MYTH BUSTER: The forward pass did not give BYU a competitive advantage

The BYU Quarterback Factory is legendary, but is often misrepresented as a competitive advantage (Photo courtesy BYU Photo).

The genesis of this piece goes back several years to a very small Twitter "feud" with the legendary Greg Wrubell. He was arguing that BYU needed a better rushing attack to compete. I cited several examples of BYU beating legit competition without much rushing output, and he retorted with the trite, "BYU had an advantage because of the forward pass." Feeling he did no real analysis before sending back that reply, the wheels contined to turn in my head.

While the importance of the forward pass to BYU football is undeniable, it is disingenuous to assign the credit to BYU's success under LaVell Edwards to some mythical and unsubstantiated advantage. It is true that while the Cougars were putting on a spectacular aerial display BYU was also the nation's winningest team from 1976-86. However, there is plenty of evidence to support the claim that the credit for BYU's amazing success belongs to something other than the forward pass.

This isn't just a filler piece for the middle of the summer. It actually has relevance today. Lately, there has been a lot of conjecture on why BYU isn't more successful in football. It is reminiscent of the era when Edwards was hired as head coach, but before going off too far in that direction, let's look at what has become a myth: the forward pass was a competitive advantage for BYU in the 1970s and 1980s.

1. Not universally successful.

The first piece of evidence that the forward pass wasn't this great competitive advantage comes from looking at the success of other schools that employed the same offensive scheme. Believe it or not, BYU was not the first nor the only school to extensively use the forward pass at that time. Tulsa had two different quarterbacks lead the nation in passing in the 1960s, but the Golden Hurricane never became a national power.

Additionally, it didn't take until the 1990s for the rest of college football to start throwing the ball a lot. While some teams found success during the same timeframe, like Purdue, Iowa, and Pittsburgh, other schools, like Stanford, Oregon State, South Carolina, and Duke, had mediocre results despite having quarterbacks who put up career numbers similar to Jim McMahon. The mixed results is a strong signal that there was more to each school's success than just the offensive scheme.

2. To say BYU dominated the WAC is over simplifying the facts.
Sure, BYU won 10 consecutive WAC championships from 1976-85. That qualifies as dominant, however, the Cougars were undefeated WAC champions just three of those seasons (1979, 1983, and 1984). Half of the time (five seasons) BYU shared the WAC championship.
  1. Wyoming, 1976
  2. Arizona State, 1977
  3. Hawaii, 1981
  4. New Mexico, 1982
  5. Air Force, 1985
BYU held the tie-breaker (head-to-head results) in just three cases (1981, 1982, and 1985). The significance of the shared championships is that it demonstrates the forward pass wasn't essential to gain WAC supremacy during that timeframe. Other teams were able to do it employing their own offensive schemes.

3. Bigger, faster, stronger still mattered.

For all the benefit that a unique scheme and execution provided, there were still inherent benefits to being bigger, faster, and stronger. Those inherent benefits were demonstrated on several occasions.

For every win against a program like Texas A&M, UCLA, Pittsburgh, and the like, there was a loss to Oklahoma State (1976 Tangerine Bowl, 49-21), and Oregon State (a 2-9 team in 1977). UNLV finished 1981 with a 6-6 record, but they were still able to end BYU's 17-game winning streak. BYU couldn't add Georgia and Ohio State to its list of victims in 1982. Baylor was able to escape the following year. UCLA and Ohio State, again, were too much for BYU to handle in 1985.

Edwards never did find the formula for success against Arizona State. From 1973-78, BYU was just 2-4 against the Sun Devils. All of the "special" seasons during the glory days came after Arizona State was in the Pac-10 conference, and off of BYU's schedule. Had the Pac-8 not expanded, how might BYU football have been different if the Cougars still had to play Arizona State every year?

The real secret to success: Culture Change.

The reality is that Edwards found such great success because he changed the culture of BYU football. He is on record many times talking about the state of BYU football in the early 1970s when he took the head coaching job. There was a list of tired and overused excuses as to why BYU couldn't win.

The first thing he did was eliminate the excuses. Among other things, he stopped crying about players choosing to serve two-year missions. Instead, he wished them well and held a roster spot for them when they returned. The results were immediate.

In his first season, Edwards didn't use a pass happy offense. However, in the excuse-free culture, BYU finished 7-4 and Pete Van Valkenburg was the nation's leading rusher.

Edwards was the team's defensive coordinator before becoming the head coach. While the offense was becoming legendary, he didn't allow the defense to be neglected. In the NFL drafts following the 1976-86 seasons, BYU had 15 defensive players drafted by the NFL, including three first round picks.

Edwards also tapped into a previously undervalued resource: the Polynesian player. BYU traces its Polynesian roots back to the early 1950s, but Edwards made recruiting Samoans, Tongans, and other pacific islanders a priority. Later this month, Blue Cougar Football is going to unveil its annual Top 10 list. This year it is the Top 10 Polynesian players in BYU history. Five of the ten played during this era where all success has been attributed to the forward pass.

BYU was able to corner the market on top Polynesian talent during this time. The Polynesian player proved to be just as much of an equalizer as the forward pass to the bigger, faster, stronger African American athletes that were starting to dominate collegiate rosters nationwide. The Polynesian players could go toe-to-toe with any foe.

Yes, BYU threw the football better than anyone else in college football, and changed the game as a result. Yes, the one-dimensional passing attack was good enough for wins over top ranked Miami, Texas, and other nationally recognized programs. However, it was not the reason BYU became a nationally respected program under Edwards. The underlying culture that Edwards established brought high yield results in every way--recruiting, defense, and the forward pass.

BYU Football 2018 

How does this tie in to BYU football today? There seems to be a return to making excuses to dismiss recent failures of the program. BYU can't be as successful as before because of:
  • High academic standards
  • Honor Code
  • Non-power five status
  • Money
Blah, blah, blah.

Edwards was wise enough to recognize at a certain point, you have to stop making excuses and just go out and get the job done. Maybe there will never be another magical decade long run like Edwards had, but BYU football won't reach its full potential if, rather than intelligently and fearlessly facing every challenge, time is wasted making excuses.

The Editor appreciates all feedback. He can be reached via email at


  1. You are wrong and every coach on the staffs during those years would tell you are wrong. The advantage wasn't in throwing but in the West Coast offense. For the first time BYUs lesser athletes could compete with better athletes because the scheme got them open. Eventually this led to better recruits and better athletes. This advantage disappeared when defenses started putting lbs on the ddend and safeties at lb.

    1. So explain to me the success BYU had from 2006-09? That would be after defenses had caught up, right?

      Scheme only worked because of the new culture and new attitude LaVell established.

      Under that new culture and attitude, BYU could have been successful under other schemes. That was why the 1972 season was mentioned. BYU won 7 games and produced the nation's leading RUSHER in LaVell's first season.

      And that is why other programs, like Oregon State and the others cited, were racking up yards through the air, but still not posting Ws like BYU. There was something missing as far as culture and attitude.

  2. I don't think anybody would argue that Lavell didn't change the attitude. Nor would anybody argue that Bronco didn't change the culture. However you can't discount the importance of scheme. Read "Winning Football With the Forward Pass" written by Lavell if you think he didnt think the West Coast Offense was a major advantage over BYUs opponents.

    From 2006 to 2009 BYU had better athletes than just about everyone in the MWC and almost everyone they played. BYU also had a once in a generation receiver, 2 of the best RBs to come through the program and 3 of the best TEs to ever play the position in college. Even with all that talent they often struggled offensively against more talented teams.

    1. Maybe I'm just being a little over sensitive. It seems LaVell doesn't get his just desserts if all his success just gets lumped in with the type of offense he ran.


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