During the first week of December 1998, Air Force football was enjoying the best of times.
After a 10-1 regular season, the Falcons traveled to Las Vegas for the Western Athletic Conference's championship game on Dec. 5, facing Brigham Young in a matchup of the WAC's two division winners. The morning game, kicking off ABC's "Championship Saturday" tripleheader, would have a "true" major-network national audience as the only televised game in America for that time slot.
Air Force pulled out a 20-13 victory in the game, which longtime head coach Fisher DeBerry instantly labeled as the Falcons' biggest win of his tenure. It still should rank among the top two or three most significant victories in AFA football history, even though Air Force, BYU and six other WAC members already had decided to leave and form the Mountain West Conference, which would happen in 1999. As painful as it was to break away from the WAC, those eight schools had a closeness that ran much deeper than just TV contracts and sharing revenue.
The relationship between Brigham Young and Air Force, strange as it might have seemed to outsiders, already had evolved into something special.
Sure, Brigham Young usually has beaten Air Force, and often by convincing margins in winning 24 of the teams' 30 football meetings. (For the record, here are Air Force's six wins: 39-38 in 1982 at Provo, 38-12 in 1995 at AFA; 20-13 in 1998 at Vegas; 31-23 in 2000 at AFA; 52-9 in 2002 at AFA; 24-10 in 2003 at Provo.)
But if you ask me to name Air Force's best conference rivalry over the past 30 years, my answer would be AFA-BYU. Sure, beating Utah might have meant more to the Cougars in any given year. But as soon as Utah announced it was bolting for the Pacific 10, my first thought was that Air Force-Brigham Young would benefit.
Then came the news last week that BYU wanted to leave the Mountain West, turn independent in football and rejoin the WAC for other sports. That created a few days of uncertainty — until the Mountain West retaliated by "stealing" Fresno State and Nevada from the WAC.
Now we're hearing that Brigham Young quietly is figuring out a way to backtrack diplomatically into embracing the Mountain West again. And vice versa.
It's time for the MWC to realize that it can't afford to lose Brigham Young or Texas Christian University, now or whenever. If that means giving BYU and TCU a sweeter financial deal, so be it. If it means downgrading the league's cable-TV network (The mtn.), freeing up the chance for BYU to televise a few games on its Mormon BYUtv network and for the league to pursue more lucrative deals with the big-time TV players like ESPN, CBS and/or ABC, why not?
There's also the likely matter of the Mountain West needing a 12th member, and perhaps BYU and TCU could have a say in that decision — as well as in how the resulting six-team divisions would be split. Personally, I'd suggest adding the University of Houston or Southern Methodist University, giving TCU a scheduling partner for non-football sports. There's no right or wrong in any of this, but here's my suggestion: BYU, Air Force, Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico and Fresno State on one side; TCU, Boise State, Houston, Nevada-Las Vegas, Nevada and San Diego State on the other.
Of course, if Brigham Young wants to bring in Utah State or develop a division rivalry moving forward with Boise State, that's fine. But if BYU values its past, it might ask legendary head coach LaVell Edwards (1972-2000), who told me several times, "I've always loved playing Air Force. There's something special about going against them." He would talk about the Falcons' spirit, about the excitement of facing (and regularly visiting) a service academy, and not feeling quite so bad whenever Air Force did win, "because they've always done it the right way and those kids will be defending our country."
Hopefully, as we're hearing, the Mountain West really is willing to reconcile with Brigham Young. And when BYU comes to Falcon Stadium on Sept. 11, Air Force will have the chance to show that the rivalry does have a future.