1980 Holiday Bowl comeback remembered
Ryan Tibbitts, a Park City resident and former BYU football player, was standing in a grocery store checkout line one day nearly 20 years ago when he saw something that spurred him to write a book.
A TV Guide magazine, promoting the start of the college football bowl season, had a BYU player on the cover and advertised a list of the top-10 greatest bowl games in college football history.
Tibbitts, who was the sixth wide receiver during BYU’s nearly unbelievable comeback against SMU in the 1980 Holiday Bowl, wondered if that game made the cut.
"I flipped it open, not expecting to see anything, and saw that, 16 years later, that Holiday Bowl was ranked No. 5," he said. "That was really the first time I’d paid any attention to, ‘Wow, people still talk about this game.’"
Though it would still be a long time before Tibbitts authored "Hail Mary: The Inside Story of BYU’s 1980 Miracle Bowl Comeback," which is now available online via Amazon and will soon be available in Barnes and Noble, Deseret Book and Seagull Book, among other locations, that moment set in motion his desire to honor that incredible game.
"For 35 years, I waited for someone qualified to write the book and nobody did, so I took it on," he laughed. "I always thought somebody should write the story, but I never though it was going to be me."
The 1980 Holiday Bowl looked like it was going to be another bowl-game disaster for the Cougars, who had never won a bowl before. BYU had lost the 1974 Fiesta Bowl, the 1976 Tangerine Bowl and the first two Holiday Bowls in 1978 and 1979. After falling behind SMU, who built a 45-25 lead on the legs of future NFL running backs Craig James and Eric Dickerson, the Cougars, led by future Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon, began their comeback.
The game-tying touchdown came on the last play of regulation, when McMahon flung a Hail Mary pass into the end zone, where Clay Brown made an incredible catch to tie the game. Then, kicker Kurt Gunther came in and kicked the game-winning extra point to give BYU a 46-45 victory.
Everyone who remembers the game knows all of that, though Tibbitts wanted to give fans a look at what happened behind the scenes. For example, he writes about how, at 1 a.m. the morning before the game, McMahon came into the room Tibbitts shared with backup quarterback Gym Kimball because he couldn’t sleep.
He also writes about a play in the fourth quarter where the BYU offensive coordinator wanted to punt, but McMahon wouldn’t come off the field.
"He cut loose a string of profanities, screaming at the coaches," Tibbitts said. "So Coach [LaVell] Edwards calls a timeout, has a fairly heated discussion with McMahon, sends the offense back in, McMahon calls an audible at the line of scrimmage, throws a pass to Clay Brown and gets a first down and we go down and score. That’s when the comeback really started."
For fans who weren’t alive for the 1980 game, Tibbitts said he added in some football-related lessons to make the story applicable to everyday situations.
"Real football junkies will like this book, as will anybody who remembers the game," he said. "But for the younger crowd, we put game lessons in here, sort of life lessons that you learn from sports."
One of those lessons — "Sometimes success comes if you dive at a problem and hang on until the dust clears" — refers to a controversial catch by receiver Matt Braga during BYU’s comeback. But Tibbitts, who has coached a few successful youth football teams in Park City, said that lesson can apply to anything in life.
Tibbitts said he doesn’t know how many copies of his book will sell, but said it might be something to consider getting for the BYU fan on your Christmas list.
"This is good timing for Christmas gifts," he said. "I think they’re going to sell some, but we won’t know until the end of the year probably if it’s getting any traction."
Tibbitts will be doing a book signing at Dolly’s Bookstore in Park City on Saturday, Dec. 6, from 1-3 p.m.
The Youth Sports Alliance will host a team scramble golf tournament on June 3 at Victory Ranch in hopes of raising funds for its scholarships and youth programs.