LARAMIE — At a recent ceremony for student-athletes graduating at semester, senior associate athletic director Randy Welniak chatted with Wyoming football players Jacob Hollister, Jake Maulhardt and Chase Appleby. They wanted to know what the BYU-Wyoming rivalry was like.
The seniors have been through a lot in their time with the Cowboys, but they’ve never been a part of a game against the Cougars.
That will change Wednesday when Wyoming plays BYU in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.
“I said, ‘You guys have no idea how big this is to our fans,’” said Welniak, a former Wyoming quarterback.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Welniak and Galand Thaxton last took the field against the Cougars, but that rivalry is still fresh in the former Cowboys’ minds.
“I was thinking that we need to spank the daylights out of them, that we need to beat them down,” Thaxton said of his reaction when he heard Wyoming would be playing the Cougars. “First of all, I don’t think we’ve beaten them in a while. So definitely get some revenge on them.
“Not only that, but for leaving our conference. I’m very upset that they left the conference the way they did as well. They haven’t gotten any better since they left the conference, so I think we need to put it on them severely so that we can make a statement not only for the University of Wyoming but for the conference as well.”
Thaxton was a linebacker for Wyoming from 1984-87, earning all-American honors his senior year and racking up more tackles (467) than any Cowboy before or since. Welniak, a Wyoming quarterback from ’84-88, was named the Western Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year his senior season.
“This is a great opportunity for us to finally get back to the old rivalry,” Welniak said. “And we get it, that a lot of these kids don’t understand it. I think they’ll understand it after the game or during the game, because there is an edge there for sure. It was great for us, being able to play here and experience that rivalry with BYU is pretty amazing.”
Wyoming and BYU haven’t played one another since the Cougars left the Mountain West in 2010 to become independent. That means no current Wyoming player has taken part in the rivalry. Welniak hopes they get some sort of history lesson before taking on the Cougars.
“I hope there’s an opportunity for them to understand how important this is, especially for our fans on the western and southwestern part of our state,” he said.
“All they hear is the Utah media. They’re inundated with it non-stop, and when both Utah and BYU exited the conference and went their own direction, there was a lot of disappointment with our fans.”
Wyoming and BYU played in the same conference from 1922-2010, spanning the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, Skyline Conference, Western Athletic Conference and Mountain West. In 1996, the teams played in the inaugural WAC conference championship game, with BYU winning 28-25 in overtime.
Both Welniak and Thaxton were a part of the 1987 Wyoming team that won a WAC championship under Paul Roach. Welniak also quarterbacked the ‘88 team, which won a conference title as well. Both teams went undefeated in conference play. Both teams beat BYU.
Welniak said the ‘88 game against the Cougars, a Thursday season opener and the first night game at War Memorial Stadium, reminded him of the Dec. 3 Mountain West Football Championship Game between Wyoming and San Diego State at The War.
“The temperature was significantly different, but just the electricity (was the same),” Welniak said. “The crowd was so into it, and the students just came out in force, and when I was in the stadium last Saturday, I’m like, ‘Man, this is what it was like when we came out and played against BYU that first night game.’”
Wyoming won that game 24-14, taking two straight from BYU for the first time since 1969.
The win the year before had been the Cowboys’ first against the Cougars in six years.
“We got them and finally got that monkey off our backs,” Thaxton said of the 29-27 win. “It was a serious celebration, because we hadn’t beaten them since I had been there and finally getting a chance to beat them on their home field, it was awesome.”
Thaxton said a loss to the Cougars during his time at Wyoming stood out just as much. In 1984, BYU was on its way to its first ever national championship. Wyoming was in the midst of a 6-6 season. The Cowboys were big underdogs headed into Provo, Utah, and Thaxton remembers a Utah paper calling the Cowboys “lambs to slaughter.”
“We went out there, we played the best game of the season, and we ended up losing by three points I believe,” Thaxton said. “… But we gave them our all. We should’ve probably won that game, and they would’ve never won the national championship that year.”
The current Cowboys had no shortage of rivalry moments this season. Wyoming beat both of its Front Range foes, Colorado State and Air Force, and defeated Utah State as well to claim the “Bridger’s Battle” rifle.
The Rams are considered the Cowboys’ arch rival. But when BYU was still in Wyoming’s conference, they were right up there.
“A lot of people ask about the rivalry between BYU and the rivalry between CSU. What was more bitter?” Welniak said. “I said, ‘Actually, they were both (bitter).’ I would say CSU probably took a little bit of the edge, but it was amazing, being able to go through what we did during my time here.”
Said Thaxton: “It was always chippy. Always. There was always an edge, and it was very similar to CSU. I mean, for whatever reason, they were obviously a very good football team, and they’ve had a great sports program for a long time, so when we had that opportunity to play them, we wanted to bring it and to play the best we could. Nothing was more gratifying than beating them, and especially sending them back home with the loss.”
Men on a mission
The Cougars also bring the unusual element of having a roster filled with players who have gone on LDS missions, sending their average age skyward.
“They all looked like me now, and they were always a couple years older,” Welniak said. “It was kind of a joke, especially some of the linemen. Whenever they took their helmets off, we’d just go, ‘Oh my god. Is that guy a grandfather yet?’”
But the Cowboys weren’t exactly up for respecting their elders.
“We felt like we could still beat them,” Thaxton said. “We didn’t care how many missions they went on. We felt like we could beat them, and we wanted to beat them severely, because we just couldn’t stand them.”
Like the current Wyoming team, the ‘87 and ‘88 Cowboys’ seasons ended in a bowl game in San Diego. Though it was the Holiday Bowl that the older Wyoming teams played in, this year’s return to San Diego provides yet another opportunity to tie the present to the past.
“I know it’s a different bowl, but still, it’s San Diego,” Welniak said. “Our team hotel’s the same hotel we stayed in when we were down there.
“It’s going to bring back some great memories.”