A recent compilation by the Associated Press recognized the Top 100 college football programs of all time as determined by the AP ranking system.
The majority of the teams listed have rich and storied gridiron traditions … and the team from a private school in Provo, Utah, that earned the No. 34 spot is no exception.
2016 is a unique year for BYU’s football legacy as there is a greater connection between the past and present than ever before.
For the first time in decades, the Cougars have a former player return to become the head coach as Kalani Sitake is now at the helm.
He brought a significant contingent of former BYU athletes with him as assistant coaches to mold the next generation of Cougar football players.
But just what does the legacy of BYU football mean to the guys who have taken the field wearing the blue-and-white Cougar uniforms?
“Tradition is all about what has happened in years past,” Sitake said. “We’re trying to have our guys remember what others have sacrificed to get BYU to where it is at right now, to have ownership and be willing to carry that with them. There are a lot of people looking at our players now to carry on what others started. I look forward to these guys knowing their role in the whole BYU football picture and the opportunity of carrying the torch.”
Perhaps no one understands it as well as the main architect of BYU’s football tradition, Hall-of-Fame coach LaVell Edwards.
“I think tradition is very important,” Edwards said. “It’s important for the players that you recruit to coming into a winning program because you don’t have tradition unless you have winning. If you have that -- I’ve had both -- it’s so much easier to recruit when you have things going well for you.”
Sitake said he views his current job as a stewardship over what Edwards built during nearly three decades of Cougar success.
“I get emotional talking about LaVell,” Sitake said. “He never made it about himself. For a legendary coach to have the humility that he had, to really care about his players and his assistant coaches, I thought that was a great example. I hope can be the type of guy he is and the type of example he was to me as a person and as a head coach. Hopefully our players can feel about me the way I felt about him.”
Edwards is confident that the BYU football team is in good hands.
“I think the fact that Kalani played here made a big difference when he came,” Edwards said. “I think they will carry on the same tradition of winning.”
That’s the pressure that is on Sitake and his staff, since Edwards and, more recently, Bronco Mendenhall won a lot more games than they lost.
Cougar offensive coordinator Ty Detmer won a Heisman Trophy as a BYU quarterback and knows the expectations that are on the coaches and players.
“You feel that responsibility,” Detmer said. “You know everyone is looking at the offense because that is kind of the nature of BYU. You want the players to be able to understand it, to be able to go play and let their ability take over.”
Detmer is one of many of the assistant coaches and football personnel who are former Cougar players, a list that includes guys like Ed Lamb, Steve Kaufusi, Reno Mahe, Ben Cahoon, Mike Empey and Jernaro Gilford.
“That really is tremendous,” Edwards said. “A lot of those guys played together. I think the fact that they are grounded in BYU -- because it is a little bit unique with the rules you have to abide by -- I think they already know. It’s not a big thing for them to come in and go right to work. That they were part of the tradition has made it really nice.”
Detmer said the emotional tie to a place where you played football changes the perspective.
“It’s more than a job,” Detmer said. “It means something to you. You don’t want to be the guy to come in and screw it up. There is definitely more to it when it is your alma mater.”
Cahoon explained that it’s important for the players and coaches to really value what they have.
“It’s a special place,” Cahoon said. “I think those who have played here and gone to school here appreciate that more than anyone. The challenge is and hope is that we don’t take that for granted, that we embrace it every single day and make the most of every day that we work here. We want to be committed to getting better every day.”
For their part, the BYU players see their coaches a little differently as well.
“I think it’s great that all of our coaches used to play here at BYU because they just care so much, more than just a regular coach would,” Cougar junior center Tejan Koroma said. “They care because they love this program and they love their players. There is definitely a tradition of winning here at BYU and those guys are coming in wanting to keep it going. There is a different kind of energy, of emotion and passion that these guys bring, because they are BYU guys. They love BYU just as much as we do.”
Cougar senior running back Jamaal Williams is one of many athletes who didn’t know a lot about the Cougar tradition before getting to Provo but now considers it immensely valuable.
“It’s the same tradition but every era has its own type of flavor and style to it,” Williams said. “I’m grateful for all the former players who come back and tell us about their experiences, it’s great to hear about it. It’s great to be a part of something that has been going for so long.”
Kaufusi said that he sees BYU tradition emphasizing the life balance that extends beyond just the confines of the football field or the locker room
“I’m honored to be part of something bigger than myself,” Kaufusi said. “I’m grateful to have been here through three coaches now, that Kalani gave me an opportunity to be here still and do my thing, to educate and teach young people about what BYU stands for. It’s not all about them but it’s about everything else. You can be a great player and live the high standards, stand tall with everything you believe in.”
Gilford took it a step further as he explained how encompassing the Cougar legacy is to him.
“BYU football is about being smart, being competitive, about winning, about being loyal to your brothers on the field and everyone in the community,” Gilford said. “BYU football is bigger than just us and the players; it’s everybody that is affiliated with BYU. It’s the culture, it’s the religion, it’s everything. People don’t get a feel for that until they are actually here.”
He concluded that now, more than a decade after he concluded his playing career and having been a coach, he appreciates even more what he is a part of.
“When you leave, you look back and realize all the great things, the great atmosphere and everything,” Gilford said. “That’s BYU football. It’s a true blessing. You don’t realize how many fans are out there all over the country and the world. I don’t care where you go. It’s got to be one of the greatest traditions around.”