Most schools have a singular focus of winning national championships, and while they strive to accomplish that just like everyone else, the BYU Cougars are also in a quest to capture the Boot, the Bucket, and the Wagon Wheel. For the university in Provo, in-state rivalries and the hardware that comes with them are just as important as NCAA crowns.
Although the university was founded in 1875, the Cougars didn’t have a basketball team until 1903, and the football program didn’t enter the fray until 1922. Competing on the gridiron also gave birth to the start of the storied “Holy War” series with the University of Utah. Twenty years after it began, BYU beat the Utes for the first time. However, the decidedly one-sided contest began to even out once LaVell Edwards assumed head coaching duties in 1972. A future member of both the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame, Edwards guided BYU to wins over Utah six years in a row. A loss in 1978 would snap that streak, but the following year’s triumph kicked off a run of nine straight victories over the Utes.
Edwards not only improved the school’s fortunes in battles against Utah, he also elevated the program on a national level. In 1984, the Cougars went undefeated and were awarded the national championship. Before stepping down after the 2000 season, Edwards notched 257 wins, guided BYU to 22 bowl game appearances, and was named Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year in 1979, as well as Kodak, AFCA, and Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year in ‘84. A recipient of the Paul “Bear” Bryant Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, Edwards also holds the distinction of having worked with two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, Steve Young and Jim McMahon.
Compared to their gridiron counterparts, the men's hoops team has enjoyed more consistent success on the hardwood. Winners of the NIT in both 1951 and ‘66, the Cougars can also claim more than 25 appearances in the NCAA tournament. In 1981, paced by National Player of the Year Danny Ainge, the school reached the Elite Eight. Thirty years later and once again powered by the nation’s top performer, BYU and prolific scorer Jimmer Fredette advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in 2011.
Since 1953, BYU has been led into crusades by its fierce protector, Cosmo the Cougar. In the early days, the university deployed live cubs to patrol the sidelines during football games, but for a myriad of reasons (including one time when they broke out of their cages), that practice was done away with in favor of a more approachable mascot.
In a college sports landscape dominated by Tigers, Bears and Panthers, BYU has distinguished itself by demonstrating remarkable resiliency. Many programs would throw in the towel after being bested by their in-state rival so many years in a row, but the Cougars refuse to quit. They may have started at the bottom, but now they’re at a place that most others dream about.