Relaxing at a Las Vegas resort for a few minutes before receiving an award for excellence in athletic administration and dedication to college football, 19-year BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe was asked to sum up the year in Cougar sports.
What stood out? What were his favorite memories and the school’s most noteworthy accomplishments?
“Change is part of life. Change is part of athletics. Change is a part of BYU. I am in the middle of it, so I am going to do the best I can to put us in a positive position.” — BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe
You know, give us a little help as we compile this news outlet’s annual list of the most compelling, memorable and newsworthy happenings for the calendar year 2023.
Holmoe’s quick answer: It was a year of change, as BYU went from competing as an independent in football and in the West Coast Conference for most of its other sports to life in a Power Five conference, the Big 12.
“Change is part of life. Change is part of athletics. Change is a part of BYU. I am in the middle of it, so I am going to do the best I can to put us in a positive position,” Holmoe said.
So far, so good, although BYU’s men’s and women’s basketball teams — both off to solid starts this season — won’t experience that for themselves until 2024 begins. And the football team obviously struggled against the heightened competition, going 2-7 in league play, 5-7 overall, and getting plenty of comeuppances from the likes of West Virginia, Iowa State and TCU.
The Cougars’ other teams mostly flourished in their first seasons in the league, with women’s cross-country earning BYU’s first-ever Big 12 title and men’s cross-country taking second in the league race before finishing third at nationals. Women’s soccer made it to the Big 12 championship game before falling 3-1 to Texas and women’s volleyball finished third before a rare early exit in the NCAA Tournament.
Thankfully, most of the big stories in 2023 took place on the fields and courts of play.
Outside the lines, there were the usual stories of name, image and likeness (NIL), the impact of the loosened transfer rules, ticketing changes and price increases brought on by Big 12 membership and conference realignment.
News that longtime rival Utah would be reuniting with BYU in the Big 12 next year dominated headlines in early August. Of course, Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado are in tow as well, after the utterly shocking implosion of the Pac-12.
BYU’s most impressive team accomplishment was probably the women’s soccer program’s advancement to the College Cup for the second time in three years, as the legendary Jennifer Rockwood cemented her place as one of the top coaches in BYU history — in any sport. More on that later.
BYU’s most impressive individual accomplishment was junior Kenneth Rooks’ first-place finish in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Austin, Texas.
Without further ado, here’s the Deseret News’ look at the 10 most compelling stories of the year for BYU sports:
1. BYU football struggles, as expected, in first season in Big 12, fails to make a bowl game for first time since 2017
There were plenty of memorable plays and moments in head football coach Kalani Sitake’s eighth season, as detailed by Deseret News contributor Dave McCann, but the overall result was less-than-satisfying as the Cougars got a taste of Power Five football. The final picture wasn’t pretty.
Basically, it was a slow start — unimpressive wins over Sam Houston and Southern Utah — followed by an exhilarating victory over the SEC’s Arkansas and then a decent effort in a 38-27 loss at Kansas. A win over Cincinnati moved BYU to 4-1 and all seemed OK in Cougarville.
Former Mountain West rival TCU showed BYU what’s what in the Big 12 with a 44-11 beatdown, but confidence was seemingly restored a week later in what became known as “Spitgate” — BYU’s 27-14 home win over Texas Tech.
The season ended with five straight losses for the first time since 1955 for a BYU football team, causing the Cougars to finish 5-7 and resulting in Sitake firing two offensive assistant coaches, three-year OL coach Darrell Funk and popular tight ends coach Steve Clark, who had been with the program since Sitake took over in 2016.
2. BYU football adds 20 players from the transfer portal in attempt to be ready for Big 12 play
The Cougars got a nice surprise on Christmas Eve 2022, when former Pitt and USC quarterback Kedon Slovis announced he would play his final season of college football in Provo, replacing the NFL-bound Jaren Hall. Some 19 more players from the transfer portal followed, so much so that name tags were needed when spring ball commenced in early March.
The biggest roster turnover in school history ensued, with players such as running backs Deion Smith and Aidan Robbins, receivers Keelan Marion and Darius Lassiter, and defenders AJ Vongphachanh, Harrison Taggart and Eddie Heckard moving in. More than 20 moved on to the transfer portal and then to their chosen schools, most notably tight end Dallin Holker (Colorado State), offensive linemen Clark and Campbell Barrington (Baylor), linebacker Keenan Pili (Tennessee) and quarterback Jacob Conover (Arizona State).
As previously mentioned, the result was a mixed bag; offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick surmised as the losses mounted during the season that it was more difficult than coaches expected to get so many newcomers to gel and fit into a new system, particularly on offense.
3. BYU’s high-scoring women’s soccer team makes it to the Final Four — the College Cup — for the second time in three years
BYU is not just a cross-country and volleyball school. It’s a soccer school, too, as Rockwood’s program continues to roll to unprecedented heights. The Cougars knocked off then-No. 1 UCLA early in the season and rose to No. 1 in the nation for the first time in program history.
They went undefeated at South Field, led the nation in shots per game (20.9) and total goals (79) and their goalkeepers recorded nine shutouts. After that discouraging loss to Texas in Texas in the Big 12 title game, they earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and strung together wins over Utah State, USC and Michigan State before that comeback for the ages against perennial power North Carolina.
Led by 11 strong-willed seniors, the Cougars overcame a 3-0 deficit to beat UNC 4-3 in Provo in what could easily be called one of the greatest comebacks in school history, in any sport. BYU fell 2-0 to Stanford in the national semifinals on Dec. 1 to finish with a 20-3-3 overall mark.
4. BYU men’s basketball gets off to a fantastic start at end of 2023, was 8-0 and ranked No. 1 in the NET before dropping a close game at rival Utah
With many of the same players who lost seven of their final 10 games in the WCC, BYU started the 2023-24 season on fire in November, putting together an 8-0 record and rising to No. 1 in the NET rankings after knocking off the likes of San Diego State, Arizona State and North Carolina State and pummeling every other team in their path.
The Cougars were ranked as high as No. 14 in the country before losing a close one, 73-69, at rival Utah in front of a soldout crowd at the Huntsman Center, but without star post player Fousseyni Traore.
It was quite the turnaround for coach Mark Pope’s program, which was picked to finish 13th in the 14-team Big 12 in its first season in that league. Whether the Cougars, who were 10-1 at the time of this writing, can keep it going when the competition level increases dramatically remains to be seen.
5. Led by rookie sensation Puka Nacua, former BYU football players continue make their mark in the NFL
Not much was expected of the former BYU receiver when the Los Angeles Rams selected him in the fifth round of the 2023 NFL draft with the 177th overall pick. Boy, was everyone wrong. Nacua has become one of the best stories in the league this year, making himself a fringe candidate for Rookie of the Year honors and putting himself in line for a possible Pro Bowl selection.
Nacua, who prepped at Orem High, had 1,113 receiving yards after the 37-31 loss at Baltimore on Dec. 10 and continued to draw rave reviews from around the country as his first season in the league drew to a close.
Former BYU QB Zach Wilson remained in the news, after Aaron Rodgers was brought in to take over QB1 duties with the New York Jets. As the season wound down, Wilson was reinserted into the starting lineup for the third time and earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after a 301-yard passing performance in a win over Houston.
Other BYU players on NFL active rosters at year’s end included Fred Warner, Taysom Hill, Jamaal Williams, Michael Davis, Tyler Allgeier, Kyle Van Noy, Sione Takitaki, Brady Christensen, Khyiris Tonga and Blake Freeland. Others, such as Dax Milne and Chris Brooks, were on injured reserve lists.
6. BYU football almost knocks off Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to show some encouraging signs but finishes season on a five-game losing streak and Sitake fires two coaches
Just when many folks believed there was no hope for the Cougars, they rose up and actually finished on a positive note, if close losses to nationally ranked Oklahoma teams can be considered encouraging. The ending showed fans hadn’t given up on the Cougars, either, as a sellout crowd of 63,714 watched BYU fall 31-24 to No. 14 Oklahoma on senior day.
If not for an ill-advised throw by backup quarterback Jake Retzlaff that was intercepted by OU’s Billy Bowman and returned 100 yards for a touchdown, the Cougars might have pulled off a stunning upset. That pick-six will go down as the most painful play of the year for BYU — in any sport.
A week later, the Cougars blew an 18-point halftime lead and lost 40-34 in double overtime to Oklahoma State, thus ending one of the more dismal seasons in school history.
“We threw the playbook at them,” head coach Kalani Sitake said, then fired two offensive coaches — Darrell Funk and Steve Clark — two days later in Provo.
7. BYU women’s volleyball competes well in its first Big 12 season, finishing third, but is swept by Arizona State in second round of NCAA Tournament
While BYU women’s soccer was picked to win the Big 12 in its first season, a nice little sign of respect, the school’s women’s volleyball team was picked to finish second, behind Texas, which would go on to win its second straight national championship.
The Cougars finished third in league play, behind Texas and Kansas, and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Four Cougars — Erin Livingston, Whitney McEwan-Llarenas, Mia Lee and Whitney Bower — earned all-Big 12 recognition and Bower and Livingston were named AVCA Honorable Mention All-Americans.
But the Cougars ran into a buzzsaw in the second round of the NCAAs — Arizona State — and were swept by the Sun Devils to see their season end with a 25-7 overall record.
8. BYU men’s basketball fizzles in its last season in the West Coast Conference, calling into question its ability to compete in the Big 12
BYU wanted to leave the WCC with a bang in its final men’s basketball season in the so-called “Church League,” but that never materialized as a four-game February losing skid doomed it to a three-way tie for fifth place in the final league standings, its worst finish in 12 seasons in the conference.
The Cougars won their first two games in the WCC tournament in Las Vegas, beating Portland and Loyola Marymount, but then ran into a longtime league nemesis, No. 16 Saint Mary’s, in the semifinals and fell 76-69 to have their hopes of winning the league for the first time before their exit dashed by the Gaels.
Still, Pope predicted better things were on the horizon, a prediction that proved to be accurate — at least in the final two months of the year.
“This team has been brilliant in their effort,” Pope said at Orleans Arena. “Their ability to get off the mat and compete is pretty special.”
9. BYU’s men’s cross-country team lives up to its seeding, finishes third at the NCAA cross-country championships
For the second consecutive year, the Cougars placed third at the national meet in Charlottesville, Virginia, as Big 12 rival Oklahoma State won the title and Northern Arizona finished second.
Led by freshman James Corrigan (32nd) and the aforementioned Rooks, the U.S. and NCAA 3,000-meter steeplechase champion, who was 35th, the Cougars used outstanding depth to get the bronze medal. Creed Thompson (46th), Joey Nokes (56th) and Lucas Bons (63rd) also contributed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of a team on a tough day, especially with all the adversity we’ve had (over) the course of the season with injuries like we’ve had,” said coach Ed Eyestone. “Quite frankly, the best we could have done was third place and my guys really put it together.”
10. BYU’s women’s cross-country team wins the school’s first Big 12 championship, across all sports, then finishes a disappointing 14th at NCAA Championships
BYU’s women’s team had bigger expectations than the men’s team, having won four of its five competitions in the season and having finished second in the NCAA Mountain Regional. The Cougars took a No. 3 national ranking into nationals, and were coming off a win in the Big 12 championships, the school’s first Big 12 title.
But the Cougars started the finals race too aggressively, jumping out to the lead through about 2,000 meters. The early pace was too fast for them, however, and they eventually tumbled off the podium and back into the pack.
BYU’s top finisher was Aubrey Frentheway, who was 14th.
Here are some other notable happenings in 2023:
• BYU’s men’s golf team places second at NCAA Morgan Hill Regional, but struggles again at the NCAA Men’s Golf Championship at Grayhawk Golf Club and finished in a tie for 23rd place.
• Kenneth Rooks win the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA Championships, leading the Cougars to a 10th place team finish; BYU’s women tied for 17th.
• BYU’s baseball team went 24-28 overall and 13-14 in its final WCC season in coach Trent Pratt’s first season.
* BYU’s softball team went 11-4 in WCC, 35-17 overall, and failed to make NCAA Tournament, but made the championship game of the National Invitational Softball Championship.
• BYU women’s basketball goes 16-17 in Amber Whiting’s first season, 9-9 in the WCC, then watches the rival Utes hire former BYU coach Jeff Judkins in September.
* BYU’s men’s volleyball team goes 19-7, loses to Stanford in MPSF semifinals
• Complaints from some football players that Built Protein Bars was not delivering on some NIL promises surfaced in May, but those quickly dissipated when company co-founder and CEO Nick Greer paid all 123 players on the roster $600 apiece for their promotion of the bars on their social media platforms.