SAN DIEGO - Before it was SDCCU Stadium, the building was known as Qualcomm Stadium. Before that, it was Jack Murphy Stadium and prior to that it was San Diego Stadium.
No matter what it was called, it has been a place where some of the greatest moments in BYU football history took place.
As the Cougars walked into the stadium Saturday night to face San Diego State, many of the BYU supporters probably took a minute or two to remember some special performances:
Recently, there was the drama of the 24-21 Cougar win over Wyoming in the 2016 Poinsettia Bowl, secured when safety Kai Nacua intercepted a pass on the final drive for the Cowboys.
Who could forget the jaw-dropping showing of BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy in the 23-6 win over San Diego State in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl, when he scored two defensive touchdowns to propel the Cougars to victory.
Go back a couple of decades and there was the unbelievable BYU comeback led by quarterback Ty Detmer in 1991 to overcome a 28-point second-half deficit and tie the Aztecs, 52-52. Two games later, the Cougars would register their second tie in the same place as they matched No. 7 Iowa, 13-13, in the 1991 Holiday Bowl.
But for BYU greats punter Lee Johnson and wide receiver Mark Bellini -- both of whom were on the sideline Saturday night -- the most memorable times in San Diego came in the 1980s.
“Coming on the field today, my first thought was which end zone was was the epic, iconic Clay Brown catch?” Johnson said.
He recalled the Cougars being on the south side of the field (the same side as the SDSU on Saturday and thus the iconic Miracle Bowl connection from quarterback Jim McMahon to tight end Clay Brown being made in the west end zone to beat SMU, 46-45.
“SMU was really good,” Johnson said. “If you look at their roster and see how many players went pro, it would blow your mind.”
Even the most astute BYU fans might not remember Johnson’s contribution to the Cougars’ first Holiday Bowl win -- but he does.
“I remember I was a freshman kicking off,” Johnson said. “I had to kick the onside kicks. We kicked three of them in that game and my first was the most awful onside kick in the history of onside kicks. It went backwards. When I was going out to kick my next onside kick, I asked the special teams coach if he was sure he wanted me to kick it. He told me to get out there, so I went out there and kicked the one we got. It was great memories.”
He was back in San Diego for BYU’s second bowl win (a 38-36 over Washington State in 1981) but was redshirting when the Cougars suffered a 47-17 loss to Ohio State in the 1982 Holiday Bowl.
Johnson did remember clearly the 1983 Holiday Bowl as it featured another all-time great quarterback in Steve Young and another memorable finish.
“I didn’t have a great game against Missouri but I remember Steve and Eddie Stinnett having that great halfback pass at the end of the game,” Johnson said. “What a great game it was.”
Both Johnson and Bellini, however, pointed to what happened the following year in San Diego as one of their best experiences ever.
“This brings back a lot of great memories,” Bellini said. “We won the national championship here in this stadium, so there are a lot of memories.”
Johnson said: “That was big, going against Bo Schembechler and Michigan. They didn’t have a great team but it was Michigan. The ability to go in and do what we did to them was pretty amazing.”
BYU’s 24-17 victory over Michigan capped a perfect 13-0 season for the Cougars, resulting in the program’s only national championship.
SDCCU Stadium became a second home for BYU over the years as the Cougars played 13 bowl games there (11 Holiday Bowls, two Poinsettia Bowls) as well as facing the Aztecs there 17 times (including Saturday night’s contest).
“Just about every year I was at BYU we played the Holiday Bowl here,” Bellini said. “It was a home away from home.”
Johnson said he knows the connection between the Cougars and the SDCCU Stadium has waned over the years, since BYU doesn’t play San Diego State every year nor does it go to the Holiday Bowl regularly.
“The kids who have parents who played might understand,” Johnson said. “But it’s not the same. It was a different era then.”
But Saturday’s game will likely be the final time BYU will play at the venue.
San Diego State is proposing purchasing the stadium property and creating a new campus that would include demolishing SDCCU Stadium and replacing it with a new smaller stadium for the Aztecs to play in. Changes could begin as early as 2020.
For Bellini and Johnson, that fact made Saturday night’s visit even more special.
“It’s hard to put it into words,” Bellini said. “It’s just a special place and it always will be. When you are here, there are just so many great memories.”
Johnson said that while it is sad that change is coming, he believes it is the right thing for San Diego State.
“It would be so much better,” Johnson said. “You hate to see great memories change. Coming in to see former teammates like Mark Bellini and Ty Mattingly, We were reminiscing and it’s like you can’t change this -- but it’s hard to play in a big stadium without a lot of people.”