As the seconds ticked away in Saturday's New Mexico Bowl, the BYU offense prepared to take the final snaps that would signal the end of a 52-24 blowout win over UTEP.
On the sidelines, BYU players prepared to douse their head coach with a barrel of blue sports drink. They were less successful in this endeavor than they were in dismantling the Miners. Bronco Mendenhall skillfully avoided the sneak attack, crediting an "extra sense" for his evasive instincts.
"It was one of those feelings that 'I'd better move,' " said Mendenhall.
In the happy scrum that followed the would-be drenching, the players gathered around Mendenhall, soon hoisting him to their shoulders, even as the offense prepared to formally end the game on the field. Mendenhall said "those kinds of moments are ones that you don't forget."
"I don't seek to be the center of attention, but we had a chance to speak in that huddle when they lifted me up, and it was ... man, it was very, very touching to me," Mendenhall said after the game. "Myself and this team ... we have just formed a very unique bond, and I won't ever forget it."
BYU fans won't soon forget the way the 2010 football team rebounded from a 1-4 start to win five of six, plus a bowl game in record-setting fashion. The impetus for the turn-around was Mendenhall's assuming of defensive coordinator responsibilities after a blowout loss at Utah State, followed by a win over San Diego State.
Yet the Cougars' head coach maintains the most significant building blocks were assembled off the field in settings hidden from the fans.
"These 'moments' that have happened this season are intimate. The world at large could learn from them, but it's so specific, and so unique and so personal that it just has to remain within our team," Mendenhall said.
"Maybe from the outside world, when they hear me talk about being proud of this team to the level that I am, they would gauge it only on our win-loss record. More significantly, I'm gauging it on many, many other things that have happened internally."
Mendenhall said he is prouder of this year's 7-6 team than any of his previous five teams, including the 10- and 11-win squads of the preceding four seasons.
"This team has come together, and they've learned and grown and fought and found a way to resurrect our season and reconnect with why they're playing football at BYU, and maybe more importantly what they mean to each other," said Mendenhall.
Mendenhall has stated previously that this season of struggle was also the most rewarding and most "fun" of his coaching career.
"None of us escaped adversity this season, whether physically, mentally or emotionally, and we found a way to just keep going on and keep pressing forward," Mendenhall told KSL Radio after the bowl win. "Those lessons are really are what I hope the young people take from our program. The program is to help people in their lives — and it's through football, not because of football. I think this year was a great example of that."
Running back J.J. DiLuigi will enter his senior season with a new appreciation for the coach that helmed BYU's ship through the choppy waters of the 2010 season.
"He's our head coach, but he's more than that. I can't say enough about him," said DiLuigi. "He's one of the greatest guys I know, and this season wouldn't have happened without him."
Andrew Rich is equally grateful for the chance to have played for a coach who admits he twice passed Rich over in Rich's earlier attempts to make it onto the BYU roster.
"I couldn't be a happier player. I feel like I played my career under the best coach in college football, and I argue the best coach ever," said Rich. "I don't think there's too many guys like him. I feel blessed to have played under his leadership."
Mendenhall is gratified that players like DiLuigi and Rich recognize what it is he is hoping to accomplish as BYU's bench boss.
"I care a lot about these players ... and while I do ask a lot of them, it's just to try to help them become the men I know they can be," Mendenhall said. "At some point, if they are with us long enough, it can go from trying to figure out what I'm doing to understanding it and then appreciating it."14 comments on this story
I know BYU fans already appreciate the team-wide efforts that turned a potentially disastrous season into a campaign that now serves as a promising springboard to football independence. Next season's opener (Sept. 3, 2011, at Ole Miss) can't arrive soon enough.
Greg Wrubell is the radio play-by-play "Voice of the Cougars," and hosts BYU Football and Basketball Coaches' Shows on KSL Newsradio and KSL 5 Television. Wrubell's blog "Cougar Tracks" can be found at byu.ksl.com. "Behind the Mic" is published every Tuesday during the BYU football and basketball seasons. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org