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1984 BYU Football Forced Changes In College Football System

BYU football coach LaVell Edwards walks off the field with the 1984 Holiday Bowl trophy. O Wallace Kasteler, Deseret News

PROVO, Utah  – 35 years ago, BYU football changed the way college football determined their national champions forever.

BYU’s 1984 National Championship is arguably the most controversial title a controversial sport has ever produced.

ESPN is reflecting on BYU’s 1984 title and the impact it had on the conversation surrounding college football’s national champion on their series called, “America’s Game: 150 Years of College Football.”

BYU finished the 1984 season 13-0 and defeated 6-5 Michigan in the Holiday Bowl. It was unprecedented for a National Champion to emerge from a bowl game that wasn’t played on New Years Day.

The Cougars didn’t find out they were the National Champions until after January 1 when No. 4 Washington defeated No. 2 Oklahoma in the 1985 Orange Bowl. The Associated Press then called BYU’s football offices where secretary Shirley Johnson answered the phone to the good news.

BYU’s title drew outrage from college football programs and fans around the country. CBS host Bryant Gumble once famously said, “B-Y-who? Who’d they play, Bo Diddley Tech?”

None of the teams on BYU’s 1984 schedule finished the season ranked in the Top 25. The Cougars catapulted up the polls after defeating preseason No. 3 ranked Pitt on the first-ever live ESPN college football broadcast. That win launched to No. 13 and they kept chipping away after that before ultimately landing at No. 1.

Holiday Bowl wanted a National Championship game

Leading up to the 1984 Holiday Bowl, a postseason game that had only been around for less than a decade, was trying to pit No. 1 BYU against one of the top teams in the country. To form a National Championship matchup.

Washington, Maryland, and Auburn were all invited to play in the Holiday Bowl but none of them accepted and they opted to play in their big-money bowls.

Oklahoma, who was coached by Barry Switzer and was the most vocal about BYU not deserving the National Championship, was offered to play BYU in the 1985 Kickoff Classic to open the season the following year in East Rutherford but declined.

The Holiday Bowl wanted to give BYU a better opponent, but no one wanted to play in that game other than the 6-5 Michigan Wolverines who earlier in the year had defeated No. 1 ranked Miami to open that season.

BYU has forced change in most of the systems since

After BYU’s 1984 National Title, college football powerbrokers looked to prevent “another BYU” type of championship from happening again. Say hello to the Bowl Coalition in 1992 which looked to create a true National Championship game.

Three years into the Bowl Coalition, BYU in 1994 had a 10-win season and was in the top 10 rankings looking to be in one of those coalition games.

In 1995, the Bowl Alliance was created featuring the major conferences and Notre Dame teams in the big bowl games. The Alliance created one at-large bid each year. The second-year into the Alliance, BYU had a 13-1 record and was ranked in the Top-10 heading into the bowl season and in position to secure a bid in the Fiesta Bowl. Instead, John Junker – who was later jailed for illegal campaigns with the Fiesta Bowl – opted to have 8-4 Texas play 10-2 Penn State instead.

Scrap the Alliance, say hello to the Bowl Championship Series. More commonly known as the “BCS.”

The goal of the BCS was to pit No. 1 vs. No. 2 against one another each and every year in one of the major bowl games. The method of determining No. 1 vs. No. 2 would be through the computers and algorithms to determine college football’s champion.

The BCS had no access to teams outside of the big conferences and Notre Dame. In 1998, Tulane, who defeated BYU in the Liberty Bowl, finished undefeated and didn’t sniff the BCS bowl system.

Three years later, BYU with first-year head coach Gary Crowton started their regular season 12-0 and featured one of the nation’s best offenses. Before playing their final regular-season game at Hawaii, the Cougars were eliminated from consideration for a BCS game.

Leading up to that Hawaii game, there was a consideration from BYU’s Athletic Director Val Hale to sue the BCS for an anti-trust lawsuit.

Shortly after BYU’s threats to sue, the BCS opened the door for “Non-BCS” programs to qualify for BCS bowls. Looking at you 2004 Utah, 2006 Boise State, 2007 Hawaii, 2008 Utah.

Now because of all the changes in college football, it’s hard to imagine a program like BYU ever getting a fair shot at another National Championship.

You can watch ESPN’s Americas Game on their linear networks and WatchESPN.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12-3 pm) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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