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."
BYU has agreed to play Notre Dame six times between 2012 and 2020, including games already scheduled for 2012 and 2013 in South Bend. There are also dates set with Texas (2011, 2013, 2014) and Georgia Tech (2012, 2013, 2014, 2017). BYU will play neutral-site games against TCU (2011) at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas (2011), and West Virginia at FedEx Field in Washington, D.C. (2016).
The Cougars are rumored to be trying to schedule the likes of Wisconsin, Nebraska, Penn State, USC and UCLA.
For some of these matchups to come to fruition, it may require BYU agreeing to a two-for-one deal, playing two road games in exchange for a home game at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Or there may be home-and-home arrangements, with one game at a neutral site.
"If we do a two-for-one, it's generally with a team that's great and they don't do home-and-homes with most teams anyway," Holmoe said. "You'll see it with us because we get the opportunity to do it. We have a wide-open schedule now."
Holmoe said he has already turned down some two-for-one offers. "We'll do whatever it takes. We'll do what we need to do to get the games necessary to become a top team."
Mendenhall said independence is all about exposure, and that means playing all over the nation.
"I love the idea of being more visible," he said. "It's a national schedule, basically East Coast to West Coast. We're trying to get as many quality opponents from as many parts of the country that we can get to continue to promote our program and generate excitement for the teams we're playing. That's what's fun now, the idea of who you would like to play and develop some natural rivalries and learn about different parts of the country. The chance to have choices like that, I'm excited about it."
For Edwards, one of the highlights of his coaching career was playing at renowned stadiums around the nation. "It was exciting to go to those places and play those teams," he said. "It was probably more exciting to think about them than play the game sometimes. I loved playing at different facilities around the country, like Notre Dame's. The most exciting place we ever played was at Wisconsin. Wisconsin was great. Those fans were unbelievable. They hadn't won for a while, but you never would have known it."
Cougar players have embraced BYU's new status.
"We're way excited about going independent," said BYU left tackle and team captain Matt Reynolds. "Coach Mendenhall's big thing has been about the tradition of BYU. To be able to take the tradition that we have and the history that BYU has and to take it to the next level and add on to it and be part of the tradition and history and open a new chapter of BYU football is absolutely exciting. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
True, there will be no conference championships to play for anymore, but the Cougars' sights are higher.
"We're not playing for a conference championship," said sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps. "We're playing for a national championship."
"Certainly it changes in terms of not having a conference championship," Mendenhall said. "The national landscape is such that you have to win as many games as possible against the best opponents you can to be considered for the next tier of bowl games. That doesn't really change a thing."
Holmoe has said repeatedly that going independent had nothing to do with gaining greater access to the Bowl Championship Series, though he is hoping the Cougars earn automatic qualifier status at some point.
BYU's arrangement with ESPN, which broadcasts most of the BCS games, will not enhance the Cougars' chances with the BCS, Brown said. He added that BYU doesn't need ESPN's help in that area.
"If you win all of your games, you will be in the BCS," Brown said. "Utah's proven it, Boise State's proven it, TCU's proven it and Hawaii proved it that one year. That's not changing. You'll probably even see opportunities, given the strength of schedule BYU will play, plus their brand name, teams now could lose a game and could still make the BCS depending on how the year turns out. That is great for the sport, and those are opportunities BYU will be able to take advantage of going forward, because I know BYU will play a really good schedule, no doubt about it."
ESPN is looking to do everything it can to help BYU receive more national attention. Ultimately, however, it's up to the Cougars to maximize this opportunity by winning games.
"Our goal is simply to find the most exposure for BYU football that we possibly can," Brown said. "That's part of our partnership. Whether it comes from promotion, carrying the games, promoting the games and producing the games and giving them a first-class production, we put it out there and provide them with the best possible platforms for exposure that we can — and they take it from there."
BYU and ESPN are hoping for more memorable moments like two years ago, when the Cougars upset Oklahoma on the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports at Cowboys Stadium.
Without conference championships to measure success, how many wins do the Cougars need to have a successful season this fall?
"I don't think about it that way. We'll see when it gets down to the end. Right off the bat our games up front will be telltale. We play a bunch of (good) teams early on," Holmoe said, referring to an opening schedule against Ole Miss, Texas, Utah and Central Florida. "It's a tougher schedule early on. If we can get through that, we have a chance to win a lot of games. If we split a couple of those games, or come out slow in that, you're not going to win as many games. It really depends on the first part of the season."
Under Mendenhall, the standard of success has been set. Since 2006, BYU has posted four seasons with at least 10 victories, including three 11-win campaigns. The Cougars will need to consistently record those type of seasons to make a splash on the national scene, capitalize on independence, build upon what Edwards started in the 1970s and build upon what Mendenhall has already accomplished.
"Ten wins puts you in the top 15 (in the national rankings), maybe top 10," Holmoe said. "It's not so much the number, but what people think of it. If BYU wins 10 games, we'll be in the top 15."