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What happens to Cal when Jack Clark and Tom Billups retire? How would Arkansas State go if Matt Huckaby ever took his hands off the wheel completely? What would a Scott-Lawrence-less Life look like, or a Mazzarella-free Bowling Green? Chances are, if you’re an alumnus, fan or stakeholder of any of those programs, you don’t want to find out.
For the first time since the mid-‘80s, the Cougars are midway through a season without David Smyth. He spent more than 30 years shaping the Cougars into the envy of the nation, eventually catching and surpassing dynastic Cal; a feat long thought impossible. Under Smyth, BYU hung five national championship banners.
Their most recent, that commemorating the 2015 Varsity Cup title, is the subject of controversy. Smyth played an ineligible player in the 2015 postseason, prompting the Varsity Cup to strip the Cougars of the championship and suspend them from the 2016 campaign. After months of tension between the Varsity Cup and its coaches, BYU pulled out of the competition it helped birth. To this day, the program still claims the ’15 championship, despite the discipline prescribed by the Varsity Cup.
Smyth is now a few miles down the road at Utah Valley University, after a falling out with administration led to his resignation in the offseason. He cited changes to the school’s classification and support of the program as reasons for leaving. The rift is complex, and BYU is a famously secretive institution, so the full nuance of the divorce may never come to the fore.
While Smyth tries to recreate magic with the Wolverines in Orem, one of his former pupils, Steve St. Pierre, is attempting to get the Cougars back to where his old coach once had them. St. Pierre captained Smyth’s first national championship team in 2009, playing alongside current Eagle scrumhalf Shaun Davies, and he served Smyth as an assistant coach from 2012-2017.
Since replacing Smyth, St. Pierre had the Cougars join a conference in earnest for the first time, forcing a fall schedule. Smyth usually reserved for autumn for second-and-third-side matches.
This fall, BYU laid waste to the Rocky Mountain Conference, crushing traditional rivals Wyoming 113-0 and Utah State 71-8 and 80-3 to win the league’s northwest division. The Cougars then mauled Air Force in the conference semifinal 110-0, and Colorado State in the final, 96-0, claiming the league championship.
With the New Year comes tougher challenges, as St. Pierre has followed Smyth’s blueprint in scheduling one of the toughest non-conference slates in the country, featuring home-and-home fixtures with Central Washington and St. Mary’s and one-off tests with Arizona and rival Utah.
Noticeably missing from the schedule, though, is an annual fixture with UVU. Every year, the Cougars and Wolverines meet in some form of contest, be it a second-side affair, as part of a tournament, or a traditional friendly. Some years, it’s a whitewash for BYU, like in 2015, when the Cougars won 109-0 and 100-0. Some years it’s a little closer, like in 2017, when the Wolverines fell 25-7, 50-0 and 26-10.
Last year’s game looked to be one of the more competitive installments of the local derby before it was cut short when Smyth pulled his Cougars off the pitch following a scuffle. Many in the Wolverine camp pondered aloud and online whether BYU would have pulled out of the game if victory seemed more eminent.
Perhaps to give wounds time to scab, the Cougars and Wolverines aren’t scheduled to meet this season. Neither St. Pierre nor Smyth responded to interview requests for this story. However, the Wolverines and Cougars could conceivably meet in the postseason, should UVU reach the D1A playoffs.
With or without a game on the schedule, Smyth’s shadow looms large over BYU’s program. Under him, the Cougars won five national championships in seven seasons, setting the bar so unfairly high, even he couldn’t meet it.
The backslide began with a loss to Cal in the 2016 Varsity Cup final. The next year, the Cougars fell a round earlier to eventual champion Life, ending their 11-year streak of playing in a title game. Last year, they were upset by Penn State in the quarterfinals, marking the first time since 2004 they’d miss the final four altogether.
Smyth cited those aforementioned administrative changes as reasoning for the program’s miniature recession and his departure, which effectively leaves St. Pierre chasing the ghost of Smyth’s past with the specter of Smyth’s future nipping at his heels, all with allegedly fewer resources and autonomy than Smyth enjoyed.
If the report from his best player, Calvin Whiting, is any indication, St. Pierre is operating well between the rock and the hard place.
“He’s been awesome. Lots of enthusiasm. He’s brought a lot of alumni with him for the coaching staff, so all the practices have been a lot more upbeat, really focused, really dialed in,” said Whiting of St. Pierre.
“It’s been a bit of a breath of fresh air, if I can say. Just more enthusiasm, more motivation in the program.”
As well, if the sentiment of Whiting is any indication, the program doesn’t appear to be distracted by its dramatic recent past.
“I believe the coaches did whatever’s best for them and their families,” Whiting said of Smyth and loyal assistant Wayne Tarawhiti, who followed to UVU.
“There’s no hard feelings from us. They put a lot of effort into the school, and a lot of effort into the program, and at the end of the day, they had a really successful run, and maybe it’s just time to for them to move on and try something new.”
For its part, BYU appears to be moving on about as optimally as possible.