BYU trying to blaze a new trail again

Published: Monday, May 23 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

Editor's note: This is the second story in an occasional series examining the BYU football program's move to independence and jump to the West Coast Conference in other sports. Read the first here.

PROVO — Though much has changed in the 39 years since he became the head football coach at BYU, LaVell Edwards sees some similarities between 1972 and 2011.

In '72, Edwards inherited a program that was mired in mediocrity, with no history of success, and set out to build a strong foundation. He blazed his own trail, implementing unconventional methods, in leading Cougar football to national prominence during his 29 years at the helm.

Now there is the challenge facing current BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, as his team embarks on independence this fall.

"It's like when I took over, hey, nobody was throwing the football. We started throwing it and it caught on and went from there," Edwards recalled. "We tried a lot of things that didn't work. It's kind of the same situation."

What would he do if he were in Mendenhall's shoes?

"Right now, I'm glad it's Bronco. He's younger than I am," joked Edwards, who turned 80 last fall. "The best way I can put it is, you're going to have to shift your thinking. You don't have a conference affiliation. It's going to take a little bit of time to get into the mindset about not being in a conference. You can't get off to a slow start and still play for a conference championship. It's going to be a big change that way. But there will be a carrot out there, if we get high enough in the rankings."

Once again, BYU is blazing its own trail, implementing unconventional methods. As part of its independence equation, the school has signed an eight-year broadcasting deal with ESPN. Edwards, who coached the Cougars to 257 victories, said that partnership is a natural one that was forged decades ago.

ESPN's first live college football broadcast featured BYU against Pittsburgh in 1984, a contest that the Cougars won in dramatic fashion. It jump-started what turned out to be an undefeated season and national championship for BYU.

"We started throwing the football before a lot of other teams did, and that created a lot of excitement," Edwards explained. "During that period of time, we had a run of very good quarterbacks. ESPN televised quite a few of these games, with exciting finishes. ESPN was a new company and we were kind of new kids on the block and we kind of grew up together that way."

Then, he added, "It was all jerked out from under us when (the Mountain West's TV network) was created."

Now unfettered by the limitations of the MWC's relatively obscure network, the Cougars join forces with broadcasting behemoth ESPN, opening a new era that will feature nationally televised games and high-profile opponents.

"We're anxious to rekindle that partnership and be able to come back to BYU with every game here over the next eight years," Dave Brown, ESPN's vice president of programming and acquisition, said Sept. 1, the day the ESPN deal was announced. "That's something we're really looking forward to. We have had a great relationship with BYU over the years thanks in part to LaVell Edwards, who gave us so many signature games in the past that really put ESPN on the map in terms of being a college football destination network."

On that same day, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said, "Our vision is to play football games across the country against many of the storied football programs in their legendary stadiums and to have those same highly regarded programs return to Provo to play in LaVell Edwards Stadium."

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