December 19 will mark the 35th anniversary of the BYU Holiday Bowl football game that has come to be known in the football world as “The Miracle Bowl.” On that cool, foggy night inSan Diego so many years ago, Jim McMahon, Coach LaVell Edwards, and that BYU football team staged a comeback victory in Holiday Bowl III that may never be duplicated. Losing to SMU (and the powerful “Pony Express” led by future NFL leading rusher and Hall of Famer, Eric Dickerson), 45 to 25, with a little over three minutes remaining in the game, BYU came up with several improbable plays, including a diving touchdown catch, an onside kick recovery, a blocked punt and a Hail Mary pass from McMahon to Clay Brown from midfield with no time remaining on the clock to tie the score at 45 to 45. BYU’s kicker, Kurt Gunther, overcoming several glitches in the process, kicked the extra point that provided the margin of victory and garnered BYU its first bowl victory — ever.
The players from that game are growing old now, but the legend and memory of that game lives on in the football world. Every time a list is published of the greatest college football plays of all time or the greatest sports miracles or the greatest Hail Mary plays of all time, The BYU Miracle Bowl makes the list. For example, in the summer of 2015, NFL.com ran a contest to determine the greatest college football plays of all time. The contest was divided into four regions and a field of twenty-four teams/plays going back over 50 years of NCAA football. The McMahon to Brown Hail Mary made it to the final four after eliminating three other famous plays, including the spectacular Hail Flutie play from the Boston College Miami game from 1984 and the famous 1982 California/Stanford game where California scored the winning touchdown even though the Stanford marching band was on the field during the final play.
The BYU Hail Mary lost in the semifinals to the eventual winner the spectacular “kick six” play involving Auburn and Alabama from 2013. In October of this year, ncaa.com listed the greatest game winning plays of all time. Two BYU plays made the list: the game winning Hail Mary to beat Nebraska this year and the Hail Mary play from Holiday Bowl III, on December 19, 1980. Following BYU’s Hail Mary defeat of Nebraska in September, Jason Alsher, writing for The Cheat Sheet, offered his views on The greatest Hail Mary passes of all time, and he listed the McMahon to Brown Hail Mary in The Miracle Bowl as number three. He describes the drama as follows:
“The 1980 Holiday Bowl between the BYU Cougars and the SMU Mustangs will forever be known as ‘The Miracle Bowl.’ That’s usually what happens when a team is down 45-25 with less than three minutes to play only to make a furious comeback and win the game on an impossible Hail Mary pass launched from its own 46-yard line. . . . For the Cougars and stud quarterback Jim McMahon — who finished the game completing 32 of 49 passes for 446 passing yards and four touchdowns – the game was nothing short of ‘a miracle.’”
As BYU prepares to play in 2015 Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, football fans are encouraged to relive what many believe is the greatest college bowl comeback ever by reading the definitive inside account of that game as told by a member of that BYU team, Ryan Tibbitts. He wrote “Hail Mary: The Inside Story of BYU’s 1980 Miracle Bowl Comeback,” which also has a thoughtful foreword by award-winning and bestselling sportswriter Lee Benson. Fans can also relive this comeback by watching the companion DVD “Hail Mary: Stories Behind the Greatest Comeback.”
Hail Mary is available in stores and online.