San Diego • When BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall was a young teenager, he sat in the stands in 1978 and 1979 at San Diego Stadium and watched his brother, lineman Mat Mendenhall, play in the first and second Holiday bowls against Navy and Indiana, respectively.
He also witnessed the birth of the BYU football brand.
Legendary coach LaVell Edwards was the architect, and it was in this city and through the bowl games it hosted that BYU started to become known nationally as a football school. Exactly 32 years ago Wednesday, for example, Jim McMahon's famous Hail Mary pass to Clay Brown completed one of the greatest comebacks in the history of any bowl and gave the Cougars a 46-45 win over SMU.
As Mendenhall duly noted in Wednesday's pre-Poinsettia Bowl news conference, he and the 7-5 Cougars will come "full circle" on Thursday night when they take on 9-3 San Diego State at Qualcomm Stadium. It is BYU's first appearance in the 8-year-old Poinsettia Bowl, and its first time in a San Diego bowl game since 1993, when it fell 28-21 to Ohio State.
"To think now that I am standing on the sidelines as the coach of the team my brother played for, in the same city and same setting, it is kind of neat to reflect on what has happened since then," Mendenhall said. "… I would just like our team to be a good bowl partner and play hard in the game."
In a way, BYU owes a good chunk of its football success of the past 35 years to this place, and San Diego's Bowl Association which puts on both the Poinsettia and Holiday bowls owes a measure of gratitude to BYU for putting it on the map as one of the nation's best bowl destinations.
"There has always been a relationship that the bowl here has had with BYU," said executive director Bruce Binkowski. "I have been with the bowl since 1978. I have been here for every one, so it was a big deal to me, personally, to have BYU come back to San Diego. It has been a real positive experience."
That BYU is facing former WAC and MWC rival San Diego State, and with the history of high-scoring, exciting games between the schools, makes Thursday's game even sweeter because SDSU is starting to blossom as the football power many have expected it to be for a long time, Binkowski said.
"It is a source of pride for people like me who are part of the bowl experience," Binkowski said, noting how he toured the BYU football Hall of Fame at Legacy Hall on campus last summer and couldn't help but notice all the photos and videos from the Holiday Bowl.
BYU's return and the first matchup against SDSU since a controversial 24-21 BYU win in 2010 has created a nice buzz in the community, and officials are hoping to top the record crowd of some 48,049 that watched the homestanding Aztecs drub Navy 35-14 in 2010.
The Cougars were close to selling most of their initial allotment of 11,000 tickets at the end of last week, and officials said Wednesday that they recently passed the 40,000 plateau in advance ticket sales. The weather is supposed to be ideal, with no rain and temperatures in the low 60s, so a good walk-up crowd could do the trick, Binkowski said.
"Ticket sales have been OK, is what I would say," Binkowski said. "It hasn't been overwhelming, but we are happy with where we are. We are happy with the response. We are happy with BYU. This is a really great game for the Poinsettia Bowl."
And a great reminder to BYU, that this is where a lot of what it is began to take flight.
"I think maybe coming back here, as excited as we are to be here, relinks that or finishes that story," Mendenhall said. "Instead of saying, 'This is where we have to go,' we are hearing players say, 'This is where we get to go.' And that's been good to hear."
O BYU vs. San Diego State
At Qualcomm Stadium (San Diego)
Kickoff • 6 p.m. MST. TV • ESPN
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 7-5; San Diego State 9-3
Series history • BYU leads, 27-7-1
Last meeting • BYU 24, SDSU 21 (Oct. 9, 2010)
About the Aztecs • They average 229 rushing yards per game, 16th most in the country. … They are one of the best teams in the country on third down, converting 49.4 percent of the time. … Running back Adam Muema has rushed for 1,355 yards and scored 16 touchdowns on the ground. … Quarterback Adam Dingwell has completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 795 yards and eight touchdowns.
About the Cougars • Senior James Lark is expected to make just his second career start at quarterback, after throwing six touchdown passes almost a month ago against New Mexico State. … They are playing in their eighth straight bowl game, having gone 5-2 in the previous seven bowls under coach Bronco Mendenhall. … They have won three straight bowl games, a school record. … They have defeated SDSU five straight times.
BYU's Holiday Bowl games in San Diego
1978 Navy 23, BYU 16
1979 Indiana 38, BYU 37
1980 BYU 46, Southern Methodist 45
1981 BYU 38, Washington State 36
1982 Ohio State 47, BYU 17
1983 BYU 21, Missouri 17
1984 BYU 24, Michigan 17
1989 Penn State 50, BYU 39
1990 Texas A&M 65, BYU 14
1991 BYU 13, Iowa 13
1993 Ohio State 28, BYU 21