Kyle Whittingham set a record that night, but nobody ever talks about it.
It’s easy to see why: Jim McMahon stole the show.
Down by 20 points late in the fourth quarter of the 1980 Holiday Bowl, McMahon led BYU on a furious rally, famously completing a “Hail Mary“ touchdown pass to Clay Brown in the final seconds to give the Cougars a 46-45 victory that night in San Diego.
Understandably, McMahon, who will be inducted into BYU’s Athletic Hall of Fame next month, will forever be known as the hero of the game. But lost deep inside the stat sheet is the play of Whittingham, a junior linebacker, who recorded a then-record 16 tackles.
Whittingham, of course, isn’t involved with the Cougars anymore; oh he’s associated with them, sure, and as a distinguished alumnus he always will be. But now he’s a Ute and proud of it.
Just days removed from coaching the University of Utah to a key victory over Michigan in The Big House, Whittingham met with the media Monday afternoon inside Utah’s football facility.
He spoke about the win, which improved the Utes to 3-0 on the season.
He discussed this weekend’s Pac-12 opener with Washington State.
He talked about quarterback Travis Wilson’s need to think twice before trying to jump over oncoming defenders (the poor guy ended up eating a turf sandwich after diving head first into Michigan’s sidelines; fortunately he wasn’t badly hurt).
And the veteran coach also reflected on his relationship with McMahon, a fellow BYU captain whom the school announced last week will finally be enshrined in its sports hall of fame.
Whittingham, whose serious demeanor dictates a no nonsense approach to his weekly media availabilities, smiled at the mention of McMahon’s name and seemed only too happy to talk about his friend and former teammate.
Make no mistake, although the Utes and Cougars won’t meet on the field this season, the rivalry is alive and well. Fans on either side still balk at hearing the other school’s name mentioned, even in a “friendly” way. But the truth of it is, even though he now wears red, Whittingham once wore blue … along with McMahon.
“Congratulations to Jim,” Whittingham said. “Me and him go way back.”
At that he added what easily was the best line of the press conference, one that offered a glimpse into Whittingham’s sense of humor and one that drew the biggest laugh of the day.
“We had a great relationship in college and spent a lot of time together … um, I don’t want to elaborate,” he said grinning while carefully avoiding any detail of the fun – wholesome or otherwise – he and McMahon had in Provo during the late 1970s and early 80s.
Suffice to say, whatever fun they had off the field, they had a good time on it as well. The Cougars back then were gaining a reputation for having a high flying, chuck-it-all-over-the-field offense, and McMahon loved it. Meanwhile Whittingham, who came to BYU as a running back, switched to linebacker and developed his own reputation as a punishing tackler. For proof of that, look no farther than his 16 stops in ‘80 Holiday Bowl or the defensive MVP he earned the following season (McMahon was the offensive MVP, go figure).
Whittingham said he is happy to see his friend get the proper recognition from their alma mater.
The school has long had a policy that athletes must complete graduation requirements in order to be enshrined into its sports hall of fame. McMahon, whose off-the-field exploits in Provo are well known – or at least widely rumored – is arguably the best QB in school history. Whether or not the school was reluctant to honor him is at best a moot point now.
“It’s great that he is now where he should be, in the hall of fame,” Whittingham said. “He’s a great guy. A great team leader. We were captains together our senior year and he’s just a guy that I’ve got all the respect in the world for. It was a pleasure to play with him.”
It must’ve been because 34 years later the man whose defensive exploits were overshadowed by his buddy’s offensive heroics, still smiled at the memory.
Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @StandardExJimbo