BYU officials were almost looking forward to their football
team's victimization. The players and coaches most certainly
were not. The players practiced all week for last Saturday's
inaugural Western Athletic Conference championship game against
Wyoming, certain that one of them would make an $8 million pass,
tackle or kick. (A player would later lay claim to having called
an "$8 million timeout.") That's what the team thought it was
playing for: an at-large berth from the bowl alliance, the group
that determines who takes part in the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar
bowls and an accompanying purse of around $8.5 million.
But everybody else at the school pretty much knew that there
would be no such postseason payday, no matter how easily the
Cougars won, no matter how high they were ranked, no matter how
deserving of the at-large berth they were. And, to tell you the
truth, some folks at BYU kind of liked it that way.
At Brigham Young, you see, persecution has its advantages. The
school's 1984 national-championship season is the best example.
The anointing of the Cougars that year caused so much
debate--undefeated, yes, but what about their schedule?--that
BYU attracted an astounding amount of publicity. This time the
Cougars would again find themselves at the center of a lively
debate. They would win the WAC in a 28-25 overtime shoot-out
with the Cowboys, finish the regular season 13-1, climb to No. 5
in the polls (thereby meeting all alliance criteria) and still
be excluded from the big-money bowls. Didn't BYU deserve better?
School officials knew going into the game that their team, so
little respected by the bowl committees who make the alliance's
at-large selections, would benefit no matter how the WAC title
game turned out. "We have enjoyed publicity we couldn't have
bought," BYU's athletic director, Rondo Fehlberg, said last
Friday. "Clearly, we'd rather go to the Fiesta Bowl. But whether
we get in or not, everybody will be talking about us."
Well, everybody was, one way or another. And if they weren't
talking about BYU, they were talking about the alliance, whose
agenda has invited more conspiracy theories than the Kennedy
assassination. For some reason, at least as people at Brigham
Young saw it, the alliance was conspiring to keep the Cougars
out of any of its bowls.
Old saying: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're
not out to get you. On Sunday the alliance chose Nebraska and
Penn State as its two at-large teams, excluding BYU.
Surprisingly, the decision hurt the WAC more than it did BYU.
Had Brigham Young snared an at-large berth, the other 15
conference members would have divvied up about $7 million of the
$8.5 million pot; instead, they will divide about $1.1 million
of the $2 million payment that the Cougars will receive for
playing Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. Wyoming ended up as the
biggest loser. Besides no $7 million pot to share, the Cowboys
also were denied the $1.4 million payout they hoped to receive
for playing in the Holiday Bowl. When bowl bids were finalized
on Sunday, the 10-2 Cowboys weren't invited to that or any other
postseason game, while 6-5 California was invited to the Aloha
Bowl and 7-5 Wisconsin to the Copper Bowl.
Happily, the players were so sufficiently insulated from the
financial considerations and bowl intrigue that they could play
football. And even without such side issues, Saturday's game was
a pretty good attraction. Given that the WAC title game, between
the Mountain and the Pacific Division champions (BYU and
Wyoming, respectively), was to be played in Las Vegas, it was
going to be enough fun just to watch the Cougars and their fans
try to keep their morals intact.
In truth, Brigham Young is no longer college football's
equivalent of the Amish. It is a big-time program that has been
bringing in junior college transfers, more minorities--more
players. Half the skill positions on this year's team, in fact,
are staffed by non-Mormons.
Still, BYU remains very different, no matter how pragmatic it
has become in its recruiting. At its core are beefy church
members with two-year missions behind them, an aversion to
things caffeinated and a collective sense of values that would
make Norman Rockwell seem libertine by comparison. What other
school in the country would put out a press release that
mentions the number of Eagle Scouts (36) on the team? "To
understand BYU," says Fehlberg, "you'd have to watch about eight
hours of Ozzie and Harriet. I mean, this is a school that's
rushing headlong into the 1960s."
He's off by a decade, of course, but the football is very 1990s.
LaVell Edwards, in his 25th year as coach of the Cougars, is not
old-fashioned when it comes to offense. Shocked by last year's
nonbowl season, BYU's first in 18 years, Edwards regained his
focus and put together another of his superb aerial attacks,
featuring the country's top-rated passer, Steve Sarkisian.
The 66-year-old Edwards remains old-fashioned only in his ideas
of what 20-year-old kids consider fun. He thought everybody
might enjoy Starlight Express, which is still playing Vegas. The
show proved to be an eye-roller for some of the Cougars, who
probably wished they were just a little less wholesome this one
However, if some from BYU didn't have much fun on the Strip,
they had a chance to make up for it on Saturday. A game between
teams that each averaged 40 points guaranteed excitement--if not
a trip to an alliance bowl.
Wyoming, which came in with the country's No. 1 passing offense
(Josh Wallwork to Marcus Harris), was overlooked in ways the
Cougars couldn't imagine. Their schedule was even more suspect
than BYU's, and it didn't help that their coach, Joe Tiller, had
announced that he was departing for Purdue at season's end. But
after the Cougars jumped to a 13-0 halftime lead, the Cowboys
roared back on two fourth-quarter touchdown catches by senior
wideout David Saraf to go up 25-20.
Not even Oliver Stone could have dreamed up what happened next.
After stopping a BYU drive on the Wyoming two-yard line with
2:57 to play in regulation, the Cowboys couldn't move on offense
and, instead of punting out of the end zone to the dangerous
James Dye, took a safety.
"A brilliant call," argued Tiller, and, startlingly enough, it
almost was. The Cougars took the ensuing free kick and on seven
plays moved 57 yards to the Cowboys' three--but nearly ran out
of time. BYU thought a pass to Mark Atuaia had fallen incomplete
to stop the clock, when in fact the referee had ruled that
Atuaia had caught the ball, and the clock kept running. Senior
receiver Kaipo McGuire alertly called timeout with a second
left, and senior Ethan Pochman, a walk-on who hadn't played high
school football, made a 20-yard field goal to tie the game.
Wyoming failed to capitalize on its overtime possession, and
four plays later Pochman kicked a 32-yard field goal to give the
Cougars the victory.
In the pandemonium that followed (kids flooding the field and
some decidedly unwholesome attempts to bring down a goalpost),
it was briefly forgotten that Pochman's kick might have been an
$8 million boot. Or that betrayal might await BYU the next day
by the alliance. Or any of that stuff. For a moment it seemed
like nothing more than one of those terrific games that
20-year-old kids sometimes put on for the rest of us. Just for a
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Len Sexton (12) and the Cowboys gave the Cougars all they could handle but lost the WAC title in OT. [Len Sexton and two others in game]