1980 Holiday Bowl: BYU’s Jim McMahon saved the day — and the party

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BYU quarterback Jim McMahon celebrates the Cougars’ dramatic come-from-behind victory over SMU with his dad, Jim McMahon Sr., at the 1980 Holiday Bowl in 1980.

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Jim McMahon still smiles when he thinks of how BYU beat SMU 46-45 in the 1980 Holiday Bowl.

The Cougars rallied for 21 points over the last 2:31 to stun the Mustangs. McMahon’s last-second 41-yard bomb to Clay Brown pulled BYU even at 45-45 and Kurt Gunther’s extra point won the game.

“My dad likes to tell the story about how he told LaVell (Edwards) after the Holiday Bowl that ‘the Catholics won the game tonight!’ LaVell would say, ‘No, the Catholics tied the game. My little Mormon kicker came on and won the game.’ My dad tells that story all of the time. He loves it!” — Jim McMahon

“My dad likes to tell the story about how he told LaVell (Edwards) after the Holiday Bowl that ‘the Catholics won the game tonight!’,” McMahon said, with a laugh. “LaVell would say, ‘No, the Catholics tied the game. My little Mormon kicker came on and won the game.’ My dad tells that story all of the time. He loves it!”

The two Catholics, McMahon and Brown, did more than beat SMU on that unforgettable night — they also saved a deacons quorum party.

A brave adviser, Brother Weiss and his compassionate wife, invited our large and loud group over to his house to watch the game. It was a cold Dec. 19 in Orem, with a fresh foot of snow on the Weisses’ front lawn — a far cry from the warmth of San Diego where the No. 12 Cougars were ready to destroy No. 19 SMU (or so we thought).

Much to our dismay, with plenty of pizza and root beer in our bellies, we settled in to watch one of the most disastrous first quarters in BYU history.

First, Eric Dickerson ran 15 yards for an SMU touchdown. A few minutes later, Craig James ran 45 yards for another Mustangs score. Not long after that, BYU’s center hiked the ball out of the end zone for a safety.

SMU kicker Eddie Garcia followed with a field goal and in the time it took to build a snow fort, the Mustangs led 19-0.

This didn’t sit well with our group and when James ran another touchdown and Garcia kicked a second field goal to make it 29-7, we had seen enough. Someone grabbed a football, and out the door we went.

SMU tailback Craig James outdistances a BYU defender and runs 45 yards on a fake punt for a touchdown during the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Dec. 19, 1980.

Lenny Ignelzi, Associated Press

It was cold and wet, and the snow was deep, but considering the options, we could no longer rely on the Cougars for the evening’s entertainment.

We were on our own.

The quorum was quickly divided and the “neighborhood snow bowl” began with lighting shimmering down from the front porch and nearby streetlights.

Vai Sikahema’s 83-yard punt return for a touchdown just before halftime in San Diego played to an empty living room. So did the third quarter. The idea of a comeback seemed as likely as Frosty the Snowman lining up at left tackle in the Weisses front yard.

Eventually, the loss of body heat drove us back inside, just in time to see James run 42 yards for another touchdown to give SMU a 45-25 lead with 3:58 remaining.

Too cold to do anything else, we all stood and stared at the television wondering how much worse it could possibly get?

And then, a lot of crazy things happened.

First, McMahon threw a 15-yard touchdown to a diving Matt Braga to pull BYU within 45-31 with 2:31 to go. The Cougars failed on a two-point conversion attempt.

Next, after recovering an onside kick, Scott Phillips scored on a one-yard run and caught a pass for a two-point conversion to cut the lead to 45-39 with 1:57 left.

Linebacker Kyle Whittingham and the BYU defense forced a punt, which Bill Schoepflin blocked with 13 seconds remaining.

SMU punter Eric Kaifes has his punt blocked by BYU’s Bill Schoepflin with 18 seconds left in their Holiday Bowl game in San Diego. SMU led 45-26 in the fourth quarter, but the Cougars scored the final three touchdowns, capping the comeback with a Hail Mary touchdown pass.

Lenny Ignelzi, Associated Press

Are you kidding me? After all we had seen, the room of 12- and 13-year-old believers couldn’t believe the Cougars had a chance, but we knew they still needed a miracle to pull it off.

We turned up the volume on the television set and watched the play begin with McMahon dropping back to pass. 

“McMahon all the way back at his own 46, throwing for his end zone,“ the announcer said as the quarterback hurled the ball down field where Brown and four SMU defenders were assembling. “Receivers are there! Defenders are there! It is in the end zone! Who has the ball?” he screamed.

Then came his answer in a tone all to its own.

“Touchdown! Touchdown! Touchdown Brigham Young!”

As the team jumped up and down at Jack Murphy Stadium, we jumped up and down in the Wiesses’ living room — and may have awakened the baby.

McMahon and Brown tied the score, and Gunther’s extra point gave BYU the most improbable ending to a bowl game in school history — a 46-45 win.

I walked home in the deep, soft snow that night still amazed by what I had seen. Even 42 years later, as McMahon’s dad will attest, the story of two Catholics saving the day for BYU remains one for the ages.

It was also the first time, as far as anyone can tell, that two Catholics saved a deacons quorum party.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com

Glen Redd (41) and coach LaVell Edwards lead victory celebration around Holiday Bowl trophy after stunning victory. Dec. 20, 1980. BYU-46, SMU-45. Back home in Utah a group of boys was also celebrating.

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