K.O. Kealaluhi delivered the two biggest plays of his BYU football career at the most critical moments during the 1996 football season.
Then a senior receiver for the Cougars, Kealaluhi snagged a go-ahead 46 yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter to secure a 41-37 season opening win. He added a second dramatic score in the 1997 Cotton Bowl against Kansas State. BYU capped a rally from a 10-point deficit with Kealaluhi’s 28-yard grab from Steve Sarkisian to secure a 19–15 victory over the 14th ranked Wildcats.
Kealaluhi did not give his senior season much thought beyond taking pride in a successful season. When he returned to the BYU campus for the first time in two decades, he realized how much that Cotton Bowl run meant to BYU fans upon hearing debates about which team was better — his 1996 team or the 1984 team that won a national title.
“If you were to ask me before I came to Provo, two days ago, I would have said I don’t know if it had an impact,” Kealaluhi said at BYU Football Media Day on Thursday. “But, wow, the impact was right in front of my face and I feel like the day I left. When I left, I felt all of that Cougar pride. I feel it all back again.”
Members of that 1996 team gathered in the BYU broadcast building for a reunion to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their dream season. The Cougars went 14–1 that season, finishing No. 5 in the AP Poll and playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game for the first time in school history.
BYU became the first college football team to win 14 games in a season. Only a 29–17 defeat to Washington kept the Cougars from potentially challenging for a No.1 ranking.
“Every game was just kind of special,” said former BYU coach LaVell Edwards. “I can’t put it into words what it meant. I figured it was going to be a good team.”
“Every game was just kind of special. I can’t put it into words what it meant. I figured it was going to be a good team.” —LaVell Edwards, former BYU head coach
Coming off a season where it missed a bowl game for the first time since 1977, BYU had anything except modest expectations going into its first season a new 16-team Western Athletic Conference. The Cougars believed they could break a two-year conference title drought and also make some serious national noise for the first time since Ty Detmer’s Heisman Trophy winning season in 1990.
The players met with Edwards before the season started and informed him of their ultimate goal — to win another national championship.
“We knew we had something special because we had good players at every position,” said former BYU tight end Chad Lewis. “And our goal in talking to him was to let him know that people on this team were willing to give up whatever they had to give up for us to be national champs. Not WAC champs. We wanted to be national champs. We felt like we had that kind of a team.”
Those national title hopes were dashed with a road loss to the Huskies in week four. BYU was far from finished though. The Cougars did not lose another game and shot up the polls as they routed one team after another.
BYU capped the season with a dramatic 28–25 overtime win over Wyoming in the inaugural WAC Championship Game and the aforementioned Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State. The Cougars were denied a spot in a Bowl Alliance game and the resulting controversy helped lead to the creation of the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) a couple of years later.
“We were fighting for respect,” Lewis said. “It was the first time a college had ever won 14 games in a year. They were good teams and we felt like we deserved to be in the Top 5 in the country.”
Two decades later, BYU’s path to duplicating that level of success seems harder than ever. The Cougars have had a 10 win season just once since leaving the Mountain West Conference as they have beefed up their strength of schedule.
Members of that 1996 team believe BYU could finally turn the corner, however, now that Kalani Sitake is at the helm. They feel like he has injected new life into the program and another rise for the Cougars is on the horizon.
“There’s a spirit that goes through any athlete and any competitor,” Kealaluhi said. “It flows through you. When I talked to Kalani, I instantaneously felt that spirit. Kalani just brings that. He makes me want to get a job at BYU.”