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.
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.