The Samuelson years at BYU

Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo
Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo

Cecil O. Samuelson has served as president of BYU for nearly 11 years. During that time, BYU has grown, changed and evolved, as a number of milestone events and announcements have shaped the BYU community.

When LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley extended the assignment to his fellow Utah alum Elder Cecil O. Samuelson to serve at BYU’s next president, the location of the assignment took Samuelson back. As they visited, President Hinckley said, “We would like you to … put on a blue coat.”

For 11 years President and Sharon Samuelson have proudly worn their blue coats and given their best efforts to BYU. Along the way, there have been great accomplishments and challenges. A few are noted here along with quotes from President Samuelson and others.


May 1: President Samuelson succeeds Merrill J. Bateman as the 12th president of BYU.

Aug. 26: President Samuelson addresses BYU faculty and staff at his first university conference.

“President Hinckley said he would like me to serve as BYU’s 12th president,” President Samuelson recalled. “I was, of course, surprised but pleased. At first Sharon thought I was spoofing her, as I sometimes do. However, she soon realized I was serious. She was as honored and humbled as was I with this unexpected but exhilarating opportunity.”

Sept. 9: President Samuelson’s inauguration takes place in the Marriott Center.

“Our mandate, with respect to education, is expansive and encompassing,” President Samuelson said during his inaugural address. “Brigham Young University is a vital element in our commitment to knowledge and wisdom.

“If we do our part, we have the unspeakable privilege to be part of an enterprise that may cause inspired prophecy to be fulfilled. But, just as in the early days of (BYU), this progress and improvement does not just happen. It requires continued blessings from heaven and also our best, consistent and most effective efforts. It means we must always keep in mind our sacred mission: To seek the best of academic and scholastic achievement within the enfolding environment and sustaining power of abiding faith in our Heavenly Father and His Son, our Savior, and in the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot neglect or be passive about either our environment of faith or our commitment to academic excellence. In all that we do, we want to bless our students by never allowing the balance between these fundamental basics to become tilted in any direction.”


July 12: The Princeton Review ranks The Harold B. Lee Library as the No. 1 “Great College Library” in the nation.

Dec. 7: LaVell Edwards is inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

During the 2004–2005 men’s basketball season, a group of freshmen added “Cecil” to the end of the common “whoosh” cheer after a made free throw. Aubrey Larsen, a member of that group and now a BYU grad, told The Universe in 2013 they wanted to do something about President Samuelson’s game-day lack of emotion. (The 9–21 record that season didn’t help.)

“President Samuelson was still pretty new at BYU, and we were all a bit skeptical as to where his allegiance was, since he was heavily involved in the (University of Utah’s) booster club prior to coming to BYU,” Larsen recalled. “We joked that he probably wore red socks to every game, because he couldn’t really cheer for BYU. … There were a lot of President Samuelson jokes and such going around then, as that was the same time the ‘Cecil is my Homeboy’ T-shirts were all over campus. I think everyone at BYU was just making light of the situation that our school president came from our arch enemy. Our saying was just our contribution to all the ‘Cecil’ fervor that year.”

President Samuelson gives the student section a thumbs up. (Photo by Whitnie Soelberg)
President Samuelson gives the student section a thumbs up. (Photo by Whitnie Soelberg)

The now-famous cheer took several seasons to gain traction. By the 2007–2008 season, several dozen fans would chant “Whoosh! Cecil!” after successful free throw attempts, but it wasn’t until Jimmer Fredette’s junior and senior seasons (2009–2010, 2010–2011) that President Samuelson started giving thumbs up to the crowd and the cheer became what BYU fans know and love today.


The Brimhall building undergoes a major renovation and becomes home to the Department of Communications.

March 1: Tom Holmoe named as BYU’s athletic director.

Bronco Mendenhall is named as BYU’s head football coach; Dave Rose is named as BYU’s head men’s basketball coach. Both have gone on to have successful careers at BYU, consistently producing winning teams while also teaching athletes what matters most.

Sept. 20: President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicates the Joseph F. Smith building at the Marriott Center in front a capacity crowd.

President Joseph F. Smith served as a counselor to four presidents of the Church — Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wildford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow. He served as president of the Church for 17 years.

“It is my opinion that no man, save the Prophet Joseph only, has had a greater and better understanding of the origin and history of the Church and of its doctrines — not only concerning this life but also concerning the eternities,” President Hinckley said during the dedication. “There have been other great exponents, but I think none has had a broader or deeper understanding, nor spoken so eloquently concerning these matters.”


April: Northwest Commission on College and Universities reaffirms BYU’s accreditation for another 10 years.

May 20: 100-year anniversary of the Block Y — the Y is 380 feet tall, 130 feet wide and covers 32,847 square feet.

December: Demolition begins on Deseret Towers, continuing through 2007.

In a Sept. 12, 2006, Devotional, President Samuelson talked about the lasting friendships we can develop at BYU:

“If I were a student, which I try to be, I would now be entering my senior year at BYU. I have been generally delighted by my experiences and hope that this is your lot as well. BYU is wonderful. It is also a big, complicated and sometimes intimidating place. I am grateful to so many who go out of their way to be friendly and extend greetings as we pass each other on the campus. I hope that all of you will make special efforts to reach out and befriend your new associates. Some of you come with already-made friends and previous contacts. While these relationships will and should continue, I hope and ask that all of you will consciously seek to broaden your circles, meet new friends and always be friendly and courteous to everyone you encounter. This is part of what BYU is and should be.”


June 23: Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitor’s Center is dedicated on President Hinckley’s 97th birthday; the $35 million, 83,000-square-foot building was paid for entirely by donations.

“As you have changed the skyline of the Church around the world,” President Samuelson said during the dedication ceremony, “so has this building changed the skyline of this campus.”

August: The Princeton Review ranks BYU as the No. 1 stone cold sober school for the 10th consecutive year; BYU has maintained the title every year since then.

Sept. 18: The Wall Street Journal ranks BYU’s MBA program as the No. 1 program among regional schools.

April 26: Vice President Dick Cheney speaks during spring commencement ceremonies.

“You may face some disappointing turns of your own — times when you fall short, knowing you could have done better,” Cheney said during his speech. “And when that happens, don’t give up or let your doubts get the best of you. … Setbacks in life can stop you dead in your tracks or they can inspire you forward. Either way, you’ll look back on them as turning points. They are crucial days in your life when you see the starkest kind of choice and know that it belongs to you alone.”


Photo by Amber Clawson

Jan. 27: President Gordon B. Hinckley, who called President Samuelson as president of BYU, passes away at age 98.

“With all of the wonderful occurrences and experiences of the recent academic year, we also note with great tenderness the recent passing of our beloved prophet and leader President Gordon B. Hinckley,” President Samuelson said during spring commencement ceremonies. “We will ever be grateful for his love and great influence on this campus and on its students, staff and faculty.”

March 27: The animation department creates the BYU Center for Animation. Pixar president Ed Catmull says, “BYU is producing the best in the industry.”

June 10: The AdLab wins the Global L’Oreal Brandstorm competition in Paris, the first team from the U.S. in its 16-year history to do so.

Oct. 24: President Thomas S. Monson dedicates the new 76,000-square-foot addition to the N. Eldon Tanner Building.

Dec. 19: BYU announces a hiring freeze in light of the recession that was the country’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. President Samuelson was able to help navigate BYU through these trying times.

During the first University Devotional address after the announcement on Jan. 6, 2009, the Samuelsons urged the BYU community to trust in the Lord in light of confusion and turmoil.

“This past year we have seen that conditions of the world economically, politically and socially can be extremely dark and depressing without the hope and knowledge of the Savior’s mission and message,” Sister Samuelson said.

“Trust in its various dimensions is essential for each of us and for the world around us as well,” President Samuelson said. “I speak not in favor of blind trust but for the essentiality of informed and earned trust that is integral to all that is good, necessary and uplifting.”


Sept. 1: The College of Health and Human Performance is dissolved — several academic programs transition into the Marriott School of Management, College of Life Sciences and the College of Fine Arts & Communications.

May 2: The men’s rugby team wins national title over UC Berkeley 25–22 in fourth straight trip to championship game.


June: Construction begins on the new Heritage Halls buildings.

August: BYU declares independence in football — all other teams join the West Coast Conference; BYU announces eight-year television deal with ESPN and a six-game deal with Notre Dame.

“Being independent increases access to our national following of fans,” (athletic director Tom) Holmoe said during a press conference. “Every home football game and men’s basketball game will now be carried nationally.”

Sept. 13: The Wall Street Journal ranks BYU as No. 11 in its first recruiter rankings project; BYU accounting program ranked as No. 1.

Dec. 10: BYU announces the end to a two-year hiring freeze.

During a commencement address given on Aug. 12, 2010, President Samuelson recalled interacting with Mike Wallace, the host of “60 Minutes,” and President James E. Faust during the 2002 Winter Olympics held in Salt Lake City:

“You may recall that Mike Wallace twice interviewed President Gordon B. Hinckley on his television program. While Mr. Wallace could never trip up or confuse President Hinckley with his penetrating questions, they became good friends as a result of these interviews, and Mike Wallace came to Salt Lake City for the Olympics as a guest of the Church. As we sat with these good people, it was clear that they were impressed, and Mr. Wallace frequently made very complimentary comments about President Hinckley.

“At the conclusion of the performance, we accompanied these VIPS to their limousine. On the way we met President and Sister James E. Faust of the First Presidency, who had also attended the performance.

“As I introduced President Faust to Mike Wallace and explained the close relationship President Faust and President Hinckley enjoyed in the First Presidency, Mr. Wallace said to President Faust, ‘You are just the man to answer a question I have had for some time. Gordon Hinckley is the most optimistic man I have ever met. Can you tell me why?’

“President Faust didn’t hesitate for even a moment and replied with a twinkle in his eye, ‘President Hinckley knows how all this is going to turn out.’”


BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson speaks with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the Marriott Center. Photo by Luke Hansen
BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson speaks with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the Marriott Center. (Photo by Luke Hansen)

Jan. 11: Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State, speaks on education, democracy, national security and her time in Washington during a university Forum address.

March 25: BYU plays host to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who spoke at the Marriott Center for a special technology forum.

April: Jimmer Fredette is named the consensus men’s basketball player of the year. The men’s basketball team makes it to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 30 years.

August: State-of-the-art, 100,000-square-foot Broadcasting Building is completed, allowing BYU to share messages across the globe.

Nov. 9: BYU announces construction of new 265,000-square-foot Life Sciences Building, to be completed in time for Fall 2014 semester.

January: BYU named Most Popular University in America by U.S. News for the second year in a row, with 79.7 percent of students accepted to BYU enrolling. BYU came in second place the following year, .1 percent behind Harvard.

President Samuelson commended the BYU community for its commitment to service during a Jan. 4, 2011, Devotional:

“One of the things that has impressed me in my BYU years is how much significant service really goes on at and originates from BYU. This includes not only the thousands of students who give so freely of time and talent but also the tremendous examples of faculty, staff and administrators in ways too numerous to mention individually. Many have learned that service to others is fundamental to our doctrine because of remarkable and meaningful service that has emanated from this university.”


August: First portions of new Heritage Halls buildings open. President Samuelson had overseen the housing plan northeast of campus. There are currently eight buildings open, with four more to be completed by August 2015.

October: President Thomas S. Monson announces the lowering of the minimum missionary age to 18 for men and 19 for women, leading to a 10 percent decrease in BYU’s student population. President Samuelson led BYU through decisions in managing enrollment.

President Samuelson talked about the BYU’s achievements and progress over time during an April 19, 2012, commencement address:

President and Sister Samuelson deliver the campus devotional.
President and Sister Samuelson deliver a campus Devotional.

“In accord with the prophecies made about this institution by our church leaders from the very beginning of our institution, Brigham Young University is progressing toward the goal of becoming the very fine university prophetic predictions have envisioned. While still needing to do many more things better than we do them today, we are now consistently in the top 10 in this nation of all baccalaureate degree — granting institutions in producing graduates who go on to earn Ph.D.s as well as professional degrees in dentistry, law, and medicine in addition to other fields. Our students and faculty continue to be widely recognized and saluted for their integrity and accomplishments.”


March: The LDS Church announces plans to expand the Missionary Training Center to its “west campus” at Raintree Commons and a portion of Wyview Park north of BYU campus.

May 4: Phase 1 of the Campus Drive redesign begins, permanently closing East Campus Drive south of Heritage Halls. All three phases of the project are set to be completed by August 2015, making campus a safer, more pedestrian-friendly environment.

President Samuelson is immortalized in BYU sports (and dessert) culture, as the BYU Creamery unveils a new flavor, “Whoosh! Cecil,” made of chocolate ice cream, salted caramel swirls and pralines.

At the beginning of a new school year, President Samuelson spoke to students during a Devotional address about failure and success. 

“We all have infirmities or weaknesses, inconsistencies and failings. We need to learn to bear with our own and also with those of others. We should not, as some people seem to do, have higher standards for others than we do for ourselves, but we also should not have unrealistically high expectations for ourselves. If we do, we are in effect failing to recognize not only the blessing but also the essentiality of the Savior’s Atonement in the Father’s plan for each of us.”

2014: March 11: President Henry B. Eyring announces the release of President Samuelson, effective May 1. Advancement vice president Kevin J Worthen will take his place.

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