PROVO, Utah — The last time I was in Provo was about six or seven years ago. My buddy and I were in town for the Utah-Utah State opener up in Salt Lake City as part of our work for the College Football America Yearbook.
Our publisher told us that we needed to head to Provo and see LaVell Edwards Stadium, the home of the BYU Cougars. He had been there a couple of years prior for the Texas-BYU game and raved about the place.
It wasn’t a long drive. We had plenty of time to kill. The only thing we weren’t sure about was whether the stadium would be open. BYU was out of town that weekend.
It was wide open that early September afternoon. We walked around, admired the view of the mountains from the ground level and climbed the stands to get the best shots we could for our book the next year.
Naturally, the stadium was empty. But I said to myself, “Someday I have to come back here when it’s full.”
That night arrived on Friday. Auspiciously, it was BYU’s first home Big 12 game as the Cougars hosted Cincinnati. It was also the first “Big 12 After Dark” game, something that we who cover the league and fans alike are going to have to get used to as the league expands further westward next season.
The Cougars did not disappoint in terms of gameday. If anything, everyone in Provo released a bit of pent-up frustration from the past decade-plus.
I’ve always had the sense that BYU has always wanted to play in a big-time football conference, and it’s most convenient entrance to that world, the Pac-12, has never wanted them (which is probably a good thing right now). When the Cougars won their national title in 1984, they did so in the Western Athletic Conference, which eventually gave up on FBS football more than a decade ago. Its FCS re-boot didn’t go that well, either.
When the Cougars went independent after leaving the Mountain West after the 2010 season, I wasn’t sure what would happen to them. Independence is hard. I was confident BYU had a brand that could sustain it, having seen how they traveled to the Cotton Bowl in the mid-1990s and to Texas more than a decade ago when they played the Longhorns in Austin. I’ve told people for years that BYU is a national brand and I seemed to get chuckled at when I suggest it.
But how many colleges do you know that have their own nationwide television and radio station? I mean, my dad gets it on his cable carrier in Gilmer, Texas.
I felt the Big 12 made an error not adding them sooner. The league explored expansion several years ago and BYU was one of the schools considered. The effort was scuttled, in part because Oklahoma and Texas voted against it. I thought at the time the Big 12 would rue the day.
Well, they didn’t. Two years ago the Big 12 eagerly took in BYU (along with Cincinnati) and the Cougars eagerly accepted the invite.
BYU is Ready
Truth is, the Cougars were already ready for this moment. They just needed a home. The Big 12 finally provided it. Friday night, a night the Cougars have typically owned during football season due to its independent contract with ESPN, was its coming out party as a Power 5 team (or is it Power 4? Have we decided yet?).
Things got started well before the game. The Cougar Walk saw BYU’s players and coaches walk down the path outside the stadium and into the stadium, with several thousand students already in their seats two hours before the game. Head coach Kalani Sitake walked in last, acting more like a hype man than a head coach. He even danced a little. They ate it up.
Pre-game was pretty normal. Fans filing in. Players warming up. The mountains disappearing into the darkness as the sun set. The BYU TV pre-game show going on in one corner of the stadium. Ok that’s a little abnormal for the Big 12.
Before the game they ‘Light the Y,’ which is a large Y that sets in one corner of the stadium (and the ‘Y’ that sets on the mountain overlooking the stadium does light up when it’s dark, which is super cool).
The band is exceptional and, naturally, their pre-game performance ends with them making a ‘Y’ before spelling out ‘BYU’ and playing the fight song.
And you know how they “Run the T’ at Tennessee? Well they run the “Y” at BYU, with plenty of fireworks and pyrotechnics as the players take the field.
It’s hard to describe the student section. Like Cincinnati’s the weekend before, it’s immense. BYU’s takes up at least six full sections, from the field level all the way up to the top of the bowl. There’s no upper deck at LaVell Edwards, yet the place seats more than 60,000. And when it’s loud it’s LOUD. When Jakob Robinson picked off Cincinnati’s Emory Jones early in the game and returned it for a touchdown, the place erupted.
Cosmo, BYU’s mascot, is a daredevil. If you’ve seen his videos on social media, you know he has a fascination with fire (or she — I mean, we don’t know who’s in that suit?). Anyway, his entertainment on Friday was to do backflips while jumping over two jump ropes on fire. You know, the usual stuff.
If you get to a game try a CougarTail, a 16-inch maple bar that the BYU dining staff makes two miles’ worth to sell on gameday. Had a bit of one. Quite good.
Friday the Cougars drew 63,834, a sellout and their biggest crowd since a 2009 game with Utah.
Yep, the Bearcats and the Cougars, and the lure of the Big 12, outdrew the Cougars’ biggest rival. For now. That may change when Utah joins the Big 12.
The Cougars won, 35-27, not an irrelevant point for a BYU team trying to chase down a Big 12 Championship game berth in its first season. The win kept them in that race. Sitake knew the significance.
But Friday was about their decade-plus gamble on independence and finding a home in a big-time league that wanted them. BYU made good on all of that and proved they’re ready for the moment.
You can find Matthew Postins on Twitter @PostinsPostcard.