Explaining the Fall of BYU Football in the 2000s

Let me make this disclaimer right off the top. The ideas I put forth in this column are more like hypotheses that deserve a more critical analysis, as opposed to conclusions that have gone through the experimental process. This started as a recruiting column, but the more I thought about it, the more it evolved. I am putting it forward to generate debate to involve as many people as possible to share what they know or think to help us all come to a better understanding about what might have caused those dark days that are mercifully behind us.

I had always assigned the blame for the three consecutive losing seasons (2002-04) on Gary Crowton. Recently, though, I have identified four other aspects of BYU football that makes me seriously question whether Crowton was completely culpable for the BYU football demise during his tenure. Let’s take a look at all five of these.

1. Gary Crowton
He took over as head coach in 2001 when the legendary LaVell Edwards retired after a 6-6 season in 2000. Crowton won his first 12 games with an exciting offense that produced the 2001 Doak Walker Award winner. He followed his first year with the aforementioned losing seasons. They were the first losing seasons since 1973. The offense was never as potent as 2001. Quarterbacks were rapidly falling by the wayside. Crowton lost the confidence of his players. The team became divided. Scandals involving players increasingly made headlines. Crowton announced his resignation following the 2004 season.

Bronco Mendenhall was named the successor coach. He revitalized the program by returning to a bowl game in his first season and won the Mountain West Conference championship his second season en route to a national ranking. To make matters worse, most of the players Mendenhall used were recruited by Crowton. Mendenhall also openly embraced the honor code and moral standards of BYU, while Crowton was depicted as trying to work around them.

2. Non-LDS athletes
Amidst Crowton’s failures, his recruitment of players who were not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was scrutinized as honor code violations were being reported at an alarming rate. Two talented running backs, Marcus Wahlen and Ray Braithwaite, had their promising careers at BYU cut short, and we all remember the gang rape incident of a Provo teen. These incidents are inexcusable, but they were not without precedent. With the national championship in 1984 and Ty Detmer’s Heisman Trophy in 1990, BYU started attracting high quality non-LDS athletes years before Crowton arrived. If we are going to be completely objective in our analysis, we have to remember that Ronney Jenkins had two honor code infractions in his two year playing career (1996, 1998), and Reno “Junior” Mahe, who is LDS, also had honor code issues following the 1998 season.

The BYU recruiting classes of the 1990s were impressive and probably the best ever for BYU. A lot of that had to do with the recruiting of non-LDS players. The results on the field were not as impressive: only two 10-win seasons from 1991-2000. I have long had the opinion that I would rather have less talented LDS kids who would work hard and be disciplined than very talented non-LDS kids who coasted on that talent for success. To me, the success of the 80s was the product of well executed play by down-to-earth kids who knew they had to work hard for success. That identity began to fade in the 90s, long before Crowton arrived.

With all that being said, I think that the recent success under Bronco Mendenhall can be largely attributed to getting back to the basics of hard work, discipline, and accepting that LDS players would be the program’s staple recruit and the high moral standards would not be sugar coated to attract the talented non-LDS recruits. The underlying question is, was a coaching change absolutely necessary to get back to these basics, or could Crowton have corrected the program himself?

3. Ricks College
Over the years, Ricks College was good to BYU. Talents like Jason Buck, Ben Cahoon, Matt Johnson, and Stan and John Raas came to Provo via Rexburg. As a junior college sponsored by the Church, the Ricks football program was almost like a minor league developmental team for BYU. Players who were late bloomers or who were too under the radar in high school had an opportunity to develop and shine, while BYU had the inside track to sign these players. In June 2000, Church leadership announced that Ricks College would convert from a Junior College to a four year institution. Subsequently, the football program was discontinued following the 2001 season.

While Ricks College has not fed the BYU program since 2001, I am having trouble finding evidence to support a claim that the discontinuance of football in Rexburg hurt football in Provo from 2002-04. Any player on Ricks’ roster in 2001 would have had two years of eligibility left. They would have come to BYU and completed their eligibility by 2004 at the latest. One such player was John Denney. He came to BYU after his freshman year at Ricks in 2000. He redshirted 2001, and was a significant contributor on defense from 2002 to 2004, exactly the years in question. He has been in the NFL ever since.

Does anyone have additional information to support or refute that losing Ricks College is not a valid reason BYU football suffered from 2002 to 2004?

4. Lost grip on the best kept secret in college football: Polynesians
For years, BYU thrived off of annually harvesting a healthy crop of Polynesian players. In the glory days, BYU seemed to have exclusive access to the best Polynesian players in Hawaii, Figi, Samoa, and Tonga, just to name a few locations. Somewhere along the line the rest of college football caught on and BYU lost its exclusive access to these players. A very informative article acknowledging this much is on Scout.com. Even though this article was written back in 2003 and it gives the impression that BYU was King of the Polynesian recruiting hill again, there are signs that this was and is not true. Look at the following list of Polynesian players who did not play at BYU:

Haloti Ngata, Oregon, 2003-2005: Was a consensus All-American in 2005, left early for the NFL draft, was a first round draft choice, having a successful career with the Baltimore Ravens.
Fili Moala, USC, 2004-2008: Honorable mention All-Pac 10, second round NFL draft pick.
Stanley Havili, USC, 2007-Present: Started for the Trojans as a freshman, honorable mention All-Pac 10 as a freshman, considered the best fullback in the country.
Manti Te’o, Notre Dame, 2009-Present: Started 9 of 12 games as a true freshman, and was a freshman All-American.
Kona Schwenke, Notre Dame: Committed to BYU, then took a trip to Notre Dame less than a week before signing day and signed with the Irish.

Haloti Ngata is the only one on my list that could have had a real impact on the team during the losing years. As I said, all of my reasons are still hypotheses, so if you know of others from that time period, please share. My guess is that where there is one, there are many. I also think that if Ngata was an isolated incident at that time, this list would not be as long. While the other players on the list are still playing or played during the Mendenhall era, it is hard to look at their impressive accomplishments and believe that they would not have had a positive impact on BYU football. It is also hard to believe that during Crowton’s years BYU was still benefiting from Polynesian players they same way it was in the 80s and 90s.

5. Bret Engemann was a bust
This is, perhaps, the second simplest explanation (blaming Crowton being the first). In the last 25 years, quarterback play has been the greatest indicator of success. When Robbie Bosco left in 1985, BYU was riding a string of 10 consecutive conference championships. For the first time since the quarterback factory began, BYU did not find a successful heir in 1986. This led to sub-par seasons for three years (1986-1988) until Ty Detmer took over full-time in 1989. Following Detmer, the quarterback play was spotty for the rest of the decade, and, with the exception of 1994 and 1996, BYU had what could be considered mediocre seasons. Nevertheless, in those years in the 80s and 90s BYU did not sink as low as it did from 2002 to 2004.

Engemann had his first chance in 2000. He was 2-3 as a starter before injuries ended his season. His second chance came in 2002, and halfway through the year he had lost his starting job to redshirt freshman Matt Berry. The plan was for Engemann to start 2002 and 2003, and Berry or John Beck would have been ready to take over in 2004. Engemann’s poor play disrupted the development of Berry and Beck; it created lack of continuity at the game’s most important position.

Most of the last two paragraphs are facts that cannot be argued. The second concludes with some light analysis on the consequences of Engemann’s play, which I completely agree with. Why do I feel so uncomfortable about stopping there? Looking back at the 2002 season, BYU started 2-0 and then lost two close games on the road. In next game against Utah State, Engemann led the largest comeback win in BYU football history. He lost the starting job after playing ineffectively in a 52-9 loss to Air Force. At 3-3 the coaching staff gave up on Brett. It should also be pointed out that since Engemann was less mobile than Brandon Doman, Coach Crowton started using the Wildcat with Lance Pendleton. In the first two losses, Pendleton played a lot, which was not the case in the three wins.

I am, by no means, a Bret Engemann apologist. At the time, I was excited to see Matt Berry get a chance to play. Engemann must be held accountable for the way he played. However, in retrospect, the best thing after all might have been to stay loyal to Engemann, and that would include abandoning the Wildcat. Although he was not playing well, he was still a better option than Berry, Pendleton, or Todd Mortensen. Had he started the rest of the year, his development would have continued, and maybe instead of losing the last two games (20-16 to New Mexico, and 13-6 to Utah) to finish 5-7, we would have finished 6-6 or 7-5. Engemann’s development would have continued in the off season and there is a good chance he would have done better than 4-8 in 2003.

All that takes me back to the coaching. I can’t say that Crowton handled the situation well. As one who has played quarterback, I can attest that a quarterback needs to feel his coach has confidence in him. Crowton clearly did not have confidence in Engemann. A 3-3 record is not desirable, but it is not the end of the world either. Engemann had shown flashes of competency, and with 11 career starts the chances for success with Brett were surely higher than with a redshirt freshman. Crowton appears to have been so afraid to lose one game that he did not keep the big picture in mind.

Now it is your chance to help finish what I have begun. Please share what you remember and any “insider” knowledge you might have to help validate or repudiate what I have said.

The Editor appreciates all feedback. He can be reached via email at bluecougarfootball@gmail.com