Brad Rock: BYU took more than just a QB

Published: Wednesday, May 28 2008 12:04 a.m. MDT

In 1999, BYU decided to change its colors. Marketing studies showed switching from royal blue to navy or midnight would boost merchandise sales. There was no denying it would be a subdued, classic look.

Never mind that Utah State, just 125 miles north, had the same color. Then-BYU president Merrill Bateman insisted they were different, and that BYU's new uniforms were the "darkest shade of royal blue."

But as far as USU fans were concerned, it was still Aggie blue and the move was unmitigated theft.

In which case it looks like the stealing may not be over.

News broke Monday that former Aggie quarterback Riley Nelson, now on an LDS mission in Spain, will transfer to BYU. Just what the Aggies need: six wins in three years, and their future quarterback goes south.

USU may want to beef up security at Old Main.

The Cougars could be coming for that, too.

There was nothing illegal about the transfer. BYU didn't recruit Nelson on his mission, which coach Bronco Mendenhall steadfastly insists he won't do with any player. But once Nelson and his representatives initiated the contact, BYU was within its rights — and NCAA rules — to respond.

That won't make USU fans any less offended. To them, it still feels like larceny. First came the school colors. Now the starting quarterback. What next, a bigger, better BYU alternative to Aggie Ice Cream?

Thing is, Nelson represented something important. Raised in Logan, he was Big Blue right down to his mitochondria. His father played football at USU, and his grandfather is Rod Tueller, former Aggie basketball coach and athletic director.

Nelson is the kind of player that engenders loyalty from both fans and teammates. Articulate, likable and competitive, he plays a bit like (here come the comparisons) former BYU quarterback Jim McMahon. He's a fiery, upbeat, fearless guy.

As a freshman in 2006, he set a single-game record for passing percentage, completing 21-of-24 against San Jose State. He ended that season with 874 yards passing and another 277 rushing.

A Parade All-American, Nelson rushed and passed for 84 touchdowns as a senior in high school.

That's not to say he would necessarily have taken Utah State to prominence. It has been decades since USU's football team was consistently respectable. Though Nelson did some impressive things, including a win in his first-ever start, it was USU'S only victory that season. In four games later that year, USU scored 14, 10, 0 and 10 points. That wasn't all Nelson's fault. But he was there.

So at this point it's still largely about perceptions. And the perception is that Utah State has lost a star.

USU has had several fine quarterbacks, including Eric Hipple, who started 57 games in the NFL; Bob Gagliano, who played in Kansas City, San Francisco, Detroit and San Diego; and Anthony Calvillo, who became a star in the CFL.

But the move to Provo is understandable, especially for a quarterback. BYU is a high-profile passing program, one NFL scouts closely monitor. Nelson will be surrounded by more talent than in Logan.

Then there are the religious aspects. LDS missionaries often feel a kinship to BYU, which is owned and operated by the LDS Church. Missionaries regularly reference BYU football when they're in the field; they seldom talk about USU.

Not that Nelson is the first important Aggie to transfer to BYU. James Dye, a shifty-fast return man, jumped to BYU in 1995 and became a two-year all-conference selection. Linebacker Kelly Poppinga moved to Provo for the 2006 and 2007 seasons, earning second-team all-MWC honors.

Barring unforeseen events, Max Hall will be BYU's starter for the next two years. Still, Nelson's transfer is one terrific gut-punch for USU. It sends a message the school can't even keep its most loyal sons. At least not those who have options.

BYU didn't just take the Aggies' quarterback of the future, it took their spirit.

Considering BYU has won 24 of the last 27 against USU, maybe that happened long ago.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com

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