Throwback Thursday: LaVell and Bronco’s Most Important Victory


Dec 20, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; Brigham Young Cougars head coach Bronco Mendenhall reacts during the fourth quarter against the San Diego State Aztecs at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Bronco Mendenhall knew he had big shoes to fill when he took the head-coaching job at BYU prior to the 2005 season.

A 29 year Hall of Fame legacy which included 20 conference championships, a National Championship, 6 All-American quarterbacks, and a Heisman Trophy winner is just a few of the many recognitions that legendary head coach LaVell Edwards brought to BYU. Can you imagine the pressure on the shoulders of young Bronco? Many BYU fans expected and demanded immediate success out of Coach Mendenhall, especially after suffering three frustrating losing seasons during the Gary Crowton era.

The beginning of the Bronco Mendenhall era did not look too peachy for wishful BYU fans. After a 1-3 start, culminating in heartbreaking losses to TCU at home and San Diego State on the road, BYU fans were clearly not getting the results they had hoped for. The weights on Bronco’s shoulders were getting heavier as the weeks went on.

In the fifth game of the 2005 season, things were not getting any easier for Bronco.  BYU was trailing on the road to New Mexico 24-13 early in the fourth quarter, and Lobo quarterback Kole McKamey was driving his offense down the field for another score to put the game away.

Bronco was on the verge of losing his fourth game out of five. He still had not recorded a division one victory. This was not the kind of legacy he wanted to start as the head coach of BYU football. The shoes of LaVell Edwards kept getting bigger and bigger. As New Mexico moved the ball into scoring position to put the game out of reach, Bronco began preparing himself for another defeat.

Flashback 30 years prior to this night in 2005, and things didn’t look very peachy for LaVell Edwards either.

LaVell Edwards – Courtesy BYU Football Media Guide

On a calm night in Provo in 1975, LaVell Edward’s football program was on the verge of losing their fourth straight game to start the season. Late in the third quarter, the Cougars also trailed the New Mexico Lobos 0-12, and LaVell was running out of quarterbacks—and faith.The exciting passing attack that Edwards and assistant coach Dewey Warren had established the year prior was now looking like another football gimmick gone bad. Despite winning his first WAC title in 1974, Coach Edwards had a 12-13-1 career coaching record, and there was no anticipation that things were going to improve.

LaVell was desperate. He needed a miracle, and little did he know that his tender mercy was sitting just a few feet away from him.

Edwards called on his young third-string quarterback Gifford Nielsen to enter the game for the final quarter. This was a bizarre move by Edwards, because up until that point, Giff hadn’t done a thing—in practice, a game, or anywhere else—to prove confidence in the coaches, players, or fans. But desperation calls for desperate measures, and boy was LaVell desperate.

Little did Coach Edwards know that this late game quarterback substitution would change the history of BYU football, and become the most important decision of his coaching career.

On this night in 1975, Gifford Nielsen would become the man who single-handedly saved BYU football.

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Gifford’s first offensive possession lasted three plays and 62 yards, ending in a 37-yard touchdown pass to cut the Lobo’s lead to 12-7. After a New Mexico field goal increased their lead to 15-7, Giff went back in and completed 5 of 6 passes for 80 yards and another touchdown to pull within 15-13. The Cougar defense would hold strong and get the ball back in Giff’s hands for one last drive. Nielsen would then complete 3 of 4 passes to get the Cougars into field goal range, setting up a game winning field goal with 1:48 remaining.BYU wins the game, 16-15. Gifford Nielsen is the hometown hero. And LaVell Edwards is the genius for accidentally discovering a future All-American quarterback—while on the brink of despair and destruction.

LaVell Edwards and his Cougars would never look back. The rest is history.

Flash forward to 2005, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Lobos are driving down the field with ease on BYU’s bewildered and weary defense. Kole McKamey was unstoppable. The Lobos were a play away from scoring another touchdown to go up 31-13 in the fourth quarter.

Just like LaVell in 1975, Bronco was also desperate. He too needed a miracle, and little did know that his much needed tender mercy would be an astonishing fumble by Kole McKamey that would be recovered by BYU inside the Cougars own 10-yard line.

Suddenly, the Cougars had a pulse, and there was still life in the young coaching career of Bronco Mendenhall. It was not over yet.

Matt Allen scores game winning touchdown at New Mexico in 2005

Quarterback John Beck would lead his BYU offense down the field on a 93-yard drive that would end in a Curtis Brown touchdown run to cut the New Mexico lead to 24-19 with seven minutes remaining in the game. After New Mexico attempted to play conservative and burn time off the clock, BYU would eventually get the ball back deep in their own territory with over two minutes remaining for one last drive.Just the fact that BYU was in this position was a miracle within itself. The Cougars would capitalize on this opportunity. John Beck would drive 80 yards down the field to throw a touchdown pass to Matt Allen with 1:40 remaining to give BYU the lead 27-24. Could this really be happening?

On New Mexico’s final possession, the BYU defense would force the Lobos to turn the ball over on downs, allowing John Beck to take a knee and end the game. Bronco Mendenhall would graciously jog to midfield, shake hands with his former co-worker Rocky Long, and then look up into the night sky, wondering what he had done to deserve this moment.

Bronco Mendenhall would go on to win 82 of his next 112 career games, making him one of the most actively winning coaches in college football. He continues to move forward on his football journey in Provo, building his legacy one day at a time.

On that night in 2005, somewhere in that stadium, and somehow within that team, the spirit of 1975 lingered. The early coaching trials of Bronco Mendenhall and LaVell Edwards had similar experiences, and miracle victories against the same New Mexico Lobos—exactly 30 years apart—were the ultimate foundations that would result in prominent success in BYU football history.

Let us never forget these games.