PROVO — BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is thinking big — really big — as he leads his team into an era of independence.
During the school's first-ever national media day on Tuesday, Mendenhall boldly presented his long-term vision and goals "in a new frontier" as an independent program.
Among them, he said, is winning a national title.
"Our goal is to win a national championship," he said. "To do that we'll have to be undefeated, and at some point we will be." Added Mendenhall, "We have a lot of work to do."
While such goals put considerable pressure on Mendenhall and his players to win early and often, he embraces that pressure.
"Certainly there's pressure, but why stay the same?" he said. "We're anxious for this to be a defining moment in the institution's history — to move forward. To not take the risk, that wouldn't be right."
To accomplish that feat as a non-automatic BCS qualifier, Mendenhall knows that means "you have to win every game."
From 2006-2009, BYU posted records of 11-2, 11-2, 10-3, and 11-2, but has never played in a BCS bowl.
The Cougars are looking to make major strides, which explains the program's slogan for 2011, "Rise Up."
"We are charting a path that has not been traveled. We need everybody to rise up," said athletic director Tom Holmoe. "We need everybody to realize that if we're going to make this happen, they have to up their game … We can't stay status quo. We are moving to a new plane and that new plan requires a bigger effort from everybody."
Asked to clarify his comments about winning a national championship, Mendenhall obliged.
"Nobody has asked me to say that. It's just simply that I'm looking to help our program reach its potential," said Mendenhall, who announced Tuesday that he has signed a three-year contract extension. "I would like us to move forward. When I consider what are the obstacles and is it possible, I think it is. I would just as soon say it. There will be detractors everywhere that say it's not possible. I'm not one of them. I think it is possible. I can't give you the timeframe, but it is a worthwhile goal. And what if, with our standards, with this climate, and with this institution, what if we were able to accomplish this here? What would that do to the national landscape? That, to me, is an intriguing reason to get up every day and come to work."
Said Holmoe: "If we can go undefeated with our schedule, we'll be darn good and a lot of people will take notice."
Now that the Cougars no longer belong to a conference, there will be no more league championships to play for. But Mendenhall said recruits he's talked to haven't been concerned about that. He said that winning the state championship — which means beating rivals Utah and Utah State — takes on even more significance as a perennial goal for the program.
Claiming the state title, Mendenhall hopes, will be a step toward winning a national championship.
"Quite frankly, the players only want BCS access," he said. "Even if we lose two or three games, with the type of schedule we have, and if I'm able to balance the best teams throughout that schedule, and the next big opportunity is still coming to prove they're capable of playing on the big stage with the most fans against the best people, that still shows that we're making progress toward the ultimate goal."
So what happens if the Cougars lose a couple of early-season games?
"But we don't think like that. We don't plan on losing a game," said sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps. "It might happen, but we'll take that in stride as it comes along. We're confident in ourselves and we believe in ourselves that we can have a successful season. Our goal is to play for a national championship. We dare someone to say we can't, because we're going to prove people wrong. In no way are we saying we're going to win a national championship this year, we understand how difficult that is and what it's going to take. You have to have a near-perfect season. But everyone in our locker room and our coaching staff believes we can do it. We're excited for the road that's ahead of us."
BYU's decision to strike out on its own is fraught with risks, but Mendenhall and Holmoe prefer focusing on the rewards, including widespread exposure thanks to an eight-year broadcasting agreement with ESPN.
"We have a worldwide following," Mendenhall said, "and we've partnered with The Worldwide Leader … It's pretty clear that our program is strong. There has to be a reason (ESPN) wants to partner with BYU. It's a unique institution."
What's more, the partnership with ESPN provides BYU with freedom in scheduling.
"We'll play anybody, anywhere, anytime," Holmoe said, acknowledging that scheduling has been difficult challenge.
"(High profile opponents) are taking our calls," he said. "We are somewhat of salesmen. We have to knock on a lot of doors before someone opens up and lets us in. But we work closely with ESPN, and it is exciting to know that we'll have teams come to BYU that have never been here before."
No announcements were made Tuesday about future games, but Mendenhall said that ESPN has been instrumental in setting up intriguing matchups.
"The power of ESPN has absolutely amazed me to this point, of what teams will do to get on ESPN," Mendenhall said. "Balance is what I'm seeking in our schedule. It's difficult, but my biggest challenge now is saying no to all of the great opportunities."
Dave Brown, ESPN's vice president of programming and acquisition, who attended Tuesday's media event, said BYU's first five games this season will be broadcast on ESPN or ESPN2, while all but the Idaho State game on Oct. 22 (which will be televised by BYUtv), will be on the ESPN networks.
Eight BYU games, Brown added, are already scheduled to be televised next season.
Brown said he's not concerned with helping schedule games BYU wants to play..
In addition to playing Ole Miss, Texas, Utah, Central Florida, Oregon State, TCU and Hawaii this season, the Cougars will play a six-year series with Notre Dame starting next year.
"We're going to be able to find a lot of great teams to play," Mendenhall said, adding that he'd love to play opponents like Boston College, Army and Navy.
"We want national recognition, but we also want regional games," Mendenhall said. "We also know there has to be balance in our schedule."
In order to play "great teams," Holmoe said BYU may have to play some two-for-one games.
Brown said losing BYU when the contract with the Mountain West Conference expired years ago created a void in ESPN's programming.
"Our schedule was lacking because we didn't have BYU on," he explained. "Now they'll be a big, big part of our lineup … What's good for BYU is good for us."
In terms of national exposure compared to other big-time programs, Brown said, "this will put BYU at the top of the heap."