get to play in [the title game]," said Hall. "But it's very, very hard to do."
In 1984, it took 13 weeks for BYU to reach No. 1. It probably will take longer than 25 years for it to get back.