Rivalry week is upon us, and it has brought with it a largely inconvenient snow storm which has afforded me the convenience of having some extra time on my hands. I have been thinking a lot about this BYU-Utah rivalry that we call the Holy War. Those that know it call it the most intense rivalry they know. Those that don’t know it swear that it can’t be all that big a deal. So long as it’s being played on the Mtn family of networks, the best way to share it is word of mouth. Thankfully, that will not be the case next year. For now, I thought I would do my part by sharing what this rivalry means to me.
You may have guessed that I am a BYU fan. Like many of my peers, I graduated from BYU. Unlike many of them, my fanaticism didn’t begin until I first came to Provo. I grew up in Iowa, the son of a Mormon couple that had converted to the religion shortly before I was born. My dad was and still is a huge NFL fan (Vikings). While I’m sure he enjoyed the occasional college game, his passion was always with the NFL. So during my youth, I agreed.
While I didn’t follow BYU sports, I knew from a young age that I wanted to go to BYU. It kills me now that I missed out on the great BYU football teams of the 90’s (I was too young to have remembered the ’84 team). But I did have the goal to attend BYU, and that was the only college to which I applied. I began attending in the fall of 2000, and one of the first things I did was to purchase an all-sport pass. I did still have a predisposition to favor the NFL, but as I was attending BYU, I decided to go to the games.
That year I learned about the Legendary Lavell Edwards. I heard about the great BYU teams of the past, and of the program’s rich history. I very quickly became excited about the games and was happy to be a witness to Lavell’s final season. We won most of our home games that season, but those were peppered with several road losses. At the time, we attended games at Cougar Stadium. I remember there was talk that they would name the field after Lavell, and leave the stadium name unchanged. Most people I knew were upset, and felt the stadium itself should be renamed. Well, it happened just so, and BYU won their final home game that year in the newly renamed Lavell Edwards Stadium.
That brought the Cougars to 5-6 on the year, with their only remaining game being the Utah game, which would be played in Salt Lake City. My friends referred to the game as “The Holy War”, and told me it was a big deal – the biggest deal in the state. The game took on added significance that year, as it was Lavell’s final season, and he hadn’t coached a losing season since 1973. I didn’t know how big a deal it really was, but I knew enough to know I had to be there.
Did I mention that I didn’t know a whole lot about college football? I bought four tickets, from the University of Utah website. My friends and I loaded up the car, stuck the BYU flag out the window, and headed North. We found ourselves in the middle of a Utah fan section. We endured some mild taunting before the game, but nothing you wouldn’t encounter in any high school rivalry game.
The game started ominously, with Utah getting a pick-6 in the first minute. After that, it was all BYU, who ended the third quarter up 26-10. I will say this – the Ute crowd is most tolerable when you’re beating their team. Utah began a turnaround in the fourth quarter, and used a field goal and two touchdowns to take a 27-26 lead with only 2:12 left in the game.
Brandon Doman took the field, with an opportunity to win the game. I knew this moment could be really special, or really crappy. It started out crappy, with an incomplete pass, a sack, and a short gain. The Cougars faced 4th and 13 from their own 17 yard line, and the game was all but over. Then, inexplicably, something amazing happened. Doman scrambled and was able to connect with Jonathan Pittman for a 34 yard pass, and BYU was at mid-field, and I began to believe. On the very next play, Doman completed to Pittman for another 36 yards, and the Cougars were on the Utah 13. Two plays later, with only 23 seconds remaining, Brandon Doman ran the ball, and fell just over the goal line. A two-point conversion put the Cougars up 34-27, and the game soon ended with the same score.
It took me awhile to process what I’d witnessed. All I knew was that I had seen something greater than I could ever witness in a professional game. Even now I’m not sure I fully appreciate what I witnessed there, because I have seen the same thing happen against Utah over and over. Since my first Holy War, I have witnessed Beck to Harline, Hall to Collie, and Hall to George. Phrases like, “Harline’s still open”, “Magic happens”, and “4th and 18” have hallmarked the last few years, but to me, they are all continuations of that first Holy War that I witnessed first-hand, in my first season as a Cougar fan.
I can’t lie and say that I haven’t been there for Holy Wars that we’ve lost. I was there, hoping for a miracle when Utah beat us 3-0 in the snow at LES. I was there when we got blown out in 2004. The “magic” doesn’t happen in every game, neither does it happen every year. But it does seem to show itself most often when these two schools get together.
We may not like each other, but we are brothers: interconnected by proximity, religion, success, and a desire to compete at increasingly higher levels. We have built our programs together, to compete with one another, and we have had more shared success than any other schools in our conferences. We have propelled each other toward greatness; the Pac 12 and Independence await, but not before we have one more chance to see which team the “magic” will favor.