Brigham Young is the most-hated team in college football, which may be the best-kept dirty little secret in the game. That's because to criticize BYU openly is to risk becoming embroiled in a heated debate—or worse—involving not only football but also religion and race and attitudes about life.
That makes for a much more complicated discussion than one that focuses simply on blocking and tackling and third-down conversions. Make no mistake, it's an issue among players, coaches, athletic directors, college administrators and fans, especially in the West.
"I just hate them," says Pat Rabold, who played defensive tackle for Wyoming from 1984 to '88 and is one of the few people inside the game willing to give voice to his feelings about BYU. "Can't stand them. Nobody can." Randy Rich, a former New Mexico and NFL defensive back, says the ill feelings go back to "their basic attitude that blacks are inferior. Their players are always taunting black players." Even Cougar defensive back Derwin Gray, when asked if he feels that everybody hates BYU, replies, "Yeah, without a doubt."
Not long ago an obituary appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune that said the recently departed had "died doing what he enjoyed most—watching BYU lose."
August 30, 1992
The Cougars know where they stand with the public. And to their credit, they admit it. Truth be told, they revel in it. Rex Lee, the president of the 27,793-student, 98% Mormon university in Provo, Utah, says of the BYU football team: "People don't like us." There is a hint of pride in his voice. Former Cougar quarterback Ty Detmer, who won the 1990 Heisman Trophy, remembers the first time he saw the sign BRIGHAM DUNG UNIVERSITY hung in a stadium. Says Detmer, "That opened my eyes."
There are other teams that generate annoyance. For example, Michigan, Penn State and USC are knocked in some quarters for smugness, Miami for the misbehavior of its players, Oklahoma for its propensity for breaking NCAA rules. But when it comes to contempt, BYU has retired the trophy. The only reason this phenomenon hasn't gotten national attention is that the Cougars don't often take their act out of the West. But among those who know BYU well, the negative feelings are strong for a multitude of reasons.
•Success. The Cougars simply win too much. And, according to Dick Harmon, sports editor of The Daily Herald in Provo, "they gloat about it." One player recalls that after his team lost badly to BYU, a Cougar assistant walked up to one of the losing coaches and said, "Get your dogs off the field." Nice.
Former Utah tight end Steve Folsom, who played three years in the NFL, says, "What I hated the most about BYU was getting trounced." Former Colorado State fullback Steve Bartalo, who played last spring for Frankfurt in the WLAF, says of the Cougars, "They are two things. They are winners, and they are cocky."
It wasn't always so. In the 47 seasons before the arrival of La Veil Edwards as coach in 1972, Brigham Young averaged fewer than four wins a year. It had won the Western Athletic Conference title only once, in '65. Says Edwards, "Then we didn't have animosity—or respect." Over the past 20 years, BYU has either won or tied for first in the WAC 14 times. That's too much winning for the losers to stomach. Turnover among head coaches in the conference is brutally high: The coaches of the other eight WAC teams (excluding Fresno State, which was added to the conference this summer) have been on the job an average of only 3.1 years because their schools are always trying desperately to rebuild to whip BYU.
And while football is at the core of the enmity, BYU's winning ways are, unfortunately for others in the WAC, broad-based. The Cougars have won the WAC basketball title 11 times since '65 and almost certainly would be among the nation's preseason top 20 teams for '92-93 if all their stars who are serving two-year Mormon missions, especially 7'6" Shawn Bradley, were available.
BYU assistant athletic director Val Hale understands that domination doesn't breed affection. "It would be different if we were 5-6 and struggling to be average," he says. No question jealousy is a strong component of other schools' dislike of Brigham Young. But Lee sees nothing wrong with striving for excellence—and attaining it. Besides, he says, "rising tides raise all ships."
•Religion. It's a huge factor. And it got off on the wrong chapter and verse when upon its founding in 1830, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints promptly declared itself the "true church." This has never sat well with non-Mormons, who do not like to think of themselves as attending various untrue churches.
Beyond that, the Latter-Day Saints are out there in your neighborhood proselytizing in a zealous way. Says Charles Bradley, an assistant basketball coach at BYU, "People think about Mormons, and they think of guys on bicycles bothering them. They're like Jehovah's Witnesses. And people don't want to be bothered."
Moreover, Harmon, who's a member of the LDS church, says, "There's just a feeling that Mormons are a little off-center, a little weird." And perhaps a tad isolated and provincial, out there in the Wasatch Mountains. How else to explain that the 1989 Cougar media guide deemed it worth noting that the mother of linebacker Bob Davis "is full-blooded Italian"?
Athletic director Glen Tuckett says that whenever people want to snipe at his religion, they refer to it as Mormon instead of Latter-Day Saints "because Mormon can somehow be said in a more critical way." It does seem to outsiders that the Mormons take a persecution complex everywhere they go. Of course, being booted out of New York, Illinois and Missouri en route to what amounted to exile in Utah will do that. This bit of history has resulted in many Latter-Day Saints having an us-against-the-world mentality, which is seldom appealing.
But, of course, the faithful aren't about to abandon their religion just because it doesn't happen to appeal to other folks. Tuckett, while conceding that Mormonism "sort of begets criticism," adds, "That doesn't deter us at all. We just keep doing our thing. We cut our hair, live life like you're supposed to and play like heck."
•Perceived antiblack bias. The numbers don't lie. Of the 85 scholarship players on the 1991 Cougar football team, 60 were Mormons and only 14 (or 16%) were black. At most big-time schools these days, blacks make up 60% to 70% of the football team. (In basketball at BYU last season, only two of the 14 players were black.) By comparison, even the football team at Utah, 40 miles away in Salt Lake City, has 32 blacks among its scholarship players. Idaho, across the state line, has 25 blacks. Among the Brigham Young student body there are 75 blacks (.27%) based on the voluntary marking of a form; in the state of Utah, the black population is slightly less than 1%. The truth is that the LDS church has not been hospitable to blacks. Before the Mormons changed one of their tenets in 1978—a revelation of convenience, critics sniped—blacks were not allowed to hold the priesthood. In '69, 14 black Wyoming players refused to play against BYU to protest this.
Edwards won't address the issue of whether the Cougars should have more blacks, but he does allow that "we need more speed defensively." In today's codespeak, that means more black players. BYU booster-club executive director Dale McCann is more candid: "We need black players to be competitive outside the WAC."
Yet blacks at BYU are upbeat. Says Gray, who is black and non-Mormon, "If you are goal oriented, this is the perfect place to be. This has been the most fun three years of my life." Charles Bradley, who is a non-Mormon and the only black in the 82-member athletic department, says, "Before, we didn't have a chance to come here [the Cougars didn't have any black football players until 1971 or basketball players until '74]. Now we have a chance, so should we say no?"
•Missions. This aspect of the Latter-Day Saints' religion really sticks in opponents' craws. At about age 19, Mormon men are expected to undertake a two-year mission, in which they seek converts to the religion. This means that a football player who arrives in Provo when he's 18 or 19 plays a season and then takes off for two years. Upon his return to BYU, he is often redshirted for a season before completing his three years of eligibility. In some cases, this can mean that the Cougars are matching a 25-year-old player against an opponent's 18-year-old. On this year's Cougars, 41 of the players will have served missions, and 13 of them will be at least 24 years old by the time the season ends. Opponents contend that an NCAA rule, which benefits the Cougars almost exclusively (players who do church or military service have seven years to play four, while other players have five years in which to play four), means BYU has the unfair advantage of playing men against boys.
Critics charge that the Cougars have used this eligibility rule cynically. That's because while players at certain positions—notably linemen—can only benefit from the passage of time and the adding of bulk, there is little benefit in a quarterback's missing a moment away from the program. And, it turns out, not one of BYU's storied quarterbacks—Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young (a descendant of Brigham himself), Robbie Bosco, Detmer—ever went on a mission. "That is a large coincidence, isn't it?" says Lee, who nonetheless disputes the notion that missions are a secret weapon for the Cougars. "When they come back, they frequently don't have that fire in their belly," he says. Detmer agrees, saying of some players who returned from missions, "mentally they just don't have the competitive spirit, and you've got to have it because football is a mean sport."
•The goody-goody factor. All BYU students sign pledges not to drink alcohol, tea or coffee, use recreational drugs, smoke, swear or engage in premarital sex. They didn't use to be able to wear blue jeans. Says Detmer, "We are perceived as thinking that we are better than everyone else." And, in some ways, they are. For example, only six of the 107 current Division I-A football schools have never been investigated for wrongdoing in cither their football or basketball programs. Of course BYU is one of the six. Fifty-five percent of Cougar athletes had a 3.2 or better average for at least one semester in 1991.
But skeptics love those rare occasions when a BYU football player goes off the rails. For example, in a 1991 game against UTEP, a personal foul was assessed against the Cougars. An official miked to the P.A. system was asked by Edwards to explain the call and blurted out, "Because Detmer said, 'You're full of——.' " Former Wyoming player Rabold says bluntly, "They talk a lot about what a class organization they are, but they don't win with class or lose with class. And whenever they lose, they whine and make excuses."
•That air of superiority. No question that as the Dallas Cowboys once were America's Team, BYU fancies itself as God's Team. That doesn't play well in Laramie and San Diego and Honolulu. Says athletic director Tuckett, "We are better human beings than we are football players. We try to be good guys because we are." That sound you hear is the grinding of teeth in all the other WAC towns.
Edwards, for one, is careful not to further inflame the critics with any Tuckett-like declarations. He says that he has a tough enough time as it is recruiting big-name players from out of state. He won't even enter the fray when it comes to the single most controversial event in BYU history: the awarding of the 1984 national championship to Brigham Young. That year's Cougars went 13-0, including a 24-17 win over Michigan in the Holiday Bowl. But a sizable portion of the college football world remains convinced that an asterisk should be affixed to BYU's title, because the Cougars had fashioned their perfect record against the patsies from their own conference plus nonleague opponents Pitt, Baylor and Tulsa, none of which was ranked in the Top 20 at the end of the season. Even the Wolverines finished out of the Top 20 that season.
Edwards just shrugs and says, "I don't know at all that we were the best team in the country. All I know is that when I got this job, I looked back over my 18 years of coaching and discovered that I'd been associated with just four winning years. So nobody has been more surprised with our success than I have been."
•Sundry irritants. Outsiders charge that as long as BYU remains in the WAC, its schedule—with pushovers UTEP, New Mexico, Utah State and Utah—can never be taken seriously. Last year the only tough teams BYU played in the regular season were Florida State, UCLA and Penn State; the Cougars lost to them all, by a combined score of 104-58. There is also the perception that BYU has unlimited financial resources, which McCann denies. "We're not poor, and we're not wealthy," he says. "We're healthy." Maybe, but the church does help to fund many of the athletic facilities at the school. Some critics even hate BYU because Edwards, possessor of the third-best winning percentage (.744) among active coaches, is too nice a guy. That, for sure, can grate.
BYU, chip on shoulder firmly in place, routinely sees itself as victim. When the WAC all-conference team was named last year, Air Force and San Diego State each had five first-team players. The Cougars—the conference champs—had four. "The coaches pick the team," says Harmon. "That says something."
Lee contemplates the problem and concludes, "I do hope the solution to all this is not losing football games." And Ray Herbat, a former writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, has had it. Writes Herbat, "If Brigham Young University wants to make a major contribution to our hateful society, I plead that it get out of the WAC. It's time to find someone, something else to hate."