Firesides and Football: Tale of Two Cultures

BYU football game day is "probably the day I like least in this job. I like Friday nights a lot better in terms of the [Cougar football team's spiritually-oriented pre-game] firesides. I think those are more representative of our program… But I enjoy the day-to-day with our players, and the offseason and the work ethic and practice."

"I like that a lot more than actual game day, which is probably backwards. But that's how it is." - BRONCO MENDENHALL, BYU head football coach, August 26, 2008

Bronco Mendenhall spoke much more than a mouthful with this simple, impactful and declarative statement that irked BYU gridiron foes and fans alike – even as it added thousands more silent note-taking members to the rapidly-expanding Mendenhall Admiration Society.

Here's a mixed response from a BYU fan: "I'm sorry guys, but as much as I really like Bronco, I find that a bit strange that he likes game day the least. I think it's admirable that he really enjoys the firesides, but wouldn't a coach with fire in the belly be pretty amped for game day?"

And another: "I think Mendenhall is actually a very competitive guy who wants to win badly. I just have a feeling he thinks that games are won in preparing the team, not with game-day adjustments. And, I think that attitude is reflected in what we see on the field. Solid, well executed game plans without much game-day creativity."

Meanwhile, a University of Utah fan had an intriguing reaction: "That last paragraph speaks volumes about Bronco's focus. I like that the football coach at BYU has his priorities in line with the mission of the LDS Church-owned school. If Bronco were the coach at Utah, I would feel much differently. Good on you Bronco. If my boys were to ever become D-I caliber football players, I would hope they could play for you…"

Friday night pre-game BYU football firesides, originated by legendary Cougar coach LaVell Edwards, have again become a staple under Mendenhall wherever and whenever the team plays at home or on the road to consistent standing-room-only audiences.

I attended my first BYU football fireside more than 20 years ago in Honolulu. In his remarks, Coach LaVell Edwards introduced a surprise guest seated on the front row in the person of the University of Hawaii's head football coach, his next-day football foe. Talk about the ultimate compliment to Edwards. Talk about the ultimate demonstration of class from an opposing head coach.

Friday night I attended my first Bronco Mendenhall BYU football fireside at the American Fork Tabernacle (Utah) before a capacity audience with more youth in the audience that any other demographic. More than half the football team attended and the messages and musical numbers hit the spot for its intended audiences – parents, youth and LDS Church leaders alike.

Indeed, when the Cougars take the field Saturday afternoon against No. 3 ranked Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) powerhouse Northern Iowa, which has won 17 of its last 20 games, gone will be the wholesome collared shirt and tie pretty-boy image and demeanor of these gridiron warriors. It will be replaced with a grim and steely determination of a bonded brotherhood of athletes eager to showcase to the world that the real secret to their recent football success is their firm collective faith in God (regardless of religion or beliefs) and each other, armed with the trust and confidence they earned from coaches in the months, weeks and days before the opening kickoff.

Call him superstitious, super-spiritual or simple, but Mendenhall has a deep-seated or otherworldly conviction that these faith-promoting firesides, organized exclusively by his players, inspire them more than the eager, receptive audiences who sometimes travel hours, and occasionally from different time zones, to attend them.

The combination of wit, wisdom with music and the spoken word at these firesides provide a unique blend of spiritual upliftment from a body of men whose claim to fame are their next-day game exploits as would-be "stripling warriors" for the LDS Church's flagship university's heralded – once again – football team.

Mendenhall's philosophy, public approach to coaching football and recruiting are the antithesis of anyone before him in his capacity as the head honcho of the BYU Cougars' gridiron program, which has regained high profile national relevance with consecutive 11-2 season records and back-to-back MWC undefeated conference championships culminating in Las Vegas Bowl victories against big-name BCS foes Oregon and UCLA.

In his fireside remarks Friday, Mendenhall noted at least 12 different reporters in the last week – including journalists from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Sports Illustrated and ESPN – each of which pointedly asked if the team's 2008 motto "Quest for Perfection" was "arrogant and they asked, "Where did it come from?"

His response: "I said it came from the Savior in the scriptures (Matthew 5:48 – "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.")." Each reporter, Mendenhall recounted with a smile, went silent. "The interview stopped there."

In a more down-to-earth elaboration of the team's 2008 slogan, BYU quarterback Max Hall said, "There's been a lot of talk about the ‘Quest for Perfection.' Perfection doesn't just happen; we dictate the course. Our quest is the pursuit of perfection in every aspect of our lives. It's about strength, preparation and intelligence. It's about passion to do it right, every day, every play, on and off the field."

Intended or not by the LDS leaders who presided over the fireside, the words from the first verse of the opening hymn were perfectly matched for the occasion: "As Zion's youth in latter-days, we stand with valiant heart; With promise shining in our eyes, resolved to do our part; Upon a noble past we build, the future fills our view; We face the challenge of our day, and pledge we will be true."

Mendenhall, quite remarkably, in his first three seasons as head coach, has re-established or reinvented the BYU football program with an entirely newfound image. In short, he has turned the long-held recruiting weaknesses (primarily BYU's restrictive Honor Code) of the LDS-owned institution into inimitable and major strengths and opportunities that are beginning to attract elite LDS and non-member athletes to BYU like never before in the program's history.

Informed a new change to LaVell Edwards Stadium's south scoreboard will now carry his program's consistent catchphrase – "Tradition, Spirit, Honor" – Mendenhall told the Deseret News, "It's ironic to me because when I first became the coach, the principle questioned most was the spiritual component. I was encouraged not to use that because it would make us a target. Now, four years later, it's ironic to see it up on the scoreboard. ... There's no better way to remind myself and our players what's expected here."

While Mendenhall is never afraid to publicly admit when he makes mistakes, the team's consistent success on the football field the last two seasons has emboldened him to espouse his conviction that the team's continuing success is predicated on a firm foundation grounded on spiritual principles and an undaunted faith and trust in each other.

He pointed out that many recruits and parents are surprised, even shocked, when he tells them that football is the fourth priority for his nationally ranked Cougars (16th in Associated Press writers' poll and 17th in USA Today coaches' poll) behind church, family and academics.

With season-ending national Top-20 rankings the last two years and a preseason Top-20 national ranking for the first time since 1997, as well as the nation's longest active winning streak with 10 consecutive victories and victories in 21 of their last 23 contests overall, Mendenhall speaks with even greater pride of other notable off-the-field distinctions for his program:

• No. 1 team GPA ranking in the country of all Division I colleges.

• More than 500 hours of community service each semester by his players.

Despite a gridiron program brimming with unprecedented success poised on what many national pundits predict might be an undefeated BCS-busting season, Mendenhall told his fireside audience Friday of a grim memory of his first game as BYU head coach when he was booed by home-field Cougar fans for a bad call on his part.

He said he was shocked by the lack of tolerance and understanding from hometown fans, admitting that was "before I learned how to be a good head coach."

Mendenhall revealed he was so psychologically and emotionally shaken by that experience that "I threw up before the second [home] game because I was so nervous to face the possible wrath of our home fans."

Those fans have undoubtedly long forgotten and forgiven the coach for his admitted miscue, but the memory remains fresh to this day and serves as a constant reminder of what was and what could be…

In a parting thought, Mendenhall applauded his fireside audience for their attendance on a Friday night, noting "this is much more important tonight than going to the [Northern Iowa] game tomorrow."

Love him or hate him, Bronco Mendenhall marches unabashedly to the beat of his own drum and, quite frankly, you can't argue with the results.

(Here is the online link to all 2008 BYU football firesides with dates, times and locations)

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