Back in his heyday, then-Oklahoma coach Billy "The Kid" Tubbs once took aim at BYU's basketball program. In 1992, before his nationally ranked Sooners were to play in the prestigious Maui Invitational against BYU, Tubbs whined about Randy Reid being a 22-year-old freshman and the Cougars' unfair age advantage.
"I thought those were all supposed to be overseas," protested Tubbs, who is now the athletic director at Lamar. "He went to New Jersey."
Then-BYU coach Roger Reid responded by saying that one of his missionaries was 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley, a future NBA first-round pick. Would Billy prefer playing against Bradley or a team without Bradley? Certainly, the latter.
As it turned out, BYU upset the Sooners anyway on a last-second shot by Kevin Nixon, who was not a returned missionary.
In 1987, just after BYU star Michael Smith returned from his mission to Argentina, Wyoming star Fennis Dembo said to Smith: "What's with these missions? They hide you away and you get to work out for two years, right?"
More than 20 years later, misperceptions still exist about what missions are and what missionaries do. All that many people look at is the advanced ages.
Former New Mexico coach Gary Colson said of then-BYU center and returned missionary Jim Usevitch, "I've got a freshman who can't even say Usevitch much less guard him. Got to give the guy credit, though. You'd never know he was 29 years old (Usevitch was actually 24, but you get the point)."
Coaches in other sports bellyache about the age differential, too, of course. Former Air Force football coach Fisher DeBerry made reference to BYU's supposed advantage this way: "It's a typical BYU offensive line. They're 30 years old and weigh 400 pounds."
Colson's solution to the so-called BYU advantage? "The best thing to do," he replied, "would be to go out and get some Mormons."
And schools around the country have done just that. The University of Utah has benefited from returned missionaries, such as Josh Grant, Britton Johnsen and Mark Jackson in basketball and Morgan Scalley and Paul Kruger in football. Mark Madsen served a mission and played at Stanford, then in the NBA. Returned missionary Darrell Bevell led Wisconsin to its first Rose Bowl in eons. Kevin Curtis played wide receiver at Utah State before going on to the NFL, while in basketball, there's Jaycee Carroll and Gary Wilkinson (who played for the Aggies at the ripe old age of 26).
But for every great returned missionary, there are dozens who fade away and lose their desire to compete. For a multitude of reasons, many returned missionaries never pan out. Meanwhile, some of the biggest stars BYU has produced, like Danny Ainge and Steve Young, did not serve missions. It wasn't until 2001 that BYU had a returned missionary quarterback — Brandon Doman — who could lead it to a conference championship.
Yet for decades, returned missionaries have been a big part of the Cougars' success in athletics.
"When we weren't winning, nobody said anything about the missions," legendary coach LaVell Edwards said in 1984, the year BYU won the national championship. "But once we started winning championships, why did people all of the sudden make it an issue? They used to say we couldn't win because of missionaries. Now they're saying we win because of missionaries. I wonder where all those people were when we were losing."
Indeed, opposing coaches, and the national media, often complain publicly about the ages of BYU players when the Cougars are successful, as if that is the sole reason for that success.
"Why isn't anybody's underwear in a wad over the fact that BYU, 9-0 and ranked ninth in the country, fields a team that is, by and large, a special-ops force crushing Webelos," wrote Rick Reilly, then of Sports Illustrated, in 2001, in an article titled, "Brigham Young? I Don't Think So."
Reilly pointed out that half of BYU's players that year had served missions, and 21 of them were at least 24 years old, giving the Cougars an unfair advantage.
"I look in their locker room and see guys with receding hairlines," then-Wyoming coach Vic Koenning told Reilly. "I look out and see a lot of my guys still wearing their high school letter jacket."
Meanwhile, current BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is adamant that the missionary program gives the Cougars a big edge over the competition, but only when handled properly.
"I remember as a coach at New Mexico or as a player at Oregon State coming to play BYU and thinking, 'How are we going to beat those guys? They've got all of those old guys on the line and they're big and mature. Man, we're just young guys.' I remember thinking that as a coach and as a player. The missionary program is one of the greatest tools this program has. Is it a challenge to manage? Sure it is, in terms of chemistry and continuity. However, they're better people when they return in all areas of their lives."7 comments on this story
Mendenhall understands the challenge of depending so heavily on players who walk away from the game for two years.
"As I watch (returned missionaries) come back and put a 10-pound plate on each side of the bar and struggle with it, I wonder about the missionary program," he joked. "But over time, those young men, and their experience, maturity and leadership, prove to be a strength."
But if everyone really believed that missions were a boost to a school's athletic program, wouldn't other programs send their players away for two years, too? Maybe it's an advantage for BYU, but not in the way most people think.
By the way, Brother Tubbs, would you like to hear the discussions?