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Remembering BYU's 1980 Miracle Bowl & Other Unforgettable Moments in the Team's History

As BYU gears up to play the University of Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl this Saturday, here's  a look at BYU's miraculous victory in the same bowl game 35 years ago, as well as other exciting highlights in BYU football history.

On December 1, 2015, Brigham Young University accepted an invitation for its football team to play in the 2015 edition of The Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl to be played on December 19. This will be the fifth time that BYU has been invited to that bowl game, where they played each year from 2005 through 2009. BYU has played in many bowl games the week before Christmas, including the 1984 Holiday Bowl played on December 21, 1984, which gave the Cougars their only football National Championship. This year’s Las Vegas Bowl will be only the second time they have played a bowl game on December 19 out of the 33 bowl games they have played in, going back to their first one in 1974. 

Loyal Cougar fans will recall the first December 19 bowl game: December 19, 1980, in San Diego at the Third Annual Holiday Bowl. That is a game that most Cougar fans who were alive at the time have never forgotten. In fact, many of those fans have claim “I remember where I was when I heard that JFK had been shot and I remember where I was during Holiday Bowl III.”

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In July 2015, the official website of the National Football League, nfl.com, hosted a month-long online contest which it titled “Greatest CFB Plays,” CFB being an acronym for “College Football.” The contest began with 24 of the most famous plays in college football history, going back well over 50 years. Such famous plays as Billy Cannon’s Halloween Run from 1959 to the LSU Bluegrass Miracle, the Boise State Statue of Liberty from 2007, Hail Flutie from 1984, the Cal-Stanford band fiasco in 1982, and Joe Montana’s famous Chicken Soup Cotton Bowl for Notre Dame in 1978 were included in the opening brackets. It should probably come as no surprise to local college football fans that the famous Hail Mary pass from Jim McMahon to Clay Brown to tie the 1980 Holiday Bowl between BYU and SMU with no time left on the clock was included in the contest.

The nfl.com contest was divided into four regions and proceeded with several rounds of eliminations until the winner was declared at the end of the month.  McMahon’s Hail Mary (as it was called in the contest) was a number four seed in a region with “The Play” of Stanford band/Cal; Lindsay Scott’s 92 yard TD with a little over a minute remaining in another 1980 game between Georgia and Florida; Montana’s Cotton Bowl comeback (after some flu-induced drama on the Notre Dame sideline for Montana); and Herschel Walker’s first TD for the Georgia Bulldogs, where, as a true freshman running back for Georgia, he scored his first touchdown to lead Georgia to a victory over Tennessee. The final game listed in BYU’s “region” was Hail Flutie, the moniker given to Doug Flutie’s famous last-second heave that gave Boston College a victory over the reigning National Champion Miami Hurricanes in 1984. 

McMahon’s Hail Mary first defeated the Cal/Stanford band play by a close margin of 51 percent to 49 percent of the vote. In the second round, McMahon’s Hail Mary defeated Hail Flutie, 86 percent to 14 percent, to win its region and reach the final four of the contest. The other winners of the four regions were: the 2002 LSU Blue Grass Miracle, Cannon’s Halloween Run, and the Auburn “kick Six” from the 2013 Auburn Alabama game where, with the game tied and one second left on the game clock, Alabama attempted a field goal to win the game. However, the kick fell a few yards short and Auburn’s Chris Davis fielded the kick deep in the end zone and returned it 109 yards for an improbable game-winning touchdown for Auburn. In the semi-finals, the Auburn kick six defeated McMahon’s Hail Mary, 52 percent to 48 percent. Then, in the finals, the Auburn play also defeated the LSU Bluegrass Miracle.  

It has been 35 years since the so-called “BYU Miracle Bowl” was played in San Diego, on a cool, foggy night that is etched in the memory every BYU Cougar fan who was alive at the time. Those were heady times for Cougar Nation: in December 1980, Jim McMahon and his tight-end Clay Brown connected on one of the most memorable Hail Mary pass plays of all time (one that is identified as prime example of what a Hail Mary pass is in Wikipedia) and a few months later Danny Ainge made the equally famous coast to coast dash around and through the Notre Dame defense for a layup (which does not do justice to the shot that Ainge made over the considerable reach of Notre Dame defender Orlando Woolridge) that put BYU into its first (and, so far, only) trip to the round of Elite Eight in the annual NCAA basketball tournament. Members of Cougar Nation needed to regularly pinch themselves to make sure those two unbelievable victories were not just dreams.

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In October of this year, NCAA.com ran a story identifying the best last-second game-winning touchdowns in college football history. Two BYU plays made the list, including the 2015 Tanner Mangum to Mitch Mathews game-winner against Nebraska and the McMahon to Brown Hail Mary in the Miracle Bowl. Following BYU’s Hail Mary victory over Nebraska in September, Jason Alsher, writing for The Cheat Sheet, offered his views on the Greatest Hail Mary Passes of All Time and he listed the McMahon to Brown Hail Mary in The Miracle Bowl as number three. He describes the drama as follows:

“The 1980 Holiday Bowl between the BYU Cougars and the SMU Mustangs will forever be known as ‘The Miracle Bowl.’ That’s usually what happens when a team is down 45-25 with less than three minutes to play only to make a furious comeback and win the game on an impossible Hail Mary pass launched from its own 46-yard line. . . . . For the Cougars and stud quarterback Jim McMahon-who finished the game completing 32 of 49 passes for 446 passing yards and four touchdowns–the game was nothing short of ‘a miracle.’” 

The BYU Miracle Bowl game has received many such accolades over the years and is always near the top of any list of greatest comebacks, Hail Marys, sports miracles, and so forth. For example, in an article published on sportsthenandnow.com entitled “Do You Believe in Miracles? Top 20 Miracles in Sports History” The BYU Miracle bowl is listed as the number 11 sports miracle of all time. Number 10 on the list is the so-called 1954 Milan Miracle, which was the inspiration for the great basketball movie “Hoosiers.” It is no surprise that the 1980 USA hockey Lake Placid Olympic victory over the USSR juggernaut known as “The Miracle on Ice” made the top of that list.         

Football fans, particularly BYU football fans, well remember the headlines of the BYU comeback and victory, and many recall that the McMahon to Brown Hail Mary pass won the game with no time on the clock. There is a little more to the story than that.  In fact, I thought there was so much more to the story that I wrote a book about the 1980 Holiday Bowl entitled Hail Mary - The Inside Story of BYU’s 1980 Miracle Bowl Victoryto tell the rest of the story. One of the stories recounted in that book is the long running joke that I, and others, used to tell about that game, namely that, in the game between the Mormons and the Methodists, the Catholics won. Jim McMahon and Clay Brown are Catholics and Bill Schoepflin, who blocked the punt for BYU to put the ball back in McMahon’s All-American hands with a few ticks left on the clock, was Catholic at the time, though he has since converted to Mormonism.

Once, when I had the opportunity to introduce Coach LaVell Edwards as a speaker, I told that joke as a way to break the ice (although anyone who has heard Coach Edwards speak or knows him at all knows no ice needs to be broken). When Coach Edwards got the microphone he clarified, “Wait a minute Ryan, you are wrong.  Remember, the Catholics only tied the game? It was our kicker, returned (LDS) missionary Kurt Gunther, who actually won the game for us!” I should have known better than to attempt to put one past Coach Edwards.

One story from that game that not many people are aware of is how much drama surrounded that no-time-on-the-clock, game-winning kick by Kurt Gunther. In his foreword to the book, award-winning writer, Lee Benson, (who covered the game as a sportswriter for The Deseret News), explained the situation as follows:

“I remember Brown catching the ball and lying flat in the end zone, Sikahema’s punt return for a touchdown, Johnson’s onside kick, Braga’s diving end zone catch, Schoepflin’s block of the last SMU punt.  What I don’t remember is the drama surrounding Kurt Gunther’s game winning kick . . . .  Because I never knew any of that until Ryan Tibbitts told me."     

At the time of Holiday Bowl III in 1980, BYU was zero for four in bowl games. BYU and Coach Edwards desperately needed a bowl victory to legitimize and validate Coach Edwards’s pass happy offense. We would be at the top of the statistics every year in passing, scoring, total offense, and in the national rankings, but then lose the bowl game. In 1979, BYU ended the season undefeated at 11–0, leading the nation in most offensive categories and ranked number nine in the polls. In Holiday Bowl II, they were playing what was thought to be a mediocre Indiana team that was not ranked, and which had a 7-4 record. The Indiana team came to play with a chip on its shoulder and the game was close throughout, with the lead changing hands several times. With seven seconds left in the game, BYU had a chance to win the game on a short field goal, but the kick was missed and BYU lost 38-37. The ending of that game haunted the team for a year. 

In the 1980 game, after the McMahon to Brown Hail Mary tied the game at 45 to 45, with no time on the clock, BYU’s kicker, Kurt Gunther, trotted on the field to attempt the game-winning extra point. The last thing he heard as he ran onto the field was one of the assistant coaches telling Coach Edwards that we should go for a two-point conversion rather than risk another botched kick like had doomed BYU in the 1979 Holiday Bowl. As if there wasn’t already enough pressure on Gunther to win the game in the glare of that final kick. He took the field knowing there were some who were very nervous that he would miss the kick. (In 1980 there was no overtime protocol in college football and the game would have ended in a tie and faded into history as another BYU failure to win a bowl game.) As he lined up for that game winning kick, Gunther did not know that what appears to be a fairly simply and routine process of snap, hold, kick was about to become very complicated. 

There was so much drama and excitement surrounding BYU’s unbelievable comeback and then the final Hail Mary play that all of the players were understandably hyped up and very, very excited. BYU’s long snapper, Corey Pace, had one additional reason to be overly excited—he was scheduled to be married in the Los Angeles LDS Temple the next morning. When the signal was given for Pace to snap the ball, he waited a split second to take a deep breath and make sure the snap was perfect, which it was, if a bit late. Because the snap usually came back to the holder, like clockwork, as soon as the signal was given, Gunther started his approach to the ball. This time, the ball did not come as scheduled while Pace took his deep breath, so Gunther had to take a stutter step to slow himself down, or he would have arrived at the spot before the ball was there. That stutter step can be seen on the high end zone replay camera, and it shows that when he took that step he slipped a little and almost lost his balance. Gratefully, the snap finally arrived and Gunther regained his balance enough to make the kick—right down the middle, if maybe with a little less power than he usually had on his kicks. 

Given the late snap, Schoepflin, explained the situation with the deadpan “It didn’t come cleanly, for sure, but just as I began to wonder what to do next, the ball came and I got it down for the kick.” He knew he had to get the ball down faster than usual. In that haste, he barely got the ball down on Gunther’s kicking tee. That too can be seen on the replay. After everything else, Gunther said he was afraid the ball would slip off of the tee just as he tried to kick it. Fortunately, Schoepflin got a fraction of an inch of purchase on the tee with the tip of the ball and Gunther’s recalibrated toe (after his near fall) hit the mark. After five attempts, BYU finally had a bowl victory—one that has been in the news for 35 years—and legendary Coach Edwards had a perfect punch line to the joke about how in the game between the Mormons and the Methodists, the Catholics won.


For more, check out Tibbetts' book Hail Mary.

The BYU Miracle Bowl: 35 Years in the News and No End in Sight