PROVO — When Bronco Mendenhall was BYU's defensive coordinator under former head coach Gary Crowton in 2003, there were two different standards for the offense and defense. It caused a serious rift on the team.
That partly explains why the Cougars suffered three consecutive losing seasons from 2002-2004.
In 2006, at the start of Mendenhall's second season at the helm of the program, he introduced a slogan, "Band of Brothers," to unite his team.
The Cougars rallied around that theme and posted an 11-2 record and an outright Mountain West Conference championship.
That was followed by slogans "Raise the Bar" in 2007 and "Quest for Perfection" in 2008. But Mendenhall hasn't introduced any new slogans since 2008, explaining in January 2009 that "there's nothing left to say. All the things we've said equal BYU football."
After last Saturday's emotional 24-21 victory over San Diego State, though, amid a season of challenges, it appears the "Band of Brothers" theme is being re-emphasized. Prior to that win, the Cougars were in the throes of a four-game losing streak.
Mendenhall wore a T-shirt during the game with the words "Band of Brothers" on the back. And during the week leading up to the contest, Mendenhall — who took over the reins of the defense after he fired Jaime Hill on Oct. 2 — worked to re-establish a culture of unity and intensity within the program. He said he wanted to "recapture the heart and soul" of his players.
So far, so good.
"As a defensive unit, we feel more united than ever," said safety Travis Uale. "We feel more comfortable out there. The emphasis was just on us being a unit and not being separate entities, like the defensive backs, or the linebackers or the D-line, but playing together as a defensive unit and trusting the guy in front of you, knowing he's going to get his job done."
Mendenhall's move affected not only the defense, but the offense as well.
"You saw coach Mendenhall wearing his 'Band of Brothers' shirt," said linebacker Shane Hunter. "I mean, that's what we're all about, being together as a team. The offense was cheering on the defense and the defense was cheering on the offense. Everyone was lifting each other up, and it was contagious.
"We definitely took steps forward in the right direction to play the type of football that we want to play both offensively and defensively. The intensity that coach Mendenhall brought to the defense is kind of engulfing the whole team and helping us move forward."
Running back JJ Di Luigi, who rushed for a career-high 134 yards against the Aztecs, said Mendenhall changed the atmosphere around the team.
"You can really see how much he cares about us and that he's more involved with us now than he ever has been," Di Luigi said. "I think that's why we came out and played so hard this week, because of what he was showing us."
Uale said the "Band of Brothers" shirts carry special meaning for the players, most of whom weren't around in 2006.
"We all are wearing that shirt now because that's who we want to be. That's who we tell the world that we are. It's not just to show people, but to actually be that person, be a brother. We did stray from that. We have a commitment to what our purpose is as a team and the need to play together."
Mendenhall didn't take credit for the improved play of the offense.
"If there was any spillover from defensive culture to offensive play, it was incidental," the Cougars' coach said. "I would hope that that would happen, that my involvement would be visible to the entire team."
This week, Mendenhall has said he plans to demand even more from his players as BYU travels to No. 4 TCU.
"I pushed hard a week ago. Consistency is really important. If there's anything more that I didn't ask for last week, I'll ask for this week," he said. "One time doesn't mean we've arrived. It doesn't mean that our team is finished or polished. This is just the beginning, is the way I see it."
Cougars on the air
BYU (2-4, 1-1 MWC) at No. 4 TCU (6-0, 2-0)
Saturday, 2 p.m. MT
Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Texas
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM