Message to Coach Mendenhall - Let Your Cougars Loose!

During BYU’s road trip to face Florida State this weekend, I learned some things about the uphill battle that constantly faces the Cougar football team (and athletics at BYU in general) that I don’t think I understood very well previous to what I experienced over the past couple days. I grew up in Tallahassee, playing my first two years of high school football at Lincoln High before moving to Utah and finishing up at Orem High. When I moved to Utah, I noticed a stark difference in the attitude and approach toward playing football. As a linebacker In Tallahassee, I was taught to make a quick read when the play started, fly to where I thought the ball was going, and punish whoever I could from the opposing team. After a good play, I was encouraged to celebrate with my teammates.

During drills, if a fight broke out between offense and defense, it was a good thing. It was an indicator of intensity. In fact, if one of our fellow defenders didn’t step in to help someone who was involved in a fight with an offensive player (this is on the same team, mind you), he would be sent to run laps. I remember on one occasion our linebacker coach, when an all-out brawl broke out in practice, shouting “Get in there and getcha’ some! Get in there and getcha’ some!” while forty or fifty high school players took out their frustrations on their teammates.
When I moved to Utah, I was met with a much more reserved style of playing football. Dancing after making a play was very much frowned upon. Taunting and intimidation weren’t very well accepted either. Instead of being commended for acting that way, I quickly learned that I had better tone it down.

What does all this have to do with BYU football? I’ve made some curious observations while witnessing the last three games played between BYU and Florida State.

The Cougar football team puts on a fireside (a meeting where spiritual talks are given) before each of their football games. I went to the one held in Tallahassee on Friday. Previous to the fireside, I’d heard of BYU’s and Coach Mendenhall’s unique perspective (winning is not a top priority) with regard to the football program, but until last weekend, I’d never heard the concept in Bronco’s own words. Paraphrasing, this is what he said. He’s much more concerned about a player swearing or throwing his helmet down than he is about giving up the touchdown that caused the tantrum. Coach Mendenhall also explained that the purpose of the football program is to teach discipleship, to elicit questions from football fans throughout the world about who the players are and how they could perform at such a high level when so many of them are Eagle Scouts, returned missionaries, husbands, and fathers – family men.
I appreciate that mission. I’m glad that BYU’s football team strictly enforces an honor code that requires them to cut a guy like Harvey Unga (who they desperately could have used Saturday) because he fails to live up to the standards. It’s great to have role models in a sports program who can demonstrate that being an athlete doesn’t necessitate being a thug.

However (you knew this was coming), I’m certain that BYU will never have the ability to really broadcast its message at the level it could while putting such an impractical, demotivating governor on their team as I’ve witnessed while watching the Cougars. That difference is especially noticeable when BYU takes on a team like Florida State, known for its bad boy, in-your-face style of playing football. Each of the games played in this most recent home and away series for BYU seemed like an exercise in futility, even before any football was played on the field. In Provo last year, I strolled the stadium behind the BYU sidelines before the game, and I mentioned to my wife that the players looked more like they were getting ready for a devotional than a football game. The same thing stood out this year. While FSU gestured, sauntered, and otherwise made it known that, in the words of Peter Warrick, “It’s showtime baby! That’s what it is!”, BYU’s mood seemed like Eeyore at a funeral. Not much excitement. No attempts at intimidation. None of the mind games that characterize football and that give an emotional boost to your own team.

So, if I had some advice for Bronco Mendenhall (and what BYU fan doesn’t?), it would be this: let the dogs out on Saturdays. You’re coaching football. It’s an emotional game, one that begs for adrenaline if your team is to win, if your team is to spread its message and have anyone care what you say. I’ll forgive a “dang” or a “heck” now and again if it means the players can mentally take their game to the next level. I can overlook an occasional late hit if it means my players are playing with intensity. The players don’t have to sacrifice integrity in order to play fierce football. Leaving the Mountain West Conference can be a great opportunity, but it means that you’ll be facing less Wyomings and more Florida States. If you don’t teach your men to let it go on the field, it’s likely that your message won’t reach an audience too far outside of Provo.