BYU head coach Gary Crowton is carried on the shoulders of his pklayers after beating Utah 24-21 to take the Mountain West Conference title at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo Saturay, November 17, 2001. (Jason Olson, Deseret News archives)

Throwback Thursday: Was the Gary Crowton Era at BYU as bad as everyone thinks?


In the latest installment of #TBT (Throwback Thursday), we take a look at the Gary Crowton era, and how it wasn’t as bad as people like to think.

Last week I was reading an article from Dick Harmon of the Deseret News talking about Gary Crowton being back in the state of Utah, coaching at Southern Utah University.  It was a good article, and it had me thinking about Crowton’s time as head coach at BYU.  It’s crazy to think that it has already been 10 years since Crowton patrolled the sidelines for the Cougars.

Crowton’s tenure as the head ball coach at BYU is probably looked at in a negative light by many BYU fans.  Three straight losing seasons and numerous off-the-field issues, it can be easy to come to the conclusion that the Crowton years were dark days for BYU Football.  But was it really that dark when you look at it closer?

Everyone knows that Crowton followed the legendary Lavell Edwards.  It’s always a daunting challenge to follow a legend.   Things became even more daunting when you honor every scholarship offer the previous head coach offered to potential recruits.  Crowton did that.

Towards the tail end of the Lavell era, anyone who was paying close attention to the program realized the atmosphere around BYU was a country club.  The same could be said about the recruiting approach. Lavell and crew were offering the likes of Ryan Slater full-ride scholarships.  Yeah I’m speechless about that too, and Crowton still honored those offers because he didn’t want to burn any recruiting bridges when he came in as the coach.  Smart move at the time in theory, but ultimately it backfired.

When Crowton wasn’t on the recruiting trail honoring offers from the previous regime, Crowton was bringing elite talent to Provo.  Many were nationally recognized recruits.  Crowton proved that despite BYU’s unique off-the-field rules, they could still recruit with the best in college football.

Were some of these recruits the best in terms of character?  No.  But Crowton knew he needed to win.  And he knew winning wasn’t going to come in the form of David Christensen, Toby Christensen, and 50/50 Rod Wilkerson at the skill positions.  His job was on the line, and he had to act quickly.

Crowton was told before the 2004 season by newly hired BYU President, Cecil O. Samuelson, that he had to win at least six games and appear in a bowl to keep his job for the following season.  The 2004 season started with a huge win over Notre Dame in Provo.  But those celebratory feelings didn’t carry over into the athletic department the following Monday. Crowton knew his job security would fall to an all-time low when long time athletic department employee, Val Hale was fired from his post as athletic director.  Hale was a huge supporter of Crowton.

Crowton panicked on the recruiting trail, but I also think BYU panicked too in regards to Crowton.  Look at the schedules BYU had when those losing seasons (2002-2004) happened, and then look at the youth that were on those teams.  In 2004, BYU faced three teams that went undefeated.  One of those squads was the Reggie Bush & Matt Leinart USC Trojans.  This wasn’t the program riddled with sanctions like we’ve seen the past few seasons in Troy, this was one of the best teams anyone had ever seen in college football.   In the previous year, BYU had those same Trojans on the ropes in the L.A. Coliseum, until Mike Williams proved to be too much for the Cougar secondary.

Yeah there was losing in those three seasons under Crowton, but I think we would have seen the same outcomes or worse had Lavell latched on to the program like some of his old pals, Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno did at their respective institutions.  But ultimately image conscious BYU was too worked up about the off-the-field conduct, that the on-field product became a moot point in 2004.

Crowton laid the foundation for Bronco’s special run from 2006-2009.  All of the players selected out of BYU in the NFL Draft from those seasons were Gary Crowton recruits.  (Only exception would be Harvey Unga who was a 7th round supplemental pick in 2010).  Crowton had an eye for talented athletes, and also coaches.

Had it not been for Crowton the name Bronco Mendenhall would have been known by BYU fans as the guy who ran the whacky 3-3-5 defense in Albuquerque for the Lobos.  That’s it.  Mendenhall came to BYU because he wanted to help Crowton, and work with him again like they did at Louisiana Tech.  But Bronco was very hesitant to leave the nice gig he had with the Lobos.  Had Bronco not accepted Crowton’s offer to take over the defensive coordinator job in 2003, New Mexico might actually have continued to be a competitive program with Mendenhall as the head man.

These are the kind of things I’m talking about when I look at the Crowton era.  Crowton brought BYU a talented staff, and had an eye for NFL talent.  These are the kind of things we have been dying to see for the past three seasons since going independent in 2011.

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Think about some of the other positive things Crowton did at BYU.  He led BYU to a 12-0 start in 2001.  In any other year that’s an undefeated season. But with a game at Hawaii, and a pre-season classic game (BCA Classic) BYU had 13 regular season games in Crowton’s first year.  This was the same team that finished 6-6 the year prior in 2000.  I know the 2001 squad burned out at season’s end, losing their final two games to finish 12-2, but that offense was dynamite.  Still stands as the highest scoring offense in the history of this program, and it produced a national award winner.  Luke Staley brought home the Doak Walker Award trophy as college football’s best running back.  Staley had a staggering 28 touchdowns in 11 games played.  28!  Still to this day the greatest season by an individual BYU has ever had in my opinion.  What Crowton did with that offense, particularly Staley and Brandon Doman at QB was magical.

Crowton was an offensive guru, and still is to this day.  I just think his mad scientist persona was too smart for the personnel that BYU was trotting out from 2002-2003, but you then saw the glimpses of offensive brilliance again in 2004 with John Beck, Todd Watkins, and Austin Collie (all NFL Draft picks).

Aside from the losing, there were decisions and comments made by Crowton that drive BYU fans insane to this day.  The infamous same-day flight to Reno for a game against Nevada in 2002, or when Crowton said he’d rather win by nine instead of two against Stanford in 2003.  Yeah those were bad decisions or poor cases of misspeaking, but Crowton was always looking for an edge.  Always.  Look back to his first game as coach against Tulane.  He moved BYU from their traditional east sideline spot to the west sideline so the sun would be a distraction for the opponent.  Crowton also made hard pushes to help expedite the fundraising efforts for IPF & student athlete building facilities, because he knew it was vital to get better facilities to compete on a national level.  To the average fan these kind of things are odd and unnecessary, but Crowton was a different guy.  A guy that ultimately didn’t end his BYU career like he had hoped, but we should all look back on his era and acknowledge that he did some great things for this program, and he did it with nothing but class.

Crowton’s run at BYU was ultimately done in by off-the-field misconduct, tough schedules, and an overall negative attitude towards the program from fans all the way up to the school president.  Everyone, including Crowton, knew it was time to move on.

BYU was better off by having Gary Crowton as a head coach. With 10 years now removed since his tenure all Cougar fans should realize that.

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Tags: BYU Cougars Gary Crowton

  • cks289no

    “BYU was better off by having Gary Crowton as a head coach. With 10 years
    now removed since his tenure all Cougar fans should realize that.”

    I disagree, the football program went in a direction it did not need to go with him in charge. There is a reason he has not been hired as a head coach since.

    • Yootahman

      The program is better off having had Crowton. The article points out that it was Crowton who brought in Bronco Mendenhall to coach the defense and ever since BYU’s defense has been rock solid even when Bronco was later promoted to Head Coach. You couldn’t really make any sound argument that if Bronco was still coaching the defense at New Mexico that he would’ve gotten a shot to be the next HC when he had no real ties to the program. He almost was overlooked for the job as it was when the Administrators wanted to give the HC job to Lance Reynolds. It was key members of the defense that went to Athletic Dept officials and asked them to give Bronco another chance (he bombed his first interview). They listened to the players and gave Bronco a 2nd interview and he hit that pitch out of the park.

      That alone has made the program better off. Then you throw in Crowton recruits that Bronco benefited from in his first 4 seasons like Fui Vakapuna, Manase Tonga, John Beck, Austin Collie, Dennis Pitta, Daniel Coats, Travis Bright, Ray Feinga, Dallas Reynolds, Todd Watkins, Curtis Brown, Jonny Harline, Harvey Unga, Brian Kehl, Vic So’oto, David Nixon, Cam Jensen, etc. All were either NFL draft picks, UFA’s who made NFL rosters or all-time BYU greats at their positions that Crowton recruited.

      With the ability he had to spot talent and commit them to BYU, he left the program in pretty good shape for Bronco when he took over. Gary was a doinked Matt Payne Fg away from beating Boise St on the road (we lost 27-28 when Payne hit the goal post at the end of the game on a short chip shot) from winning 6 games and going to a bowl game in that 2004 season that could’ve saved his job (we also had close losses to UNLV and New Mexico) for another season.

      That 2004 schedule was significantly harder than the 2005 schedule and Gary would’ve benefited from a more experienced junior QB in John Beck and an OL that was more experienced and a year older. The sophomore John Beck was a disaster at times but the junior John Beck started to show signs he was figuring it all out. Bronco only won one more game on that easier schedule in 2005 with a more experienced Beck. It’s all speculation at this point but who knows how well or lousy Crowton would’ve done with a more experienced and loaded team in 2006 and beyond had that Matt Payne FG been 6 inches over vs Boise St in 2004.

  • disqus_0PqQpZsWaG

    Good Post

  • FloydJohnson

    I dispute the premise that “Crowton proved that despite BYU’s unique off-the-field rules, they could still recruit with the best in college football.” Crowton’s recruiting was disruptive both to the program and the lives of many young athletes. The off the field issues by Crowton’s recruits proved that recruiting at BYU must be highly selective and that many top recruits will not qualify to attend BYU.

    The position during the tenures of Edwards and Crowton was “these are the rules, but if nobody finds out…” followed by a wink and a pat on the back. The Crowton era clearly demonstrated that the Honor Code office would no longer tolerate violations by athletes as they had done in the past, and that publicized violations by athletes would be treated with more severity than similar violations by the general student population. That lesson was previously available with Ronney Jenkins, but it had failed to transform the recruiting mentality.

    The Crowton years were transformative in this regard. And one could argue that the athletic department is better off today because the position and role of the Honor Code office were clarified and better defined during Crowton’s tenure.

  • Yootahman

    Good article. Crowton had some serious mistakes in recruiting but also loaded the program with some of the best talent they’ve ever had at key positions. Few people seem to remember that Bronco’s best seasons were built on the backs of players that Crowton recruited with many of those players going on to play in the NFL or finish their BYU careers as all-time greats at their position. Guys like Vakapuna, Tonga, Feinga, Reynolds, Bright, Unga, Collie, Watkins, Beck, Coats, Pitta were either NFL draft picks or signed as FA’s and went on to earn a paycheck at the next level. Others like Jonny Harline, Curtis Brown, etc left BYU as all-time greats at their positions.

    Once those Crowton recruits left the program (Matt Putnam was the last Crowton recruit but most were gone or almost gone after the 2009 season) and Bronco was relegated to using his own recruits, we saw a significant decline at key positions like QB, RB, TE, OL, etc which resulted in offensive woes starting in 2010 and for the next few seasons. It’s taken Bronco some time to rebuild and reload the cupboards but when he took over back in 2005, Gary had left the cupboards full for him even with some of the problems with non-LDS recruits.

  • Realistic Optimist

    One main factor that most people don’t, or choose not to remember is that he brought the Cougars to Cal Berkley and gave that Cal team a beating of their lives, and like the DC and the HC of Texas Longhorns, the HC of Cal was fired and picked up right away at the new AD of BYU. It was that same HC that got fired at Cal Berkley, that as AD at BYU, that fired Gary Crowton.

    The last truly exciting games played by the Cougars were when Gary Crowton was our HC. He brought us to a #45 ranking. He is the only coach that got us close to a BCS Bowl.

    Unlike the gentle treatment given to both Rose and Bronco when sex crimes were committed under their watch, Gary Crowton and to devote all of his losing season time to defending himself over the sex crime that took place late at night in the private home of one of his players. He was expected to be in control of 100% of his players 100% of the time, 24 hours per day. This was an impossible task. Bronco and Rose
    were never accused of any wrong doing for the honor code violations of their two players.

    I would like to see the return of exciting offensive football that only Gary Crowton and Lavel Edwards were able to give us.

  • MELVINDODD

    Nonsense. Crowton nearly destroyed BYU football by recruiting thugs and after the first year all opponents knowing full well what Crowton’s offense was going to do. He is a first year wonder as an offensive guru and then his offense becomes a blunder. He should have been fired after the second year.

    • Drew

      …Those players who raped that girl…they were Bronco’s recruits…