20 years later: 1996 BYU football team returns to Provo

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Ari Davis
Players, coaches and administrators from the 1996 Cotton Bowl Championship team had a reunion during BYU football media day. (Ari Davis)

The 1996 BYU football team owns one of the greatest seasons in the history of the program. The team played the first 15-game season in college football history and played in the program’s first and only New Year’s Day bowl game.

The 1996 team returned to Provo for its 20-year anniversary on June 30 as part of BYU football’s media day activities.

Running back Brian McKenzie was thrilled to be back on campus.

“It’s amazing to be back here again,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie was just one of a handful of key players on the 1996 team, which finished the season 14-1. McKenzie rushed for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns as the “Thunder” to Ronney Jenkins’ “Lightning” in the backfield. Jenkins rushed for 733 yards and 11 touchdowns.

McKenzie reminisced about playing rival Utah in the final game of the regular season. He remembered that Utah head coach Ron McBride knew of Jenkins, but had no idea who McKenzie was.

“What really got me burning is that Ron McBride didn’t know my name,” McKenzie said. “He knew Ronney (Jenkins), but he didn’t know my name.”

McKenzie used the disrespect as motivation to rush for 176 yards as BYU steamrolled the Utes 37-17.

Quarterback Steve Sarkisian, who threw for over 4,000 yards and 33 touchdowns, was unable to attend the reunion, but sent his best wishes through Chad Lewis.

“Steve really wanted to be here,” Lewis said. “He wished he could’ve been here.”

Notwithstanding all the individual statistics that were racked up, all the players gave credit for the success to the man on the sidelines, LaVell Edwards. For the players, Edwards’ impact went far beyond the football field.

“He changed all of our lives,” Lewis said. “His mantra was ‘be where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there.'”

Wide receiver and current BYU coach Ben Cahoon noted Edwards’ “consistent, steady leadership,” and punt returner James Dye said Edwards “meant a lot” to him.

The 1996 team had an average margin of victory of 23.6 points and finished the season on a 12-game winning streak.

“We just played hard,” said Omarr Morgan, a cornerback on the team. “As hard as we could every play … we just thought we would win every game.”

They nearly did, falling only to Washington in week three. It was a loss that players said wouldn’t happen 90 percent of the time, but the Cougars are still just one of a handful of teams to win 14 games in a single season.

Current head coach Kalani Sitake referenced the success of the 1996 squad during media day, emphasizing the importance that his team remembers who came before them.

“It’s good to go back in the past and see who did all the hard work and laid the ground work,” Sitake said.

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