Ralph R. Zobell | Posted: 22 Sep 2016 | Updated: 8 Nov 2020

Celebrating 20th anniversary of 1997 Cotton Bowl

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Story originally published in BYU football Gameday Guide vs. UCLA, Sept. 17, 2016


Three high-water marks that stand out among the many accolades in BYU football lore:
1: The 1984 National Championship.
2: Ty Detmer winning the Heisman Trophy in 1990.
3: The New Year’s Day Cotton Bowl victory over Kansas State in 1997, culminating the great season 20 years ago.

Where were you 20 years ago when Nike was in its inaugural season as the official BYU uniform sponsor and the nearby Mount Timpanogos Temple was dedicated in October? Go ahead, savor and immerse yourself, reflecting on the 1996 season.

Twenty years ago, Detmer, BYU’s rookie offensive coordinator, watched the Cougars defeat K-state on TV from Philadelphia. The previous day he viewed the televised game of his brother Koy quarterbacking Colorado to a defeat over Washington (33-21), the lone blemish for BYU’s 1996 season.

In 1996, Ty was in San Francisco when his kid brother was preparing for that Holiday Bowl victory over the Huskies. A month earlier he cast his ballot for the Heisman Trophy which Florida’s Danny Wuerffel won.

Two days before BYU beat KSU in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Cougar legends Detmer and Steve Young squared off as starting QBs. Young’s 49ers beat the Eagles in that playoff game, but Ty couldn’t go to San Diego the next day to join the Detmer clan even though his season was done.

“I had to fly back with the team back to Philadelphia for meetings and then flew to Orlando (Florida) for the Children’s Miracle Network,” Detmer said.

Ty Detmer’s NCAA record of 162.7 career pass efficiency was in jeopardy in 1996, until BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian’s career pass efficiency dropped to 162.21 following the 28-25 overtime victory over Wyoming in the Western Athletic Conference Championships at Las Vegas.

The reward for winning that WAC title was the Cotton Bowl with a payout of $2,000,000 per team. BYU had been courted by the higher paying Fiesta (Penn St. beat Texas 38-15) and Sugar (Florida beat Florida St. 52-20) Bowls. The Holiday Bowl was bypassed, though it was slated as the site for the eventual WAC champion.

Calling the radio play-by-play for flagship station KSL against Wyoming in Las Vegas was current BYU announcer Greg Wrubell, who moved from the sidelines in 1996 to temporarily replace Paul James.

James had suffered a heart attack the morning of the November 23 win at Utah, but insisted on remaining in the Ute press box to call the action in a 37-17 win. He returned mic-side for the Cotton Bowl.

Following the win on December 7 over Wyoming, Sarkisian flew to Orlando, Florida to be honored on the national Home Depot College Show on December 12. On December 13 in Provo, Cougar All-American tight end Itula Mili had surgery to repair ACL and MCL damage in his knee.

Because Mili was injured in the win over Wyoming, Sarkisian and future Pro Bowl tight end Chad Lewis both wore his No. 88 on their helmets in his honor in the Cotton Bowl.

Earlier that season, ESPN2 analyst Merrill Hoge was quoted: “The best way to control
BYU tight ends Chad Lewis and Itula Mili is to put them in the NFL.”

Lewis stepped up his game in the Cotton Bowl with five catches for 79 yards. Lewis signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1997 and ended up being a three-time Pro-Bowl selection. Mili rebounded from knee surgery and was drafted in the sixth round by the Seattle Seahawks and had a 10-year NFL career with them.

“This is as good of tight ends as we’ve ever had,” said coach LaVell Edwards as he began his 25th season at the Cougar helm in 1996. “We’ve got to find ways to get both of them in the game at the same time either out of the backfield or at split end.”

John Moala, an unknown 6-foot-7 freshman backup tight end was a January 1997 walk-on to the BYU basketball team and played nine games in its season that ended with a 1-25 record. Basketball stole the headlines when BYU returned from a 45-14 grid win at Hawaii as touted recruit Chris Burgess announced he was going to Duke and Cougar cage coach Roger Reid was let go.

Speaking of freshmen, Edwards made a preseason prediction in 1996.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if a couple of the freshmen played more this year than normal.” There were seven freshmen on the Cougar second unit.

True to form, freshmen offensive tackle John Tait started the entire season and rookie defensive end Byron Frisch started eight games. Speedy freshman running back Ronney Jenkins, who had been clocked at 4.3 seconds in a 40-yard dash, had two 100 yard-plus rushing games in 1996, vs. Rice and 156 yards and three touchdowns against Utah.

Teammate Brian McKenzie had four 100 yard-plus rushing games in 1996 vs. Arkansas State, Tulsa (repeat 1995), Hawaii (repeat 1995) and Utah. Utah was the high-water mark for McKenzie, with 176 yards when he teamed with Jenkins in a shift from a passing attack that tallied eight completions and 63 rushes.

“The turning point of the season was at Tulsa (game No. 8) when we found out we could run the ball consistently,” said McKenzie in 1996 of that season.

Another weapon in the 1996 offensive arsenal was punt/kick returner James Dye. He electrified crowds with two punt returns and one kickoff return for touchdowns, a constant threat to take one to the house.

The only damper other than Mili’s injury was a game No. 3 loss at Washington (29-17) during the 1996 season. The night prior to that loss in Seattle, ABC TV analyst Dick Vermeil swapped audible nuances with BYU offensive guru Norm Chow at the team hotel.

Vermeil returned to a head-coaching role the next season with the St. Louis Rams, preceded by a seven-year stint with the Eagles and followed by a five-year term at the helm of the Kansas City Chiefs. Four seasons later, Chow left BYU for North Carolina State after 27 years on Edwards’ staff.

During the 1996 season, missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attended en masse for both victories at Tulsa and the Cotton Bowl. A benefactor donated a couple hundred tickets for missionaries to watch the Cotton Bowl and one of those RMs now works for Cotton Bowl hero Ed Kehl.

Were it not for the white shirts and name tags, those missionaries would have been obscure in a sea of purple-clad Kansas State fans at the Cotton Bowl. Following BYU’s wins over KSU, Cougar fans descended on the field like the beginning of the season when BYU upset then No. 12 Texas A&M, 41-37, in the Pigskin Classic at Provo.

Some of those fans packed corridors of the Salt Lake City airport (pre-9/11) when the Cougar gridders snaked their way through the crowds.

BYU fans weren’t the only swarm in 1996. The Cougar defense made life miserable behind stellar play from four first-team All-WAC players. Defensive backs Omarr “The Blanket” Morgan and Tim McTyer, tackle Henry Bloomfield and middle linebacker Shay Muirbrook were formidable.

A late-game blocked field goal by Morgan preserved a 17-14 win against New Mexico, yet he is better known for his last minute interception to save the game at the Cotton Bowl thanks to a pre-snap tip from Kehl.

Muirbrook was inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame in 2012. It was a season to be with five pre-season publications ranking BYU in the top 40, with a high of No. 25 by Blitz Magazine. Arkansas State (Game No. 2) was a late replacement for Alabama who dropped BYU from its schedule.

As the 1996 season progressed, writers began to visit Provo or do phone interviews with Cougar gridders. Among those news outlets were Sports Illustrated, the Dallas Morning News, the Tacoma News Tribune, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, ESPN, Football News, Athletic Management Magazine, the Daily Oklahoman, the Los Angeles Times and Sports Fan Radio.

The Texas A&M opener on August 24 was the earliest start date for football in NCAA history. The season was the first for tiebreaker overtimes and BYU claimed the 26th OT win of 1996 with the win over Wyoming.

After playing (15) and winning (14) more games than any NCAA team in a single season, BYU ended up with a No. 5 ranking after cracking the top 10 in mid-November. Florida, Ohio State, Florida State and Arizona State were ranked ahead of the Cougars.

The Cougars were named the most improved team in the NCAA, rebounding from a 7-4 season to a 14-1 record in 1996.

Here is a listing of several of the prominent players on that 1997 Cotton Bowl Team



Current Occupation


Current residence

K.O. Kealaluhi

Wide Receiver

Grossmont CC Football Coach

Makawao, HI

Alpine, CA

Kaipo McGuire

Wide Receiver

Captain in U.S. Air Force

Pearl City, HI

Vail, AZ

Ben Cahoon

Wide Receiver

BYU Football Asst. Coach

Orem, UT

Cedar Hills, UT

Chad Lewis

Tight End

BYU Athletics

Orem, UT

Cedar Hills, UT

Itula Mili

Tight End

L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

Laie, HI

Herrimann, UT

Eric Bateman

Off. Tackle

Business Dvpt. Advisor

Camarillo, CA

Friendswood, TX

Matt Cox

Off. Guard

Financial Advisor

Walpole, MA

Arvada, CO

Larry Moore


Football Coach Incarnate Word Univ.

La Mesa, CA

San Antonio, TX

James Johnson

Off. Guard

Business insurance

Provo, UT

Temecula, CA

John Tait

Off. Tackle

Retired NLF

Tempe, AZ

Lafayette, CA

Steve Sarkisian


Fox Sports1

Torrance, CA

Southern California

Dustin Johnson


L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

Eagar, AZ

Orem, Utah

Mark Atuaia


Virginia Football Assistant

Laie, HI


Brian McKenzie


Liahona Academy

Sarasota, FL

St. George, UT

Ronney Jenkins

Running Back

Personal Trainer

Port Hueneme, CA

Southern Californi






Ed Kehl

Defensive End

Sales Director for DealerSocket


Sandy, UT

Byron Frisch

Defensive End


Bonita, CA

Encinitas, CA

Daren Yancey

Defensive End

Gun Shop owner

Blackfoot, ID

Shelley, ID

Ed Lamb

Defensive End

BYU Football Asst. HC

Pleasanton, CA

Provo, UT

Henry Bloomfield

Def. Tackle

United Airlines

Taylorsville, UT

Buena Park, CA

Harland Ah You

Def. Tackle

Owner Mana Resources

Laie, HI

Middleton, ID

Spencer Reid


L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

Am. Samoa

Am. Fork, UT

Shay Muirbrook


Pacific Eagle Holdings

Norco, CA

Turlock, CA

Brad Martin



Clovis, CA

Deceased 5/30/06

Dennis Simmons


Univ. of Okla. Asst. Coach

Memphis, TN

Norman, OK

Tim McTyer

Left Corner


Los Angeles, CA

Los Angeles, CA

Chris Ellison

Strong Safety


Inglewood, CA

Los Angeles, CA

Eddie Sampson

Free Safety

Instructure Sales

Tacoma, WA


Jason Walker

Free Safety

Marina Sales

Springville, UT

Cedar Hills, UT

Lane Hale

Free Safety

Exec. VP Medical Device Co.

Danville, CA

Southlake, TX

Omarr Morgan

Right Corner

Coaching H.S. football

Los Angeles, CA

Hawthorne, CA

Ben Cook

Right Corner

Executive VP/Partner at Acumen Learning

Santaquin, UT

Lindon, UT

Alan Boardman



Kanab, UT

Holladay, UT

Ethan Pochman


VP Global Marketing Performance Health

Mercer Is., WA

Hudson, OH

James Dye


Coach Brazosport H.S.

Los Angles, CA

Bay City, TX

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