BYU gave five former Cougars “legend” status as they were inducted into the BYU Athletic Hall of Fame on Friday, Oct. 16.
Former players, former coaches and current coaches send nominations to the Athletic Hall of Fame committee. The committee then usually selects five former players or coaches each year to induct. The five selected this year are Rob Morris (football), coach Willard Hirschi (track and field), Nina Puikkonen Mortensen (volleyball), John Hedengren (cross country/track and field) and Luke Staley (football).
Six criteria have to be met in order for a candidate to even be considered for a spot in the Hall of Fame.
The athletic achievement of the prospective inductees are first reviewed. The athlete must have been named an All-American, and must have have graduated from a university (not necessarily BYU). Athletes must wait at least 10 years after their last season of collegiate eligibility. The athlete’s professional achievement (sports or profession) is reviewed, and lastly, the athlete’s contribution to society is considered.
“Every class we induct is impressive,” said Duff Tittle, BYU associate athletic director and 18-year member of the Hall of Fame Committee. “They are all really well-rounded. It is an amazing honor to be inducted into the BYU Hall of Fame as less than one percent of all athletes that participate at BYU have the opportunity to be inducted.”
Rob Morris earned All-American status twice (1998 and 1999) and was a two-time Western Athletic Conference selection. Morris accounted for 147 tackles in 1998, ranking him seventh all-time for single-season tackles in school history. He was awarded the WAC Defensive Player of the Year award that same year. He was also team captain and semi-finalist for the Butkus Award in 1999. Morris was a fan favorite and was nicknamed “Rob ‘Freight Train’ Morris.”
“We had a great run there and won a lot of championships, and Rob was an integral part of it,” legendary Cougar football coach LaVell Edwards said. “He was a tough player and initially came as a running back, but went on to become a great linebacker for us — one of the very best.”
Morris went on to a successful career in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts. He had 482 tackles, seven sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one interception during his career. He received the NFL’s Ed Block Courage Award in 2002, an award given to select players that are voted on by their teammates as role models of inspiration, sportsmanship and courage. Morris helped the Colts a few years later to win Super Bowl XLI.
“You know, it was exciting (to be nominated),” Morris said. “It’s a great honor for me. There are so many great BYU athletes in the Hall of Fame, and so it’s a good deal.”
Willard Hirschi spent an unprecedented 36 years of leading the BYU track team to success.
“Willard was, I would call him, a ‘high yield, low maintenance’ coach,” former BYU athletic director Val Hale said. “You know, we always got a lot of great results out of him and his time. I mean his team always produced winners and did really well.”
Hirschi first helped the track and field team as an assistant coach from 1964-1988 before becoming the head coach in 1988. Hirschi coached his team to dominance in the Western Athletic and Mountain West Conferences over the following 12 years. His teams won 11-straight indoor conference championships (1990-2000) and nine outdoor conference championships (1989-93, 1995, 1998-2000). He coached his teams to three top-15 finishes in both the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships. He had 29 athletes who gained 57 All-American honors and three athletes who won six titles at the NCAA championships.
Hirschi was also named the USA Track and Field coach twice — for the Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996) Olympics. He has served in multiple church callings and as an ordinance worker in the Mt. Timpanogos Temple. He loves local history and has conducted research on the Southern Utah and Arizona Strip areas. He has also written biographies on all the World War II and Korean War veterans in his hometown of Rockville, Utah.
Hirschi said he never thought he would one day be inducted into the Hall of Fame and was “shocked” when he found out he would be inducted.
He added that BYU had helped him become better because, “Trying to live up to the standards of the university and the church is always an invigorating and enlightening experience.”
Nina Puikkonen Mortensen
“(Nina) is one of those people that does everything you ask, works very hard and she’s going to give you her best effort all the time,” former BYU women’s volleyball coach Elaine Michaelis said. “She’s very well qualified to receive this honor.”
Puikkonen Mortensen began her very successful BYU career in 1998 with a bang. She led the nation (and eventually set a BYU record) with an average of 2.17 blocks per set. She was named the WAC volleyball Freshman of the Year when after helping BYU to an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA tournament. Puikkonen Mortensen would later lead the team to a Sweet 16 reappearance the following season.
Puikkonen Mortensen finished her senior season with an average of 4.24 kills per game despite a leg injury. She received All-American accolades in three straight seasons (1998-2000) and was the all-time leader at BYU in blocks per game (1.87), career hitting percentage (.349). She also finished third in kills per game (3.96), fourth in solo blocks (105) and made the top-10 in career digs (840) by the end of her BYU career.
Puikkonen Mortensen played with the U.S. National Team in 2002, competed professionally in Finland and coached as an assistant at UVU after leaving BYU.
“The feeling I have had (since hearing about the induction) is just an overwhelming sense of gratitude,” Puikkonen Mortensen said. “I really feel like my time here shaped much of who I am today, so to be given this kind of honor, I was just overwhelmed.”
John Hedengren participated in a combined 11 cross country and track and field conference championships during his career. He earned All-MWC honors three seasons in a row, earned an individual title in 1999 and All-American status in 2000. He has also been named a CoSIDA All-American five times, a feat no other athlete in BYU history has ever achieved. He maintained a 3.95 GPA in chemical engineering and was awarded the prestigious NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship following his senior season.
“(John) was a great individual—great student, great athlete. He worked hard,” Hirschi said.
Hedengren has earned both a master’s and a doctorate degree. He worked with oil and gas companies in Houston on research and development projects for six years before accepting a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at BYU. He earned the AIChE CAST Division Himmelblau Award in 2014, which recognizes individuals or groups who make new and novel contributions to computer aids for chemical engineering education.
“BYU has always been a placed that I’ve loved,” Hedengren said. “Having them call me and say that I was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, I just thought, ‘What? BYU is awesome, I love BYU, and I’m just so glad to be a part of it.”
“(Luke) has displayed outstanding character on and off the field, has demonstrated outstanding leadership throughout the season and is a vital part of the success we have been able to achieve this season as a team,” former BYU football head coach Gary Crowton said in a press release near the end of the 2001 season. “Athletically, he has demonstrated on a consistent basis, his ability to perform at the highest level. He has shown, week-in and week-out, that he is one of the top running backs in the country.”
Staley was named MWC Freshman of the Year after putting up an impressive 771 yards of total offense and 13 touchdowns in his first year as a Cougar. He battled a mid-season knee surgery in his sophomore campaign, yet still managed 806 total yards yards and seven touchdowns. Staley led all of Division-I football with 8.1 yards per carry and scored 15.1 points per game in his junior season, when he broke the 29-year-old BYU single-season rushing record with 1,582 yards. Staley also set a single-season school record with 28 touchdowns in 2001. He was awarded the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back and was a consensus first-team All-American.
“It was rewarding to hear (about being inducted),” Staley said. “It’s one of those things you wish you could bring your whole team that was here and was part of what I did.”
Staley is the current record holder for BYU rushing touchdowns in a career (48), season (28) and game (5). He is the BYU career leader in total points scored by a non-kicker (290) and is seventh in career rushing yards (2,644). Staley was drafted in the seventh round to the Detroit Lions in the 2002 NFL Draft.