How BYU’s 1996 football team provided the blueprint for upcoming success in the Big 12

Story by Tanner Lewis with Jackson Payne. Cover art by Emme Franks.

This story is part of the November 2021 issue of the Daily Universe Magazine and Universe Live Magazine Show.

At halftime of BYU football’s matchup with Arizona State on Sept. 18, 2021, the 1996 edition of gridiron Cougars were honored on the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium. As a tribute video displayed notable moments from the magical season, a white-out sea of fans roared in appreciation. 

It’s been 25 years since this group of athletes played on the same field where they were being honored — not to mention in a stadium that now carries the name of their beloved coach. The 1996 team capped its tremendous and historic campaign by defeating Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, which is still the only New Year’s Day bowl appearance in BYU history. Now, in two short years, the Cougars and Wildcats will reunite in the Big 12 as new conference foes. 

BYU cheers as they win the 1996 Cotton Bowl. (Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)

Much has changed for BYU football in the past quarter-century. Long gone are their days in the Western Athletic Conference, jumping ship to the Mountain West in 1999, shuffling through independence in the 2010s and now preparing for their new Big 12 digs to finally place the Cougars in the major conference position they have long sought after. Former 1996 players Aaron Roderick and Ed Lamb now find themselves on BYU’s coaching staff, and a few of their teammates now have sons suiting up for the Cougars. 

While the 1996 halftime recognition was about remembering and honoring the past, in many ways it was also a glance ahead. In reality, the 1996 football squad offers the program a blueprint for future success when BYU joins the Big 12 and beyond, making the 1996 legacy stronger and more relevant than ever before.

“I would say that what they brought was that standard of excellence, showing what the BYU football program could be,” 1996 defensive lineman Matt Peel said. “Now you see that we’re going to the Big 12, to continue that legacy with all the teams that we’ve had. I think (the 1996 team) is one of the best teams that we’ve ever had and put BYU on the map.”

The 1996 Cougars stand alone from other units because of who they played and, more importantly, how they played. After taking down No. 13 Texas A&M in the opening Pigskin Classic, the Cougars went undefeated at home en route to a then-NCAA record 14 victories on the season and finishing No. 5 in the country. They swept their rivals with road wins over Utah, Utah State and a dramatic overtime victory over No. 20 Wyoming in the WAC conference title game.

Going undefeated at home, sweeping rivals, ranking in the Top 25 and playing on New Year’s comprise quite the resume for the 1996 team, and those same standards are being pursued by the current crop of Cougars. A sign hanging in BYU’s meeting room details the goals of every BYU football team going forward, reading “We will be bowl eligible, protect LaVell’s house, win the rivalries, (have a) Top-25 ranking and make a NY6 bowl.”

A sign with goals the BYU football team will accomplish hanging in the team meeting room. (Dallin Wilks)

Entering the Big 12 will add the target of winning a conference championship to that list, and the 1996 team offers the perfect blueprint to achieve each of those goals.

The 1996 team was a perfect example of balance in all aspects of the game, excelling on offense, defense and special teams. Today, head coach Kalani Sitake has continued to stress the same principles on both sides of the ball.

Led by the Sammy Baugh Trophy winner Steve Sarkisian, the 1996 offense was one of the most explosive units in BYU history — quite impressive for a school with such an existing tradition of scoring prowess. Sarkisian continued the legacy of great BYU quarterbacks, distributing the ball to many different playmakers and setting an NCAA record for the most yards of total offense in two seasons with 6,996. 

“Steve was the field general,” running back James Dye said. “He was the architect. He was the coach/player on the field.” 

A dynamic quarterback like Sarkisian is critical to BYU’s success in the Big 12. Sitake developed Zach Wilson into the No. 2 overall pick and this year Jaren Hall has filled in well. Quarterback play has always been one of the foundations for BYU’s success. With names like Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, Ty Detmer and John Beck, it’s easy to see why people call BYU “QBU.” That will have to continue for BYU to have success in the Big 12.

Sarkisian’s many targets featured the two-headed backfield monster of Brian McKenzie and Ronney Jenkins. McKenzie and Jenkins both ran for more than 700 yards in 1996, adding a strong rushing element to an offense traditionally dominated by passing. 

“We’re gonna change it up. We’re not gonna throw the ball, we’re gonna run the ball,” Jenkins said, quoting Edwards after beating Utah in 1996. 

McKenzie and Jenkins each racked up more than 150 yards on the ground against the Utes, prompting legendary former Cougar quarterback Jim McMahon to quip, “What is this? This is not BYU Football. What’s with all this running?”

Having a power running game will be essential for BYU’s success in the Big 12. The ability to win games on the ground is a blueprint the 1996 team helped establish. Luckily for BYU, that blueprint is alive and well. 

Since 1996, BYU has had its four best running backs in program history run through the door: Doak Walker Award Winner Luke Staley and all-time leading rushers Jamaal Williams, Harvey Unga and Curtis Brown. Today, Sitake implements that blueprint with a two-headed running attack in Tyler Allgeier and Lopini Katoa.

Don’t be fooled by the rushing attack, however, as the 1996 Cougars could still hurt opponents through the air. A plethora of pass-catchers, including K.O. Kealaluhi, Aaron Roderick, James Dye, Kaipo McGuire, Dustin Johnson, Itula Mili and Chad Lewis propelled Sarkisian to throw for more than 4,000 yards. It was a deep, talented group of receivers and tight ends, with Lewis even reaching All-Pro status in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles. 

BYU’s current receiving corps, led by Neil Pau’u, Gunner Romney and the Nacua brothers, is similarly explosive. Add tight ends Isaac Rex and Dallin Holker to the mix, and the air raid is truly alive and well, and fan-favorite fullback Masen Wake has even become a master of the hurdle just as Lewis was years ago. The swagger, attitude and skill of today’s receivers emulate the 1996 team, and while their scoring numbers may not be as earth-shattering, the group remains dangerously potent following the same 1996 blueprint.

Special teams often make or break a team’s performance, and 1996 was no different. James Dye — arguably the greatest return man in school history — averaged around 26 yards per kick return, 20 yards on punt returns and scored three return touchdowns in 1996. Fans even coined the phrase “you punt, you Dye” in response to Dye’s dominance. 

“You punt, you die” remains true at BYU today, but for a different reason. Punter Ryan Rehkow has broken out as one of the best punters in the nation. Rehkow, just minutes prior to the 1996 halftime ceremony, set a school record by blasting an 83-yard punt against Arizona State, just one of 22 beautiful boots averaging more than 50 yards on the season.

Rehkow isn’t the only Cougar with a powerful leg, as kicker Jake Oldroyd recently broke a record of his own with his 16th consecutive made field goal. Both Rehkow and Oldroyd are clear NFL talents, making this year’s specialist squad nearly as special as the 1996 model. 

Ryan Rehkow punts against Arizona State during the 2021 season. (Rebeca Fuentes/BYU Photo)

On defense, the 1996 Cougars were fierce, physical and full of attitude, led by linebacker Shay Muirbrook and defensive backs Tim McTyer and Omarr Morgan.

“We wanted to be recognized and we wanted to be talked about the same way they talk about BYU offenses,” Muirbrook told KSL. “We wanted people to know…regardless of the outcome they were going to walk off the field knowing that they got beat physically.”

A physical defense will be critical for success in the Big 12. A strong, physical defensive line matched with playmakers in the linebacker corps will provide a strong foundation. Sitake has already established a track record for developing speedy, physical linebackers including Fred Warner and Sione Takitaki, both now playing in the NFL. Signing and developing NFL caliber defensive lineman such as Khyiris Tonga, now with the Chicago Bears, will be needed to stop the high-octane offensive style of play in the Big 12.

“Many of us patterned our style of play after that dominating 1996 team. The way they played the game was physical, entertaining, and dominant. I’m seeing glimpses of that in this next generation of (Cougars),” former BYU running back Manase Tonga tweeted during this year’s Arizona State game. 

The 1996 team wasn’t just a group of guys who played football together, it was a family. They came together when it mattered most and had a coach who forged a bond between every player on the roster.

“Our team was just really tight it seemed like. It was just a great experience to have a real team all season long that battled through things,” tight end Dustin Johnson said. “We had some great experiences, we achieved a lot in sports and friendships that are going to last a lifetime.”

McTyer added that the team’s family mentality in 1996 is clearly evident in today’s Cougars. “We left what they’re talking about now: team, unity, family. We were that in 1996 in all phases. We were a team. We had unity, it was a family.”

There’s been no better example of the current unity than following the win over Utah this season, where Hall led the postgame locker room speech to give Sitake some appreciation, a scene that reignited the sense of love and gratitude of Edwards’ time as head coach.

“We know Coach always teaches us to be humble and love our families,” Hall said. “He’s brought us into this program and made us into the team that played out there today because of the things we learned off the field.”

Although the brief halftime shoutout was but a moment in time, the legacy of the 1996 team will clearly live on for years to come. Their footprint has never been more important and visible within the program than it is today. 

The Cougars may be entering uncharted territory in the Big 12 in 2023, but 1996 will always be the example to follow. It was, is and will be the blueprint for success.

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