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 mailer 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.