BYU and the 1984 National Championship

By August 8, 2013

As part of this month’s series on 20th century Mormonism, I’d like to take a brief glance at BYU and the 1984 National Championship. For those unfamiliar with 1980s sports history, BYU won the national championship for the very first time in 1984. As a 2009 article puts it, “I can’t think of a more unlikely national champion … an unranked (preseason) team from a non-power conference.” I refer you to the article for an analysis of games played; today, I’m going to give you a few media perspectives on the win.
First up is a 1985 Sports Illustrated feature, which contrasts the winning players with their teammates who were serving missions at the time.

On Sept. 1, 1984 in Pittsburgh, Brigham Young was opening its football season with a 20-14 upset of Pitt. In Capetown on that day, BYU quarterback Sean Covey was dipping the head of a South African woman into a fountain of water and reciting the rites of baptism.

On Nov. 24 in Provo, BYU was crushing Utah State before the largest crowd?65,508?ever to watch a sports event in Utah. With that victory the Cougars finished their regular season at 12-0. In Sao Goncalo, Brazil, BYU offensive tackle Don Busenbark was spreading the gospel in areas where 14-year-old boys carried guns.

On Dec. 21 in San Diego, BYU was defeating Michigan in the Holiday Bowl to clinch its first national championship. In Oruro, Bolivia, Cougar safety Scott Peterson was lying diagonally on his undersized bed under flypaper spattered with casualties, listening to the Armed Forces Radio broadcast of the game and biting back the black wish that his teammates not win it all without him.

The article mentions Spencer Kimball’s 1974 declaration that all worthy young men should serve a mission, “with no asterisk for BYU football players who dreamed of NCAA championships and NFL careers.” The story then unfolds among the missionaries abroad, some of which never returned to football. After all, the privilege of playing football on a college team is very clear, once you’ve encountered starving people in Bolivia and so much helplessness, alcohol abuse, and apathy. [1] It’s a fairly long article, and the gist is that while serving a mission always involves sacrifice, a football player sacrifices so much more, leaving behind his hopes and dreams of playing pro football, while ministering to the poor and the hard-of-heart.

Rest assured, I am not overdramatizing the article’s tone. You’d feel sorry for the missionaries, except you’re meant to admire their courage and perseverance. The article ends on a dramatic note, with Steve Young, who never went on a mission and always wishes he had,

Young: “I’d advise any young man in the church to go when he was 19 [the first year Mormon men are eligible] if he possibly can. If I had gone on a mission before I signed and everything became crazy, I might have handled things better.” … He peered down the road in search of his ride, wondering why so few understood: What championship, what fame, what career was not worth risking?rather than to live a life without a mission?

Here, the National Championship itself isn’t really of importance; it only serves to highlight the peculiar nature of BYU football players-turned-(returned)-missionaries.

The same 2009 article I mentioned above is more straightforward and calls the win “one of the greatest stories in the history of sports.” The headline reads: “The Ultimate Cinderella Story: How BYU Won a National Championship in 1984.” Besides a quick mention of the Church’s involvement in BYU, and the fact that “returned missionaries made poor football players, they weren’t mean enough,” BYU was treated like any other small team that performed above expectation. The only reasons the missionaries were mentioned at all was most likely to illustrate just how unlikely their win really was.

The Cougar website for the win reads along the same lines, so I’ll skip that here. Predictably, the Ensign codes the win with spiritual meaning in a March 1985 article, titled, “BYU Football Success Spotlights School, Church.” The team is characterized as filled with “unselfish” players, setting the tone right off the bat. LaVell Edwards is Brother Edwards, here, not Coach, and while the win is important on a purely football level, the relevant question is really what it means for BYU and the Church. It’s all good, apparently, as “[t]he attention has brought into focus for many people around the county the school’s other good points, including its high moral and academic standards rooted in gospel values.” While the players and coach are lauded for their sport skills, “Brother Edwards’ reputation as a moral, compassionate man” is deemed more important, and the coach’s philosophy is said to be rooted in gospel principles–principles that are “at least partly responsible for the team’s national championship.” [2]

So here you are, four perspectives on the 1984 National Championship, ranging from a football triumph to a more spiritual one. If anyone has memories of the championship (whether personal, familial, and/or cultural), please leave a comment!


[1] If there were football missionaries serving in more affluent areas of the world, they are not mentioned here. Apparently proselytizing in an area where people are materially wealthy, if perhaps spiritually poor (depending on your perspective) does not make for as good a story.

[2] Some of these principles don’t seem to be as uniquely LDS as the Ensign would like to believe, but I appreciate the faith-promoting nature of church magazines and especially the fact that I’m not the target audience of the Ensign in the first place.

Article filed under Popular Culture


  1. Great topic, just watch out citing bleacher report. It’s like citing Wikipedia and in no way is real press. Anyone can publish with bleacher report and its often just a BYUs championship was very unlikely, but the ultimate feather in the cap for the program. I enjoyed reading the other articles.

    Comment by Ryan — August 8, 2013 @ 6:13 am

  2. The article mentions Spencer Kimball?s 1974 declaration that all worthy young men should serve a mission, ?with no asterisk for BYU football players who dreamed of NCAA championships and NFL careers.?

    It should be noted that BYU Coach LaVell Edwards actually spoke during the October 1984 General Conference encouraging young men to serve missions.

    Comment by Tim J — August 8, 2013 @ 8:20 am

  3. I was going to mention the comment that Tim J. shared. That might be worth a post by itself.

    In a class last year, a classmate researched how Mormon baseball players were portrayed in Sports Illustrated. Super interesting stuff (Bryce Harper is portrayed very differently than athletes like Wally Joyner or Dale Murphy).

    Great post, Saskia!

    Comment by J Stuart — August 8, 2013 @ 10:50 am

  4. It’s been all downhill since 1984.

    Comment by Caffeine Drinker — August 8, 2013 @ 11:10 am

  5. Thanks for this, Saskia. Great comparison of perspectives on the championship. I’ve noticed that, after about WWII, sports became a sort of bridge in the media that allowed Mormons a mainstream(ish) image… I’m thinking of Mormon sports stars as sort of analogous in the media of the period to Jewish comedians.

    One thing I’ve noticed in my own encounters with the coverage at the time of the BYU championship was the implication, which I believe I encountered in newspaper articles that appeared over several years in the ’80s, that BYU would have won a championship earlier except that the program was ignored by the NCAA because of various prejudices against the Mormons. The claim I found the most interesting was that BYU didn’t make it into bowl games because the NCAA and sponsors felt they didn’t attract the right kind of (hard partying, big spending) crowds — it wasn’t, supposedly, that they were anti-Mormon, so much as the wholesome Mormon image led business people to believe that the Saints weren’t the best kind of American consumers. I’d be interested to see a comparison of the value of the clean-cut image for PR purposes to the possible detrimental effect of the same image on the program from a profit-motivated perspective… though I’m not sure how one would prove the latter claims.

    So thank you, again, for a thought-provoking post!

    Comment by Cristine — August 8, 2013 @ 11:23 am

  6. Thanks, Saskia. I have a ceremonial championship football with replica signatures on it lying around somewhere.

    Also, I’d better differentiate myself from poster “Ryan” whose been commenting here lately.

    Comment by Ryan T — August 8, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

  7. Saskia, this is great. Football is such an irreligious thing in and of itself, and yet we can’t escape the fact that religious people participate in playing and watching it. Which reminds me, I need to get the 2013 team’s names on the prayer rolls in my local temple.

    Comment by Nate R. — August 8, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

  8. Jewish athletes are just as good as Mormon ones. Ever heard of Sandy Koufax?

    Comment by Caffeine Drinker — August 8, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  9. 1984 was a big deal, and another such year may never happen again. Next time you hear a snarky comment that Washington should have been given the championship (which would have happened nowadays), please remind them that BYU asked other higher profile schools that year to compete against them, but were refused because BYU would have brought in less revenue.

    Comment by cadams — August 8, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

  10. It’s always interesting to follow the ebb and flow of conventional wisdom between “BYU can’t win because of missions” and “BYU has an unfair advantage because of missions.”

    Comment by Left Field — August 9, 2013 @ 12:23 am

  11. After reading the Sports Illustrated article, I was shocked by the gendered tinge to the reporting. It seems that the reporter was reaching back for a more civilized strain of manliness that he found among the missionaries in the third world. I’m not sure if he was picking it up from them or projecting it on his subjects, but it makes me want to look at gender discourses around Mormon missionary service in the 1980s. Were missionaries being told that missionary service was the apex of manliness?

    I have an interesting relationship with BYU in general. I grew up traveling down to Provo from Idaho to attend games since my family had season tickets. I cannot remember when I wasn’t a BYU football fan. On the other hand, despite being admitted three times to BYU, I have never attended. And neither have any of my other six siblings except one sister for her Masters Degree. Nevertheless, I have almost a tribal connection to the school and follow the football team religiously. I would be interested to know how BYU football makes connections with members in ways that the school does not.

    Comment by Joel — August 9, 2013 @ 2:00 am

  12. I stand corrected on some of you commenters have brought up–thanks for the clarifications. You all bring up interesting points. Joel, that is a fascinating question!

    Comment by Saskia — August 9, 2013 @ 4:20 am

  13. This is a great post, Saskia (and apt, too, given the upcoming season opener in just a few short weeks). It also helps contextualize a bit (one of) the current narratives about the team (and coaching) today. Following Edwards’s retirement, Gary Crowton was hired. His tenure, as you likely know, was marked by mediocre performance on the field and more than one scandal off of it. When Bronco Mendenhall was hired to replace Crowton, he and the university touted it as a return to “spirit, honor, [and] tradition,” symbolized by the reintroduction of the classic BYU uniforms, but also marked by higher standards for student-athletes. All of that has been full of overtly religious content, too, as Mendenhall and the players regularly host firesides in stakes while traveling for road games and they speak openly about using the program for publicizing the Mormon faith.

    All of that works (to debatable degrees of effectiveness) in large part because of the narrative created by Lavell Edwards, the university, and the press, as you so helpfully lay out here.

    Comment by Christopher — August 9, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

  14. The following Momday morning after the win, Bryant Gumbal, the now ex-TODAY host said these words: “BYU who?”. Such a condescending thing to say. He later got his when he was exposed having an extra marital affair.

    Comment by oak — August 10, 2013 @ 4:29 am

  15. oak,

    Let’s ease up on the suggestions that anyone “got his” as some sort of divine retribution for silly remarks made about a college football team.

    Comment by Christopher — August 10, 2013 @ 7:58 pm

  16. Who mentioned “divine retribution”? How about “Karma”?

    Comment by oak — August 10, 2013 @ 11:17 pm

  17. Whatever you choose to call it, it is off-topic. Please keep your comments relevant or take them elsewhere.

    Comment by Christopher — August 11, 2013 @ 12:20 am

  18. Wah!

    Comment by oak — August 11, 2013 @ 2:32 am

  19. It’s been almost 30 yrs. Isn’t it time to move on from Mr. Gumbel’s alleged sleight? By the way, for the vast majority of college sports fans in 1984, it was a perfectly legitimate question. Similar to people asking today about a Butler in Men’s hoops. Even if it was meant as a dig at BYU, 30 years is plenty of time to get over it. lol.

    Comment by rbc — August 11, 2013 @ 8:15 am


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