BYU Recruiting: Time to Reflect and Celebrate

BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff deserve a silent standing ovation from Cougar fans everywhere for landing an outstanding 2008 recruiting class. With the attendant benefits and unique constraints, these 21 young men made a life-altering commitment to adhere to the values, principles and everything BYU football stands for.

In the vernacular of our day, young people would simply say, "Sweet."

The simple, succinct and salient football mission statement Mendenhall carefully crafted – "To be the flag bearer of Brigham Young University through football excellence and to embrace truth, tradition, virtue and honor as a beacon to the world" – are deep-seated words that will take on greater meaning the longer these players are part of the program.

For those who live, understand and embrace these 26 words emotionally, spiritually and physically, these words may well become adapted personal mission statements (football aside) for their own lives.

That is not to say the elite LDS prospects that seriously considered and rebuffed BYU's recruiting advances made bad decisions by opting to play elsewhere. They made what they believe was the best choice for themselves and will hopefully have opportunities to benefit and bless the lives of others through their example for years to come.

As painful as it might be for Cougar fans to recall, Haloti Ngata is a prime example. Though he strung coaches along right up to National Letter of Intent Signing Day as a confirmed BYU verbal commit, he signed instead with Oregon from the high profile Pac-10 conference with the full intention of also serving an LDS mission.

Ngata didn't serve his planned church mission, but achieved another lifelong goal of being selected high in the first round of the NFL draft after his junior season and is currently a standout starter for the Baltimore Ravens. Through accident and illness, he lost both his parents while still at Oregon and he assumed financial responsibility of his younger siblings. Moreover, he married his high school sweetheart last year in the LDS Bountiful Temple. He is an outstanding man and upstanding LDS member. While his lone regret may be not serving a church mission, his life, otherwise, has turned out well so far.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Ngata, it's probably that the chances of elite LDS recruits actually serving planned church missions are diminished substantially if they don't sign with BYU or even Utah – despite the fact that some wily college coaches tell these athletes they will support their mission plans. Once enrolled and playing, the peer pressure from coaches and fellow team members not to interrupt their college football careers is intense.

Inevitably, many put aside their childhood and family dream of two years of selfless missionary service and sacrifice, often in far-off lands in impoverished countries, that molds their character and permanently transform their lives like no other life experience ever could.

Up until Wednesday, the staunch LDS family of BYU verbal commit Uona Kaveinga fervently hoped and even prayed he would sign with the Cougars because of its unique combination of spiritual, academic and athletic opportunity.

Like Ngata, Kaveinga never decommitted from BYU and strung along the Cougar coaches to the end. He signed, instead, with national BCS powerhouse USC.

Quite frankly, you can't blame him for signing with one of the highest profile football dynasties in the country.

Here's the rub. BYU fans should respect his personal decision, but not necessarily his methods. TBS has learned Uona apparently silently verballed to USC coach Pete Carroll last week, but kept Mendenhall in the dark. His father, Taumoelau Kaveinga, told me "the USC coach said Uona committed to them last week, but I don't know anything about it."

That's sad and deeply disappointing, if true. Armed with those facts, BYU may have offered or signed someone else they really wanted. We don't know. Say what you will, but that is simply an issue of character, integrity and honesty.

These are qualities Mendenhall lives by and runs his football program on. In his mind, and I agree, it is a unique honor and privilege now to play for and represent BYU football.

Under Mendenhall's stewardship and leadership, the full impact of the program now goes far beyond the football field of battle.

Prior to last season, BYU boasted the highest team GPA (2.98) of any Division I football program in the entire country. Even more impressive is the fact BYU now graduates more than 90 percent of all its senior football players.

I'm sorry, but with the ethnic diversity (and I am a proud Polynesian) on the team, that is an incredible, impressive and truly amazing achievement in a relatively short period of time. I know many Polynesian players from the 80s and 90s did not graduate from BYU during their football years in Provo.

BYU, under Mendenhall, now sends far more missionaries from his program (approaching 80 percent of the football players) than any other coach in the team's storied history – and that number includes all the non-LDS team members. No other Cougar coach even comes close.

There is no successful and sane head football coach in the country that would swap places with Mendenhall for such a lofty missionary statistic – even if they could.

When the Cougars' gridiron program was on the downturn some years ago, not a single rival coach complained about the "maturity" and age of BYU players who had served church missions. Now, with consecutive 11-2 seasons, suddenly all the "maturity" quotes and comments are again fashionable with many BYU-related commentaries and quotes from opposing coaches. These were also commonplace during the LaVell Edwards glory years in Provo.

BYU football is not for everyone – LDS and non-member athletes alike – and Mendenhall repeats that mantra consistently in very direct terms whenever he addresses recruits as a group or individually.

I believe the time is fast approaching when BYU football scholarship offers will acquire much greater value and privilege as they become harder to get – based on the assumption Mendenhall regards his BYU tenure like LaVell Edwards did and sticks around for a long time.

At that point, there will no longer be recruiting mind games with BYU coaches. If you're offered a highly prized scholarship, you either take it or leave it – or they are on to the next.

It's a simple matter of numbers. The exponential membership growth of the LDS Church dictates it. The membership numbers, currently exceeding 13 million worldwide, will swell by the millions every few years and will continue to mushroom even faster over time.

Among those masses will literally be hundreds, and then thousands, more top-tier LDS blue-chip football stars that will yearn to be a part of what Mendenhall has and is building at BYU. He will then be in the unenviable position of carefully choosing from the best-of-the-best among widely recruited LDS athletes, and even some non-LDS players.

Mendenhall has made it abundantly clear he only wants young men who really want to be at BYU, and who are willing to serve and participate as on-and-off-the-field ambassadors of the football program and university with its unique values, principles and standards.

Moreover, corporate recruiters confirm a BYU degree is highly marketable in the "real world" because these employers appreciate and understand the type of person you have to be to earn one.

In his scholarship offer letter to one recruit, Mendenhall writes: "As you know, Brigham Young University is an institution unlike any other in the world. The university is based on the spirit and seeks only those willing to live a life of honor. The values of our great institution are represented in the football program's mission statement.

"I can tell you with conviction that BYU is the only place in the world where spiritual, academic, athletic and social needs can be met collectively as a unique standard of excellence. Live a life of honor, be true to your faith, excel academically, maintain your health [and] thrive on the football field…"

There is probably no other athletic scholarship offer letter in the country that reads quite like that.

BYU's 2008 recruiting class is now signed and sealed but has yet to deliver. Most will likely serve church missions before they are done and several may even have the opportunity to play and excel in the NFL.

It is noteworthy that less than one percent of the thousands of athletes who signed national letters of intent on Wednesday will ever play in the NFL. That grim statistic alone speaks volumes about the importance of everything they do off the field and how it will impact the rest of their lives.

As Mendenhall and his assistants now focus on the 2009 recruiting class, they will have substantially fewer scholarships available because a larger number of returned missionaries will resume their football scholarship status on the Provo campus.

Undoubtedly, the most coveted LDS recruit that BYU wants is Manti Te'o from Hawaii. He is considered by Scout.com among the top-10 recruits in any position around the country. Another highly recruited non-committed LDS prospect is Xavier Suafilo, who lives and plays in BYU's own backyard of Orem/Provo. Perhaps the top prize among non-LDS recruits the Cougars really want to sign, who has expressed strong interest, is John Martinez, another local Utah product who is expected to receive upwards of 70 Division I offers by the time he signs his letter of intent.

I believe Mendenhall won't allow himself and the BYU football program to be toyed with again by a recruit. The paraphrased adage, "Once burned, shame on you; twice burned, shame on me" comes to mind.

Te'o and others, I believe, will be given a fair opportunity and adequate timeline to make their decision regarding BYU. At some point, Mendenhall may or may not require a straight-up "Yes" or "No" verbal commitment from them. But if they do, he will likely impress on them the importance of keeping their word as a simple matter of character, integrity and honesty. If he promises to do the same, he expects the same in return.

Manti's father, Brian Te'o, in an Internet message board post Wednesday on www.totalbluesports.com, made some insightful comments on Kaveinga's signing with USC: "What amazes me is how some (who have never been in a recruiting triangle personally) could sit at their computer and make judgments regarding a person's integrity by a decision to play football for a school other than BYU.

"First of all, it is just a game. Secondly, we're talking about another LDS priesthood holder here who made a decision to stay home. Thirdly, do any of us, and I mean any of us, understand the ‘pressure' that this young man had to endure to get to this point?"

He wrote: "Only if you've been heavily recruited, as he has, and constantly bombarded by every coach from every university (some who are LDS and NOT from BYU) would you be able to understand.

"Uona made a decision for HIM. He has more courage than anyone I know, especially if his family was pro-BYU. Let's just be mindful that, although he is 18, that doesn't automatically qualify [him] for the wisdom of the Quorum of the Twelve. His decisions will shape his future, and if he manages to convert some Trojans in the process, then his decision was the right one.

"BYU will have many more opportunities, I guarantee it, and they will land the big ones one day … I'm just happy for [what] BYU got."

Brian knows what he's writing about. His son is receiving more recruiting attention than Kaveinga or any other LDS recruit probably ever has.

There is no doubt, among longtime loyalists of the BYU football program, that Bronco Mendenhall has significantly transformed the program – and continues to.

I assume he has done so in a manner pleasing not only to the school's athletic department administrators, but also leaders of the LDS Church aware of his off-the-field achievements and public representations as the head coach of the football program for the LDS Church's flagship university.

The best compliment I would pay Mendenhall is he learns and adapts quickly from his mistakes – and is not afraid to admit them publicly. That is a sign of a man seemingly very comfortable in his own skin and is steadfast in his religious, personal and professional convictions.

Many former Cougar players who have watched, learned and experienced firsthand the unprecedented cultural turnaround within Mendenhall's program – from top to bottom in just three short years – don't doubt it. Most rave about the experience and wish they were still at BYU because they know it's only going to get better.

So rather than dwell on the proverbial "big fish" that got away, fans should pause, reflect and celebrate the sterling and stellar class of 21 recruits who did sign legally and emotionally-binding national letters of intent on Wednesday.

Their lives – as it will be for every recruit that signed anywhere in the country – will, in various ways, be shaped, forged and molded by their decision.


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