“BYU Football Success Spotlights School, Church,” Ensign, Mar. 1985, 78–80
It was a snowy day in the spring of 1984, and LaVell Edwards was wondering if his Brigham Young University Cougar football team should be outside practicing in weather like that. But the student athletes were working hard and having fun, so he let them continue.
This group had some outstanding qualities; for one thing, they were “a bunch of unselfish people” who seemed to be doing their best to work with and for one another, the coach recalls.
So after the practice Brother Edwards told them that if they continued to play that way, “something special” might well happen during their football season. He was thinking they might be able to capture the football championship again in their own Western Athletic Conference (WAC). BYU’s football team had been champions or co-champions eight years in a row, but they were not expected to win the title in 1984.
The final result went far beyond what the team or coach had hoped. By the end of the football bowl games on New Year’s Day, the Cougars had not only won the WAC championship, they could also claim the title of U.S. national football champions.
How did it happen, and what does it mean? Sportswriters and fans were puzzling over those questions at the end of the season, but from different perspectives.
Many sportswriters wondered how a team from the unheralded WAC could be rated number one in the United States. An introspective feature article in the January 14 issue of Sports Illustrated concluded that the world of football has changed. Teams which formerly were also-rans are downing traditional powerhouses regularly, and that trend is expected to continue. Aided by National Collegiate Athletic Association efforts to achieve “parity” through limiting every school to the same number of football scholarships, these teams have gained a more equal foothold with some of the old giants. Many of these new football powers have done it through systematized passing of the football, a strategy BYU has mastered. It can be expected, said Sports Illustrated writer John Underwood, that along with the Cougars, other unsung teams will rise to the top in the future.
It’s a new world of uncertainty, but “the fans like it because it’s fun,” he wrote. “A tip of the cap to BYU, and may the 1985 season come soon.”
“What does it mean?” is a different question for fans, or even for those who simply have an allegiance to BYU but have difficulty following the intricacies of North American football. It is a complex, often confusing game that seems a social phenomenon as much as a sport. For many members of the Church, the question really becomes, “What does this mean for BYU, and for the Church?”
The answer to that one is much clearer than the answer to the sportswriters’ dilemma.
“I suppose there’s nothing in the history of the university that has brought us the attention in the media that this has,” reflects BYU President Jeffrey R. Holland. The attention has brought into focus for many people around the country the school’s other good points, including its high moral and academic standards rooted in gospel values. A letter from one football enthusiast was typical of many; the writer, excited by BYU’s performance, wanted to know more about the school where champion athletes follow a Code of Honor, live clean lives, and do not feel the macho obligation to “party” as do their opponents at some other schools.
Brother Edwards expressed gratitude for the BYU administration’s support of the football program in its role as part of the academic experience for student athletes. Characteristically, he insists that the credit for the program’s success must be shared with his hard-working team and talented coaching staff. He says he believes in putting together a good staff and letting them do their job. “The importance of organization can’t be overemphasized.”
Not only did the 1984 team win thirteen straight games (its twenty-four-game winning streak is currently the longest in the nation), it was ranked number one in every major poll—Associated Press, United Press International, Sports Illustrated, Washington Touchdown Club, and Cable News Network/USA Today. The Cougars won the Grantland Rice Trophy from the Football Writers Association and the MacArthur Bowl from the National Football Foundation; both are emblems of national superiority.
At the same time, BYU’s coach was receiving national recognition. He was named coach of the year by the American Football Coaches Association, United Press International (also in voting by coaches), Kodak, and the Washington Touchdown Club. The culmination of a trip to Washington, D.C., to collect some of those honors was a brief meeting in the White House with the nation’s Chief Executive, President Ronald Reagan.
More important than the honors, perhaps, is Brother Edwards’ reputation as a moral, compassionate man. Frequently when BYU games are televised, announcers respond to closeups of LaVell Edwards on the sidelines with comments that there indeed is a fine man, one of the nicest coaches in football. Washington Post staff writer John Ed Bradley wrote of him January 13: “Edwards was honored in Washington last night for being the nation’s college coach of the year. But another award of merit should have been bestowed upon him for the strength and courage and graciousness he displayed throughout this long year of malcontents and crybabies,” a reference to those who opposed BYU’s number one ranking at season’s end because the school was not from a league with a well-known football tradition.
Brother Edwards’ reputation is due in large part to the values and standards he upholds. He has consistently maintained that there are things more important than football in his life—notably, being a good Christian and having a family strong in the gospel. Much of his philosophy as a coach sounds as though it’s rooted in the gospel:
—Athletic prowess, like any talent, is just a form of expression.
—One of the most important things an athlete needs is concentration, the power to focus in closely on what must be done, shutting out doubt and fear, which keep one from reaching full potential.
—Athletics, like any other earthly pursuit, must be kept in perspective. It is when one loses sight of gospel principles that problems occur in other areas of life.
—Young men can spend two years serving a mission without giving up an athletic career. (When Brother Edwards spoke at the priesthood session of the October 1984 general conference, he pointed out that there were more than fifty returned missionaries on the BYU football team. “If I could draw one general conclusion, it would be that if an athlete could play well before he went on a mission, he will definitely play well when he returns.”)
In a Washington, D.C., fireside shortly before receiving one of his coaching honors, Brother Edwards gave the congregation, especially the young people, three points of counsel which apply in the lives of athlete and nonathlete alike: (1) Recognize that you have potential and then “extend yourself” in achieving it. (2) Be responsive to the needs of those around you. (3) “Above all, be honest with yourself. Stop—reflect about yourself and what you’re really doing.”
It may be that counsel like that and the influence it has in the lives of the young men he coaches is at least partly responsible for the team’s national championship. BYU had many critics in connection with its national ranking, but it also had its defenders. In addition to the Cougars’ football performance, a number of commentators spotlighted the high moral values of the school and took pains to explain the religious commitment of team members who had served missions. Wrote Wally Provost of the Omaha (Nebraska) World-Herald: “I have a feeling that confirmation of BYU as a team worthy of the national championship might be good for what ails college football and many other sports.” Dallas Times Herald writer Frank Luska said: “I want BYU to be national champion so that, just for once, it won’t go to a campus where football has become heavy industry.”