BYU’s Historic Cotton Bowl Win Remembered 25 Years Later

Dec 31, 2021, 9:11 AM | Updated: 9:17 am

BYU Football - Cotton Bowl...

BYU Football defeated Kansas State in the 1997 Cotton Bowl. (Photos courtesy of Getty Images, Graphic illustration by KSL Sports)

(Photos courtesy of Getty Images, Graphic illustration by KSL Sports)

PROVO, Utah – Before starting fall camp, the 1996 BYU football team met with head coach LaVell Edwards to lay out what they wanted for the season. From a tunnel entrance with smoke out of the Southeast corner of Cougar Stadium to winning a National Championship.

Edwards’ 1996 squad, his 25th team as the head coach at BYU, had lofty goals and dreams. That big dream mentality paid off as this group is viewed as one of the greatest teams in BYU football history because they hold the distinction of being the only BYU team to play in a New Year’s Day bowl game.

The 61st edition of the Cotton Bowl featured No. 5 BYU from the WAC against No. 14 Kansas State in the Big 12 Conference.

BYU took down the Wildcats 19-15 in a game that was a sea of purple with K-State fans packing the Texas State Fairgrounds, but it was the cats in blue who took home the Cotton Bowl title.

BYU Football was out to prove The Bowl Alliance wrong

Bowl Season in 1996 was a lot different than what it is today. There was no such thing as opt-outs or questions from media and national pundits asking, “does the game mean anything?” Teams just went out and played because there were only 18 bowl games 25 years ago.

Instead of a College Football Playoff Committee, there was a Bowl Alliance. The Bowl Alliance was made up of three bowl games (Fiesta, Orange, and Sugar).

With a top-five ranking entering the postseason and a record-setting 13-1 record, BYU appeared to have the resume worthy of getting into the Fiesta Bowl to play Penn State. Instead, the corrupt Alliance led by crooked Fiesta Bowl representative John Junker announced that they picked No. 20 Texas with an 8-4 record over the Cougars.

Luckily for BYU, the WAC still had bowl tie-ins to the Holiday Bowl and Cotton Bowl for the league champion. So the Cougars secured their first-ever New Year’s Day bowl appearance by going to the 61st annual Southwestern Bell Cotton Bowl.

BYU was motivated to prove that the corrupt Alliance got it wrong. So despite the disappointment of not going to the Fiesta, BYU was inspired to show out in Dallas.

BYU was a big storyline heading into the bowl season

When BYU arrived in Dallas a week before the Cotton Bowl, they were the talk of the college football landscape.

Despite being a conference champion and No. 5 in the rankings, BYU was viewed as an underdog to the No. 14 Wildcats, who finished third at 9-2 overall in the Big 12 North Division.

BYU was a big storyline heading into the bowl season as national outlets wanted to see if the Cougars would validate the Alliance with a loss. Or would they create more debate for CFB’s polarizing postseason?

Star quarterback Steve Sarkisian graced the cover of TV Guide with a headline of “Cougars Roar” to preview the bowl season.

Legendary Coaches

The 1997 Cotton Bowl is a classic representation of college football, with two legendary coaches roaming the sidelines. Both coaches turned two programs that experienced limited success and became national players.

For BYU, Edwards was one of the most respected men in all of college football. Bill Snyder took over a K-State program that averaged two wins per season before his arrival on the opposing sideline. He got K-State to become a regular fixture in the bowl season in less than five years.

No respect from K-State

Throughout the festivities at the Cotton Bowl that ranged from a Lawry’s Prime Rib dinner to a comedy show with “Sinbad,” Kansas State players were not giving any respect to BYU.

The vibes of “this isn’t the WAC anymore” were displayed from Wildcats players throughout the week towards BYU players.

BYU used that attitude from K-State, a program also experiencing its first New Year’s Day Bowl Game, as more motivation heading into January 1.

Sea of Purple

One of the challenges that stood in BYU’s way was all the Kansas State fans that took over Dallas.

Weeks before the Cotton Bowl, BYU fans packed Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, making it more of a challenge to pay thousands for a trip to Texas.

BYU couldn’t sell out its allotment of 12,500 tickets, giving another opportunity for K-State fans to gobble up the tickets.

Wildcat fans set a Cotton Bowl record with more than 40,000 fans, surpassing Texas Tech’s 28,000 fans two years prior.

Key Players

The 1996 BYU football team was loaded with talent. It’s one of the big reasons why many Cougar fans would claim the ’96 squad is BYU’s best. Everywhere you looked on that roster, they were stacked with talent—the likes of which BYU was not accustomed to having.

At quarterback, Steve Sarkisian called the shots for BYU. The Torrance, California native was the Sammy Baugh Award winner that season. He had a stable of weapons around him at the skill positions with running backs Ronney Jenkins, Brian McKenzie, and Mark Atuaia. Atuaia became a father the night before the Cotton Bowl as his wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to their first daughter Anessa.

At receiver, K.O. Kealaluhi and Kaipo McGuire led the way to go along with two star tight ends in Chad Lewis and Itula Mili.

Mili, unfortunately, suffered a devastating knee injury on the turf at Sam Boyd Stadium in the WAC Championship game against Wyoming. During the Cotton Bowl, BYU players had hand-written “88” decals on their helmets to honor their injured star teammate who was on the sidelines sporting crutches.

The offensive line featured freshman star John Tait, Eric Bateman, and All-American candidate Larry Moore at center.

On defense, linebacker Shay Muirbrook was the heart and soul of a group that played with attitude. The backend of the defense featured one of the best cornerback tandems in program history with Omarr “The Blanket” Morgan and Tim McTyer.

For Kansas State, they were led by a pair of future NFL receivers in Kevin Lockett and Chris Canty. Lockett was the big-play receiver, while Canty was the star return man. He wasn’t the biggest star in the return game at the Cotton Bowl, though, as that distinction went to BYU’s James Dye.

But Canty was no slouch, having returned a punt for a touchdown earlier in the season.

The Wildcats quarterback was K-State journeyman Brian Kavanagh, a backup throughout his career until his senior season.

Defensively, the Cats featured an All-American defensive back in Joe Gordon.

The Game

BYU’s offensive firepower wasn’t on display in this game. Early on, it had the makings of another head-scratching performance from a LaVell team in a bowl game. BYU built an unconventional 5-0 lead early on thanks to a sack by Shay Muirbrook on Kavanagh that resulted in a safety and an Ethan Pochman field goal.

Then BYU lost the lead at the end of the second quarter when Kavanagh aired out a hail mary that landed in the hands of K-State’s Andre Anderson for a 41-yard touchdown pass as time expired. The Cats then tacked on a two-point conversion to give themselves an 8-5 lead heading into the halftime break.

K-State’s lead built even more after Kevin Lockett went to the house in the third quarter at the 9:10 mark for a 72-yard touchdown grab. BYU was suddenly down 15-5 and appeared to validate the Alliance’s thoughts on the Cougars.

But BYU’s defense tightened up from there and the offense came to life in the fourth quarter.

Muirbrook had a memorable six-sack performance in the game. The performance led to him earning a spot in the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame.

Sarkisian had some late-game heroics left in him for his final game as a BYU Cougar. First, he connected with James Dye on a 32-yard touchdown to get the comeback started with 10:55 left. Then Sarkisian found K.O. Kealaluhi with 3:39 remaining to deliver another “K.O. Punch,” just as they did to open the magical 1996 season against another Big 12 team.

Then the adage of “Defense wins Championships” came into play again as BYU needed a stop on a drive that appeared to be aided by officials who were calling phantom pass interference calls.

Omarr “The Blanket” Morgan took a gamble and jumped in front of a K-State route in the red zone to pick off Kavanagh and seal the win for BYU.

The Win

Next to the 1980 and 1984 Holiday Bowl wins, the 1997 Cotton Bowl victory for BYU is one of the great bowl moments in program history. The win kept BYU in the top five of the final rankings and capped off the first 15-game season in college football history. It was also the last bowl victory of LaVell’s time as head coach.

BYU became the first team to win 14 games in a season, which has become commonplace for teams in today’s playoff era.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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BYU’s Historic Cotton Bowl Win Remembered 25 Years Later