PROVO — It was the golden age of BYU sports. The late 1970s and early 1980s were to Cougar athletics what the ’60s and ’70s were to rock ’n’ roll.
In 1980, Jim McMahon threw a Hail Mary touchdown pass to complete a 20-point comeback in the final three minutes of the Holiday Bowl, later to be known as the Miracle Bowl. Three months later, Danny Ainge famously dribbled from one end of the court to the other to beat Notre Dame and send the Cougars to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Later that spring the BYU golf team won the NCAA championship.
The football team produced All-American and future NFL quarterbacks like an assembly line. After a half-century of futility, the Cougars won conference championships with boring regularity and in 1984 won the national championship. That same year BYU graduates Paul Cummings, Doug Padilla and Henry Marsh won the three distance races at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Los Angeles, and Ed Eyestone was the NCAA cross-country champion (a year later he would claim the triple crown of distance running by winning NCAA titles in cross-country and the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs in track). Wally Joyner, Cory Snyder and Rick Aguilera made waves in the major leagues. McMahon won the Super Bowl. It seemed the run of BYU fortune would never end.
But it did.
Interviews with former coaches, former BYU athletic directors, players, alumni and an analysis of decades of results reveal a troubling pattern of decline as societal changes, politics and big money stand in contrast to BYU’s commitment to its honor code and religious and educational mission.
Can BYU overcome the obstacles and return to athletic excellence in such an environment? Athletic director Tom Holmoe, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has maintained a level of optimism, telling reporters last November, “We control our own future. I’m convinced we have a fantastic future ahead of us.”
Others are not so sure.
Football and basketball
The football team, the flagship of the program, is back where it started before LaVell Edwards pumped life into it. Supporters note BYU was ranked a respectable 31st last year in the Directors’ Cup rankings — the measure of a school’s performance in all sports combined — but this was based on the performance of baseball, softball, women’s soccer, men’s…