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A Historical Look at BYU’s Football Program

With BYU’s official inclusion into the Big 12 conference, what were the moments that got them to that point?

Phillip Davies | Associated Press

On Monday, October 17, 2016, then Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and former Oklahoma University President David Boren addressed the media after months of vetting different schools, looking to expand their conference membership. BYU had been, by many accounts, the top candidate in those conversations, but the conference ultimately chose not to expand. The people in Provo were gutted. For BYU fans, players, coaches and administrators, decades of competing, winning, and lobbying to have a seat at the table seemed to be a waste of time, money and resources.

Until they weren’t.

Because on July 21, 2021, just six days after Big 12 media days had ended, Brent Zwerneman from the Houston Chronicle broke the internet.

Texas and Oklahoma, the then flagship programs of the Big 12, had reached out to the SEC about joining the conference. The pair would go on to issue a joint statement that they intended to leave the Big 12 in 2025 and join the SEC, and were unanimously voted in just a few days after this news broke.

Bob Bowlsby and company were floored. This had come entirely out of left field for the Big 12, and they had to act fast. Texas has one of the largest brands in college football, and Oklahoma had been to the playoff four times since it’s inception in 2014. This new development caused big problems for the Big 12. The amount of both TV viewership and income was looking like it would dip significantly starting in 2026.

Bowlsby did in fact act quickly. Less than two months after the Texas and OU news dropped, the Big 12 officially invited BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF to the conference, to join on July 1, 2023.

That day has come, and BYU, along with the other new schools, has officially joined the Big 12 conference and is a full member. Their inaugural P5 football season starts in just 61 days from today, and BYU will kick off against Sam Houston in Provo at 8:15 PM MDT.

This wasn’t due to one person, one group, or one event/moment in time. This happened over decades of games, different program’s successes, different coaches, thousands of players, and countless fans. The entire story can be summed up in the saying “it takes a village to raise one child”. The BYU athletics program is that child, and the village is all who contributed in any way to BYU’s growth and success.

BYU’s Story Begins

Looking back into the distant, and not so distant, past, this all started when BYU played their first ever collegiate football game. Prior to being BYU, they were BYA (Brigham Young Academy), and played their first season in 1896. In 1922, playing in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, now BYU’s first game was played against Utah Agricultural College (now Utah State). BYU was trounced, 41-3. BYU’s first points ever scored were a field goal that was drop kicked from 25 yards. On November 14, 1922, BYU played the University of Wyoming Cowboys and they won 7-0. This was also the first time BYU ever scored a touchdown, on a 25 yard catch and run from Fullback Hunter Manson.

Their first ever season ended 1-5, and the Cougars were outscored 183-10 during the season. While this might not seem like a positive milestone, you have to start somewhere, and for BYU to run in 2023, they had to crawl (backward) in 1922.

It would take until 1929 for BYU to have a winning season. That winning season would come in as a 5-3 record under 2nd year Head Coach G. Ott Romney. BYU finished 4th in the RMC, outscoring opponents 140 to 115. In 1930, the Cougars finished 3rd in the conference, and in ‘32, BYU finished 2nd in the conference.

Up until 1942, BYU had yet to beat rival Utah. They did have three wins as BYA in the late 1800’s, but collegiately they were winless. From the first collegiate meeting in 1922, Utah had tallied up 18 wins and three ties. That all changed in 1942, when BYU traveled up to Salt Lake City and beat the Utes, 12-7. A win that would, unfortunately, be fleeting due to a major world war that had broken out in Europe.

From 1943-1945, BYU did not field a football team, and from 1946 to 1964, BYU would be a well below average football program. As college football started to become more of a nationally watched and enjoyed sport, BYU didn’t look like they could keep up. However, in 1965, under the 34 year old Tommy Hudspeth, BYU won their first ever conference championship. The Cougars had left the Skyline Conference after the 1961 season with the creation of the Western Athletic Conference. Just three years after its inaugural season, Hudspeth and Co. would post a 4-1 conference record, topping the likes of Utah, Arizona State, and Arizona en route to their first conference championship. Hudspeth went on to have 4 winning seasons in 8 years as head coach, and stepped down after the 1971 season.

This is where the fun begins.

Offensive Innovator

In 1972, the 42 year old assistant coach, Lavell Edwards, was hired as BYU’s 11th head football coach. Lavell would transform not only BYU’s program, but the way the entire college football world would manage football games. His passing attack would revolutionize the sport, and open the doors to nearly three decades of unprecedented success for the BYU football program. Edwards’ first team would finish the year 7-4, ending the season 2nd in the WAC. The football team then went 5-6 in 1973.

Then came the 1974 season. BYU’s quarterback success line would start here, with future college football hall of fame QB Gifford Neilsen and Senior QB Gary Sheide. BYU would post an undefeated WAC record and win their 2nd ever conference championship. This was also the first time in program history BYU entered the national rankings. The number 17 Cougars would go to their first ever bowl game, losing to Oklahoma State 6-16 in the Fiesta Bowl.

It seemed as if the trajectory was set. Lavell had done something no coach had ever done in BYU history. Go to a bowl game. Unbeknownst to BYU fans, the man on the sideline, sporting an eternal frown and wearing his royal blue hat with the white rope across the brim, would propel BYU to a national brand, and a national power.

Edwards went on to win 19 conference championships, including 10 straight from 1976-1985. He took BYU to 22 bowl games, and won his first bowl game in the aptly named “Miracle Bowl”, beating SMU 46-45 with some heroics from quarterback legend Jim McMahon. Among those bowl games and conference championships was the 1984 National Championship, when BYU beat Michigan in the Holiday Bowl, finishing the year 13-0. This was the pinnacle for BYU, but the history doesn’t end in ‘84.

In 1990, BYU’s home season began in Provo, playing the number one ranked Miami Hurricanes. Miami had won the 1989 national championship, and were expected by people nationwide to repeat as champions. During the game, Jr. quarterback Ty Detmer carved up the Hurricane defense, throwing for 406 yards and three touchdowns. BYU would upset the top ranked ‘canes, and Detmer would go on to win the “triple crown” of college quarterbacks. He won the Heisman, the Davey O’Brien and the Maxwell awards all in the same year.

Detmer was one of many BYU greats at quarterback. Alongside his amazing 1990 season, Edwards coached players such as Jim McMahon, Robbie Bosco, Gary Sheide, Gifford Neilsen, Steve Young, Steve Sarkesian and Brandon Doman.

Mountain West Conference Era

In 1999, BYU left the WAC and alongside many of their WAC counterparts, created the Mountain West Conference. Edwards’ squad would post an 8-3 regular season record, splitting the conference championship with the Utes. BYU would play in the Motor City Bowl, but would lose to Marshall, 21-3, in what would end up being Lavell’s final bowl game.

Edwards would go on to announce that the 2000 season would be his final as head coach of BYU. After 28 years, bringing BYU from a below average program to a college football power and household name, the legend would be stepping down. BYU had been transformed, and Cougar fans everywhere were, and continue to be up through the present moment, incredibly grateful for Lavell’s impact. In his final game of his career, BYU went up to Rice Eccles Stadium, where the 5-6 Cougs, after leading most of the game, had to make a late game comeback, ending with a diving touchdown run by quarterback Brandon Doman. The team brought Lavell a rivalry win in his final game, and he went out as one of the greatest coaches in NCAA history.

Ushering in a new era of BYU football was former Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Gary Crowton. Crowton was ahead of his time with his offensive innovation, and in his first season as BYU head coach, the Cougars got off to a wild 12-0 start, jumping up as high as number 8 in the national rankings, before losing a shocker to Hawaii in an ugly 45-72 loss in Aloha Stadium. One of the most brutal parts of this loss was that Hawaii was not in the MWC at that time, and therefore was a completely unnecessary game to be played. After the Hawaii loss, they lost their bowl game vs Louisville, 28-10.

Crowton went on to post three losing records in a row, and amongst multiple scandals facing the BYU program, was forced to step down as head coach. BYU then promoted 2nd year defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall to head coach. Bronco brought an entirely new approach to coaching the BYU program. Where Crowton brought offensive innovation, Bronco brought defensive stoutness. Where Crowton lacked in discipline, Bronco brought discipline tenfold. Bronco led BYU to a 6-6 season, but lost their bowl game vs Cal in the Las Vegas Bowl. His next season, however, would bring the taste of victory back into the mouths of Cougar fans.

BYU went 11-2, losing their two games by a combined 10 points. BYU fans were high on Bronco, and were hoping to become the next BCS busters in college football. BYU won double digit games for four years in a row, winning three MWC championships in those four years. The MWC was becoming a powerhouse conference, with BYU, Utah and TCU all finishing in the final AP top 25 at least twice (Utah twice, TCU three times, BYU four). During the 2010 season, the Pac 10 announced they would be expanding, adding Colorado and Utah to become the Pac 12. BYU was left out, and things had suddenly shifted drastically in the college football world.


Following the 2010 season, BYU announced they would also be leaving the MWC, but not to join a P5 league. They instead, would be going independent in football, and putting all olympic sports in the West Coast Conference. BYU viewed this as their only real option now that their century long conference mate was leaving for a bigger stage. The ultimate goal for Athletics Director Tom Holmoe was to propel BYU to a point where they could get invited to a P5 league. BYU cobbled together schedules year over year, gradually adding more P5 opponents and slowly growing BYU’s modern brand. From 2011-2015, BYU won 43 games. Classics games such as traveling down to Oxford to play Ole Miss in 2011, the back to back wins vs Texas with Taysom Hill, the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl where Kyle Van Noy single-handedly beat San Diego State, the coldest game in South Bend history against no. 5 Notre Dame, and the Mangum Miracle in Lincoln Nebraska were all part of this era, but near the end of the 2015 season, reports started swarming that Bronco would be leaving BYU to become the next head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers. BYU fans were thrown, as Bronco had been the coach for 11 years. People didn’t know who would be hired as the new head coach, but there was some speculation that a familiar face would be coming down from Corvallis, Oregon.

Modern-day Cougs

The Sitake Era began when former BYU fullback was announced as the next head coach of BYU. People were ecstatic as Kalani had been the defensive coordinator at Utah, fielding some of the most disruptive and effective Utah defenses the program had ever seen. Shortly after his hiring, the Big 12 expansion debacle began. BYU fans were fully expecting an invitation to join the Big 12, and with QB legend Ty Detmer running the offense, hopes were high.

That invite didn’t come, and BYU was to stay as an independent. From 2016 to 2020, Sitake brought the program to a new level. Apart from the 4-9 season in 2017, BYU continued to perform above expectations. The program beat teams such as Tennessee, Wisconsin, USC, Arizona, Michigan State and Mississippi State, and in 2020, BYU went 11-1 with future 2nd overall pick Zach Wilson. The next summer, BYU received the invite to join the Big 12.

BYU has a rich history, and things have never looked brighter than they do right now. While there will definitely be a learning curve in the Big 12, BYU is set up for long term success and fans have a lot to look forward to.